Thorne, Bartus provide unique perspective on locker room
A column by Blake Sebring, firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, December 19, 2016 6:00 PM
When Komets coach Gary Graham called Stephon Thorne about returning to Fort Wayne two weeks ago, the forward wondered how things would be different this time. After all, he's 26 now and not the 22-year-old who left in 2013, and there's also no one remaining from the team he left.
"I never thought I'd be back," Thorne said. "The last couple of years I was injured and trying to get myself back into being an ECHL player. It's hard to re-establish yourself."
But Fort Wayne has always been different for Thorne and in minor league hockey. Sometimes those who never leave fail to remember that or see the distinction, but the players who move away and come back always sense it immediately. The Komets talk a lot about being a family, "Once a Komet is always a Komet" and winning together, but while those who are here all the time sometimes take those things for granted, the players moving into the dressing room never do. Are those sayings real or just platitudes?
"In other places it's more about individual success, but when I come here, you know if you get called up its because the team is having success," Thorne said. "To continually have that kind of atmosphere years later, for that long of a period, it says really good things about the actual organization."
It has to because the only people remaining that Throne knew from back in the day are coach Gary Graham who was an assistant then, General Manager David Franke and equipment managers Joe and Aaron Franke. Everyone else has changed, even the locker room has changed, but the fans and the team outlook are the same.
"When you come to Fort Wayne, you know their main goal is to win games, so that's the culture they bring in," said goaltender Garrett Bartus who is making his second run with the Komets after playing three games in 2014-15. "Grammer does a good job of bringing good guys in. It's a very welcoming locker room, and some teams you go to are very stand-offish with new people. Here, they welcome any new guy — and I've seen quite a few times since I got here — and they are all welcomed with open arms. It's really an easy locker room to adjust to, which makes it easy to fit in right away and just play your game."
As Thorne said, "I felt very welcome right away when I got in. As soon as I got my first shift, everything felt very, very similar to back in the day. They are still bringing in the same type of characters guys like (Kaleigh) Schrock, J.M. (Rizk), (Brett) Smith and (Colin) Chaulk."
But how do the Komets maintain those core values in the Ever-Changing Hockey League where it's not unusual to use more than 50 players in a season? How do you force that culture and mindset when the roster changes week-to-week, when so many things like injuries and call-ups are out of your control?
"It's very cliche to say, but at the end of the day you are only going to go so far with a bunch of skill guys," Graham said. "We've been able with our core group to install a winning culture that understands what the organization and the fans expect. They do a good job of reiterating that to the first-year guys. There are always ups and downs during the process, but we have to understand what we are here for."
That's also part of why the Komets work so hard to make sure the players are happy. They want the the best of them — both as players and people — to consider coming back in the future. That's part of why so many have returned over the seasons. That doesn't seem to happen as often in other ECHL cities besides Allen, Toledo and Reading. Maybe that's part of why the Komets are the ECHL's only team to advance to the playoffs second round each of the last three seasons.
"It's been fun every time I've come here," said Bartus, who was also in Fort Wayne's training camp this year. "It can be tough because of the expectations, and you put a lot of pressure on yourself to perform well, but they also make it easier on you by telling you exactly what they expect and doing little things that make life easier for you. It's always easier to go play your game when you aren't over-stressing about a bunch of stuff."
Thorne said he also appreciates Komets' honesty. Do call-ups have a real chance to make the team, or are they cannon fodder for a weekend until some players heal? Can they trust the coach? Thorne said Graham told him exactly what his role would be with the Komets.
"At some teams it's a totally different show, but I know what he wants me to do," Thorne said. "I don't have to rethink about 10 different things before the game. It's an easy feeling I got right away. Some coaches and organizations just throw you to the wolves, but here they don't do that. They want to have success with everyone."
When he left the Komets, Thorne said about 75 percent of the team were veteran players, but now it's about 75 percent are rookies or second-year players. It's still the same place.
"It's always been a family feeling here," Thorne said. "The names may all be different, but the feeling hasn't changed."
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Blake Sebring at email@example.com.