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Kalamazoo at Komets
Face-off: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Radio: WOWO, 1190-AM
One challenge of being a hockey player is traveling through lousy weather, and the Fort Wayne Komets have faced plenty over 62 years.
Sunday's game with Kalamazoo was postponed until 7 p.m. Wednesday, becoming the 20th game in franchise history delayed because of weather conditions. The truly amazing stories are the times the team arrived at a game despite the conditions.
But there have been plenty of challenges.
The most recent one was Jan. 21, 2011, when the Komets' bus broke down on the way to Bloomington, Ill. Even worse, there was no heat and the front door was stuck open, so everyone was freezing in 10-degree weather.
Then-assistant coach Gary Graham, now the Komets' head coach, figured out a way to pull the door closed and tie it down. Eventually, a metro bus from Bloomington pulled up, but the Komets arrived two hours late for the game.
``For a while the door kept flying open every time you closed it,'' radio announcer Bob Chase said. ``It still leaked. It was so cold it was beyond description. The guys were so cold when they got there they worked their buns off to try to get circulation.''
The Komets won 3-2 in a shootout, one of their few wins in Bloomington that season.
Then there was the time in 2004 when the bus caught on fire on the way to Kalamazoo for a playoff game. The contest was delayed about a half-hour and the Komets lost.
Only twice has the team left for a game and been unable to reach the destination. They have arrived late many times. A few times they started trips by having the bus driver pick up players at their homes.
The most recent turnaround was in 2008 on the way to Muskegon, and the other was in 2005 when their flight from Detroit to Kansas City was canceled. They tried to fly home, but after circling Fort Wayne, they were sent back to Detroit. Eventually, they rode a bus home, but not before finding out their equipment had already been shipped to Kansas City. It came back to Fort Wayne the next day.
What's incredible is that from their start in 1952 to 1960 the Komets drove to road games by a caravan of cars and never failed to make it to a game.
One time, during the 1952-53 season, the Komets had a game Saturday night in Cincinnati followed by a contest Sunday afternoon in Troy. After beating Cincinnati 3-2, instead of going to Troy, two-thirds of the team went to Dayton, which wasn't even a member of the International Hockey League at the time. The five Komets who made it to the game started with the Troy trainer as their goaltender. The score was 5-1 after the first period when the rest of the Komets arrived. The final score was 10-3.
When the Komets started using buses in 1960, they almost always arrived at the game.
"We plowed snow a few times as high as the headlights," said longtime former Komets bus driver Jack Loser. "With one of those buses, once you get them going, you don't stop. If you stop, you'll never get them going again."
In 1959, the Komets woke up one morning after playing an exhibition game in Louisville only to see 2 feet of fresh snow on the ground. They tried driving home in cars, but only one made it home to Fort Wayne. When one of the other cars stalled, the players walked more than a mile to a restaurant. Another car stopped near a farmhouse.
"We knocked on the door, and this woman let us in and took care of us," former Komets coach, general manager and owner Ken Ullyot said. "She was a little nervous. There were four guys with me, and she only had the one extra bed, so the players were going to flip for it to see which two would share the bed. I said, `No, one-half of the bed is taken.' "
After spending the night playing cards, the players followed a snowplow out the next morning. Ullyot later sent the woman some money for her kindness.
Meanwhile, one of the other cars on the trip had to stop, and the players and business manager Colin Lister tried walking to shelter. Carrying the receipts from the game, the diminutive Lister eventually wore out, lying down in the snow and telling the players to leave him. Smartly, the players told him to give them the money.
Then they picked him up and carried him to a gas station, where they waited out the storm.
Once the Komets were driving to Kalamazoo when the axle on one of the cars fell off. A few extra players squeezed into one of the following cars, but five players had to stay behind. Those players didn't make it to the game until the third period, and the short-handed Komets lost 3-2.
Loser recalled once trying to drive down an icy Lansing, Mich., highway when the bus was sideswiped by a pickup. After stopping, Loser tried to resume the trip by driving up a high embankment, but the back end slid around and the bus completed a 360-degree turn.
"There were a few guys saying prayers then,'' Loser said, laughing. He completed the trip without further incident.
Another time they were coming home from Port Huron, dodging abandoned cars on the highway.
"I didn't dare stop because we would have gotten stuck," he said.
Once, after Loser had dropped the team off at the coliseum, he was headed home, taking the exit from Coliseum Boulevard onto U.S. 30 when he suddenly saw a stalled car with no lights on sitting in the middle of the road. Unable to stop, Loser rammed the car and sent it flying over the hill next to the road.
"What made me so mad was I was on an exit ramp, and if I had swung off and gone over the curb, I would have rolled the bus," Loser said.
While Loser calmed down, he saw a man walking up the side of the hill toward the bus. The man had been drinking and had lost a wheel to his car. He walked down the hill to go to the bathroom and looked up to see his car flying overhead.
"He was drunk out of his gourd," Loser said. "The wreck jammed my door shut so he couldn't get at me, and I had to wait for the firemen to get me out."
Another time on the way to Des Moines, the road was so icy the bus kept sliding to the side of the road, where it would gain traction at the edge of the grass. After driving 5 mph, eventually the Komets pulled off and got behind some salt trucks. A trip that normally took eight to 10 hours lasted 16.
There was also one night when Loser was driving during a heavy snowstorm and just missed a man standing in the middle of the road trying to flag down a ride.
On a long trip home from Minneapolis, the bus heater broke and the players bundled up against the cold. Salt was rubbed in the wound when the shivering Komets passed another bus and the driver, wearing a short-sleeved shirt, waved.
On March 12, 1978, the Komets were supposed to play Port Huron and former Komets coach Ron Ullyot. Because the roads were so icy, the Komets didn't want to leave, but Ullyot thought new coach Gregg Pilling, whose team was full of injured players, was trying to pull one of his infamous stunts.
Driver Buddy Clark was trying to hold to the middle of the ice-covered road when a firetruck came the other way -- down the middle of the road. The back end of the bus slid into a ditch and the rest of the bus followed, resting at a 45-degree angle against a drift.
Clark walked to a farmhouse to call for help. A little wrecker hooked up the bus to a cable, and the driver lifted the front end of his truck almost straight into the air. When his front end landed, he gunned the wrecker and Clark gunned the bus, and it came out of the drift.
"Now we've been in the ditch for over two hours and we get out and still have quite a ways to go to Port Huron," Chase recalled. "We call Port Huron, and they say, 'No way are you going to miss this game.' They thought we were lying about the snow."
According to former Komets goaltender Robbie Irons, the team arrived in Port Huron about 90 minutes late.
"So Pilling pulls one of his stunts," Irons said. "He tells us not to cross center ice. 'Get the puck out of our zone, get to center ice and then blast it.' Their defense was jumping back to get out of the way. We did that the whole first period to get our legs, and then came back to play the last two periods."
Unfortunately, the Komets lost 9-2, but at least they made it to the game.
As a defenseman, Terry Pembroke heard plenty of complaints over the years from opponents who claimed he rode them around the ice, but there were a couple of times Pembroke actually rode his horse to the rink.
During the 1978 blizzard, traffic was stagnant all over Allen County, so Pembroke rode his horse from Grabill to Fort Wayne's Memorial Coliseum for practice.
"My mother was there at the time, and she got on me about how things had changed because she used to ski to school in Canada," Pembroke said.
The ride probably took two hours, Pembroke said, and he'd tie the horse up outside the building. The trip home was a lot more fun. After all, he had to stop for antifreeze.
``I remember going home, I had the luxury of making a beer stop and visiting quite a few people on the way," Pembroke said, laughing. ``The horse got me home the last couple of hundred yards because by then I didn't have a clue which way I was going."
Perhaps the funniest incident with winter travel happened in 1983. During a tremendous snowstorm, the Komets were driving about 25 mph to Muskegon when Doug McGrath, who had a strong French accent, approached then-coach Ron Ullyot.
"Hey, Coach, you think they wait the game for us?''
Ullyot replied, ``What do you think?''
"I don't know,'' McGrath said.
"How are they going to play without us?''
"Oh, I see.''
They did, of course, wait.