Training camp is more than two months away, and he hasn't coached a game yet, but Gary Graham has already changed the Fort Wayne Komets' culture.
After acquiring center Bobby Hughes on Monday, the Komets signed offensive defenseman Rob Kwiet and rookie forward Kevin Walrod on Tuesday. Both Hughes and Kwiet are hungry to get another chance to play in the American Hockey League, which is something they believe they can achieve quicker from Fort Wayne than from where they previously played.
Several new Komets have said going up to the next level is a priority for them, something Graham has convinced them he can help them do.
"There's a reason why we are signing some of these higher-end players,'' Graham said. "It's my job to convince them that this is my intent, and you better believe it's something I'm going to take great pride in. Management is on board with this shift because we know that this is a developmental league.''
But that is a dramatic change for the Komets, who have been known for more than 20 years as a place where continuity on the ice has been a major selling point to fans and players. The players, many of whom had young families, knew they could make a home here if they played well, and the fans knew who they'd be seeing most nights. The two sides got to know each other.
There were a few younger Komets each year who moved up, usually for short stints, but the team had the reputation of being protective of its players' rights.
Last year, the Komets entered the ECHL with their philosophy, but it failed as they missed the playoffs. It seems the only way to succeed in the ECHL is to serve the AHL, and sometimes that means there will be constant lineup changes. Occasionally, fans won't know who is playing or if moves have been made until the opening lineups are announced.
Graham sees it in a different way.
"The whole identity of this program moving forward is to be surrounded by guys who are hungry to get to the next level,'' Graham said. "That is a mental thing. It is an identity thing that we're going to have to come to work every day. If you have guys who are like that, they are going to go out there and compete, and we want to consistently compete in all three zones for 60 minutes. If you have guys who want to get to the next level they are going to be a lot more likely to do that for you.''
This is also the system Graham used last year coaching Pensacola in the Southern Pro League. He continually shipped players to higher levels, made do with what he had, and then gathered everybody back together for the playoffs. That's part of what made him an attractive candidate for the Komets.
But this also proves how incredibly unlikely it is Fort Wayne will ever again see longtime veterans like a Guy Dupuis, a Konstantin Shafranov or a Colin Chaulk, who Tuesday became an assistant coach with the Kalamazoo Wings. Players like that can't survive for 10 years in the ECHL. Player longevity has been a part of who the Komets were on the ice and in the community. Now, staying here for three years will seem like a long time.
"It's a different landscape in the ECHL compared to any league we've been in before because it is so young,'' Komets General Manager David Franke said. "It's something we have to deal with if we're looking to get players to come in here who still have that window of opportunity. They have to know we are working for them during the year to give them opportunity.''
When Graham was hired, the biggest question seemed to be whether he could recruit, which he has proven he obviously can. Maybe his next challenge will be introducing all his new players to their fans.
Icing the puck
Franke said the Komets will likely open training camp Oct. 5 or 6. ... The team will play three exhibition games, including one at home Oct. 12 against Wheeling. ... Franke said because of ECHL rules, the Komets can't announce until Friday what they have traded to San Francisco and Alaska as part of the "future considerations'' part of the trades for defenseman Simon Danis-Pepin and Hughes. ... Kwiet scored 10 goals and 37 points last year in 64 games with three ECHL teams. Walrod scored four goals and 15 points in 34 games with Michigan State and also played four games in the ECHL with Bakersfield.