Besides what they hope will be long-term stability, there are two major reasons why the Fort Wayne Komets are switching to the ECHL next season: rivalries and proximity.
In a move that will be announced at 4 p.m. Thursday, the Komets will be able to renew rivalries with Kalamazoo, Toledo and Cincinnati – and also maintain a blossoming one with Evansville, which is also joining the ECHL. The hope is that these closer rivals will also allow fans from all teams to travel more to road games as well.
Maybe the first rival the Komets ever had was the Cincinnati Mohawks, who dominated the International Hockey League during the 1950s, winning five consecutive titles. The inaugural Komets won just 20 of 60 games but established a tradition of playing their best against the best. The K's split 12 games with the champion Mohawks, who lost just 13 games all season.
"We always played real well against them," original Komet Eddie Long said. "You always rise to the occasion when you are playing a better team. We had a bunch of guys who weren't scared, so Cincinnati didn't intimidate us."
Over six seasons the Mohawks, the top affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, lost only 85 games.
"We just battled them hard, even down there," said George Drysdale, the Komets' first elected captain. "We all wanted a job. There weren't that many teams and we were just happy to have a club to hook up with, and this was a great place to play."
The rivalry was renewed when the Cincinnati Cyclones joined the International Hockey League during the 1990s.
After the Mohawks folded and the Komets matured a little, Fort Wayne's next and likely most bitter rival was always Toledo. During the 1960s, '70s and '80s, these teams brought out the best and worst in each other whenever they played. The Komets have played 371 regular-season games against Toledo teams, the most of any city. The two teams also met 12 times in the playoffs.
Every Komets fan remembers hearing about how tough the Komets' rivalry was with the Toledo Blades, Hornets and Goaldiggers, but not one of those games ever earned as many as 200 penalty minutes.
"Today there could be 400 minutes, but back then 100 minutes in a game was huge," said Fort Wayne native and former Toledo General Manager Jerry Nuerge.
The rivalry was so intense that when Fort Wayne fans went to Toledo to watch the games, they never wore their Komets paraphernalia for fear of repercussions from the Toledo fans. The Toledo fans often would look in the parking lot for Indiana cars to vandalize. There were a few times when the Komets' bus was attacked, and the Fort Wayne equipment managers even wore helmets as they loaded the bus.
"Toledo was a positive war zone at best, and they played that way all the time," Komets radio broadcaster Bob Chase said. "It was the only place I've ever been in where I had to actually fight my way out of the building."
The teams were built for wars as well. The most famous line in Toledo history, nicknamed Murderer's Row, included forwards Paul Tantardini, Willie Trognitz and Joe Nathe. During a 1974 game, they dropped their gloves right after the opening faceoff to take on all five Komets.
The Komets' rivalry with Toledo is legendary, in part because the players had to walk through the fans and past a concession stand to get from their locker room to the ice at the Toledo Sports Arena. Already known for being rabid in the stands, the fans had plenty of opportunities to pick at the Komets every game. Some Komets compared playing in Toledo to playing in a Roman lions' den.
One fan was particularly vocal and profane in his attacks and made the mistake one night of standing too close to the line of players as they walked to the locker room. Seeing the opportunity, a Komet reached out to collar the man, pulling him into the middle of the pack of players and shoving him into the locker room.
"It was nickel beer night and we finally got him," Long said. "He'd been all over us for years, really filthy stuff, too. We threw him into the shower to cool him off [and clean him up] and then right out into the lobby. After that he left us alone."
There are all kinds of stories about games against Toledo, including the Dec. 8, 1985, game when Robbie Laird, the Komets' coach, activated himself to fill in for some injured players. Laird came off the bench to fight Toledo tough guy Chris McSorley during a 5-3 Fort Wayne loss.
When Dino Mascotto played for the Toledo Blades and Hornets from 1968 to 1972, he liked to wear a red hanky as part of his uniform. Whenever he made a good play, Mascotto would take out the hanky and twirl it around. It was the type of showboating that used to drive the Komets and their fans crazy and added to the intense rivalry.
"The deal was if you could beat Dino, you could have the hanky," Chase said.
But Mascotto was one of the toughest players in all of hockey, not just the International Hockey League, and few players ever challenged him, let alone beat him. He was also a little nuts, or so he liked everyone to think.
On Dec. 26, 1970, Mascotto got his hanky practically shoved up his nose. Mascotto and the Komets' Cal Purinton started high sticking each other, leading to a huge brawl between the teams. Mascotto turned around and found Bernie MacNeil of the Komets grinning like a fool and waiting for his shot at the title. MacNeil pounded Mascotto, eventually laying him out flat on the ice.
"I was sitting on top of him at the end of the fight and his hand was pinned," MacNeil said. "I didn't want to hit him when he was down on the ice, but then I saw the hanky in his pocket, so I just took it. His claim to fame was that nobody could take his hanky."
MacNeil plucked the hanky away from Mascotto, waved it around his head and then spiked it on top of Mascotto to the wild cheers of 5,050 delighted Fort Wayne fans.
"They had to be the raunchiest fans, and promoters back then would do whatever they could to fill the building and would sell beer for 10 cents a glass," Laird said. "So by the second period, half of them are in the bag and throwing beer on you. Needless to say, we had a lot of confrontations."
But there was one benefit to playing in Toledo.
"We always used to get beer baths in Toledo when we came off the ice," Drysdale said. "We never had to worry about shampoo because you always had enough beer in your hair to wash up."
The fans were right on top of the opposing bench, throwing expletives and anything else they could. Sometimes there were even fights in the stands between players and fans.
"The wildest thing I ever saw was [Steve] Salvucci knocking out a couple of fans over there," Doug Rigler said. "There was a bit of a ruckus down near Toledo's bench and some fans had reached over the boards and grabbed (Dale) Baldwin or someone, and he jumped straight up and punched both people. He ended up getting an unsportsmanlike penalty, and we had a team fine for about $50. There was a standoff for a while where he didn't play until he got his money back."
Since 1974, Fort Wayne and Kalamazoo have always been considered hockey rivals, and although they've met only six times during the playoffs, those matchups have usually been monumental, partly because so many fans travel to the road games.
The first time the teams met was in the 1980 Turner Cup Finals, when Kalamazoo defended its home-ice advantage and won in six games. The Komets won the rematch two years later in the quarterfinals, but the teams wouldn't meet again until the 1991 semifinals. As part of the Komets' rebirth season under the first year of the Franke brothers' ownership, Fort Wayne upset the division champion K-Wings in six games. Fort Wayne took the pivotal Game 5 in overtime in Kalamazoo when Dan Lambert assisted on Bob Lakso's goal and then clinched at home the next night.
The K-Wings gained revenge the next year, ending the Komets' hopes for back-to-back Turner Cup Finals appearances by winning Game 7 in Fort Wayne 4-3 as Ross Wilson scored a hat trick. Kalamazoo also finished off Fort Wayne in the old IHL, sweeping the K's in two 1999 games to send them to the United Hockey League the next season. The K-Wings joined them in the UHL a year later.
The next time the teams met was during the 2004 playoffs as the defending Colonial Cup champion Komets barely survived a five-game series against the K-Wings and a defenseman named Guy Dupuis. Four of the five games were decided by one goal as the Komets allowed only seven goals.
Maybe the most competitve playoff series against Kalamazoo was the last one, when the Komets outlasted goaltender Joel Martin in six games during the 2009 playoffs.
The rivalry might get a boost, as the defection of Kalamazoo to the ECHL that summer started the spiral of the new IHL.
The Komets will also get to renew acquaintances with Elmira, which involved Fort Wayne in a few scraps over the years in the UHL. One of the last times the two teams met, Dec. 9, 2006, the squads combined for 253 penalty minutes.