Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series looking back at the 1993 championship won by the Fort Wayne Komets.
Maybe the biggest party in Fort Wayne sports history started at about 10:50 p.m. 20 years ago tonight.
That's when the Fort Wayne Komets completed their incredible playoff sweep by beating the San Diego Gulls 6-1 to win the International Hockey League's Turner Cup.
For many reasons this was a remarkable event. The Komets won all 12 games in the playoffs, sweeping the Cleveland Lumberjacks, Atlanta Knights and the Gulls. This was also the little guy going against the major cities, and San Diego was the best regular-season team in minor league hockey history, starting 20-0-3, entering the new year at 32-1-4 and finishing 62-12-8 for an unheard-of 132 points.
The Gulls also dominated the Komets, outscoring them 22-10 in five easy early-season victories. San Diego's roster during the finals included 5,540 games and 1,264 goals of National Hockey League experience. Another 1,200 games of NHL experience had already moved back to the NHL or to the injured list off the Gulls' roster.
With that record and experience level, the Gulls were the ultimate Goliath. Nobody outside the Komets locker room felt Fort Wayne had a chance.
For most of the season, they would not have had one. After the Komets started that season 2-7, coach Al Sims made a point of saying, ``By the time this season is over, no one will remember this start.''
Was he bluffing or just trying to change the attitude in the locker room?
``I was confident we had the team, but I also wanted to get the message to the players of `Don't worry about it, we're going to be fine. Just keep playing your game and do your thing,' '' Sims said recently. ``It was kind of counter to what you'd normally do, rant and scream and get all over everybody. It ended up working.''
The Komets had created some of their own problems by constantly talking about how their only goal was winning the championship. After losing in the 1991 Turner Cup Finals and getting upset in the first round of the 1992 playoffs by Kalamazoo, the Komets knew this was their last chance before the roster turned over.
After that slow start, the Komets were 9-9-2 at Thanksgiving, and one key was reacquiring forward Peter Hankinson and defenseman Jean-Marc Richard from San Diego in a trade that sent Max Middendorf to the Gulls. The Komets dominated their division, but a 2-7 slump heading into the all-star game raised more doubts. With Sims coaching the Eastern Conference squad in Phoenix, captain Colin Chin ran practices and the players were under a strict curfew.
``I think we were trying to get some discipline going and make sure the guys were all buying in,'' Sims said. ``Chinner was a big part of getting them to buy in.''
After those practices, the Komets got hot and finished the regular season on a 15-2-1 tear. Partly that's because of how Sims worked on specific things, each month improving on one area. He started with stabilizing the forward lines, then the defensive pairings followed by the penalty kill.
The forward lines were Chin, Scott Gruhl and Joel Savage; Paul Willett, Igor Chibirev and Kelly Hurd; and Lee Davidson, Peter Hankinson and Ian Boyce. Dave Smith was the 10th forward, and Steve Fletcher, Bob Lakso and Kory Kocur were in reserve. The defensive pairings were Carey Lucyk and Richard, Grant Richison and Bobby Jay, and Bob Wilkie and Kevin MacDonald with Guy Dupuis and Steve Wilson in reserve.
The final tweak was on the power play where assistant coach Claude Noel suggested a new formation that put three men high near the blue line and two men in front of the net. The Komets had the perfect weapons for this with Richard up top controlling the puck and Gruhl and Wilkie blasting from the wings. They also had Chin and Savage down low.
Opponents had never seen the umbrella tactic and had no idea to counter it. Richard, Gruhl and Wilkie would crank slap shots from long range, while Chin and Savage tried for deflections or rebounds. Savage scored 24 goals, and probably 20 bounced in off a body part rather than his stick. He was always getting nailed with shots that would then land into the net.
When the playoffs started, the Komets couldn't wait to show how ready they were.
Tomorrow: Komets take on the Gulls.