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Ben Smith

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K’s turning turmoil into chemistry

– So maybe it was this simple all along.

Maybe after this guy quit and that guy, too, and you sent away a whole pile of other guys, what you find out is that a hockey team is just that, a hockey team. And maybe all the guys coming and going and the Team Turmoil stories burning up social media were really just a sorting-out process, a hard journey to the essential truth of six words on a sign that hangs in the narrow hallway outside the Komets locker room, so it’s the last thing everyone sees before he steps onto the ice.

Out of yourself, into the team, it reads.

“That’s kind of turning into our motto here,” says Kaleigh Schrock, the team’s second captain this season.

The first was Nick Tuzzolino, traded 13 games into the season after Komets coach Gary Graham called him out publicly, along with several other prominent players, in a postgame soliloquy that seemed rash but perhaps was by design.

In any case, Tuzzolino was soon gone, and later Mickey Lang and Mike Vaskivuo quit, and the Komets all but turned over their roster in the first eight weeks, making nine trades.

Now you need a scorecard to sort them all out, at least if you haven’t been around in a while.

Only four forwards remain who were around on opening night, and both of the goalies – John Muse and Cody Reichard – are elsewhere.

Here’s one more thing that’s elsewhere: A whole lot of drama.

“Yeah, the locker room’s great,” Graham says. “It’s a significant upgrade from what it was a month, month and a half ago. It’s about the attitude and the culture you want in the locker room, and that culture is culminating in better performance on the ice. That’s what it’s all about.”

His captain agrees.

“I just think we have guys that want to be here,” Schrock says. “We’re pulling for each other more than we did. I mean, that’s really it.”

And if that sounds entirely too simple, it also works. This has always been a chemistry-first organization, and the payoff has been nine championships in three different leagues. And so, since the nine trades in eight weeks, this year’s edition has gone 4-0-3 in its last seven games and 5-2-3 in its last 10 – second only in the ECHL North to first-place Cincinnati, which has gone 8-1-1.

Not bad for Team Turmoil, if that’s in fact what this was.

Graham, for his part, characterizes it simply as the same deal he went through in Pensacola last year, where he all but turned over the entire roster in January before emerging with a team that would win the Southern League title.

And if there’s perhaps a whiff of spin to that, what’s happening now does look a lot like what happened in Florida.

“Unfortunately, at the beginning of the year, we didn’t have that chemistry right where we wanted it,” Graham says. “Fortunately, management has let me bring in guys I thought could be the right fit. And the guys that have come in have been great.”

And he lists them: Christian Ouelett and Matt Carter and Sy Nutkevich up front; Ben Meisner and Andrey Makarov in goal. Jordon Southorn on the blue line. The Chris Augers and Scott Flemings and Brandon Marinos and Kaleigh Schrocks, who’ve been around from the start and haven’t especially been perturbed by all the comings and goings.

“You could have 100 guys coming in and out, as long as they all wanted to be here,” Schrock points out. “That’s the thing.”

Out of yourself, into the team?

Yep. That simple.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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