One wouldn't think the Fort Wayne Daisies of the All-American Girls Baseball League and the Fort Wayne Komets would have had anything in common. But they did. Ernie Berg and Harold Van Orman, the two original owners of the International Hockey League Franchise, were both involved with the Daisies. Berg was the team's business manager and Van Orman a member of the Daisies' board of directors.
It was Berg who started to think about a hockey franchise for the city when plans were first announced for the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. He took a trip to Toledo one night to watch a game in the IHL and came home full of enthusiasm. He talked Van Orman into joining him in seeking a franchise.
"My dad was always a dreamer and schemer," said Bonnie (Berg) MacDowell, daughter of the late Komets' founder. "He could envision the coliseum filled with people for a hockey game. That was one of his dreams.Berg died in 1964, Van Orman in1984.
The dream came true, almost with the dropping of the first puck at the start of the 1952-53 season. A crowd of 4,956 turned out for the first home game and enjoyed all 60 minutes of the action -save the final result. The Komets lost to Toledo 4-0. MacDowell said her father came up with the name Komets "because he wanted to have a name that suggested speed, flash, excitement. And he spelled it with a "K" instead of a "C" after my mother. Her name was Kathryn but she always went by Kay." A franchise in those days didn't cost much, if anything. And there wasn't much of anything in the combined bank accounts of Berg and Van Orman. "If the (IHL) board had asked to see our money, we wouldn't have gotten in," Van Orman recalled later. "I put my wallet on the table and asked if they wanted to see my money. They said that wasn't necessary. If they'd ask to see it, we were done." Berg assumed the role of general manager for the franchise and went about the work of putting together a hockey team. His first move proved a good one - hiring Alex Wood as coach. A former National Hockey League goalie who had coached Toledo to a pair of league championships, Wood knew hockey talent and where to find it. * Wood's first team was a real crowd pleaser, if not an artistic success. "There's no doubt that Alex helped sell hockey in Fort Wayne," said Eddie Long, a member of that first team. "He got guys who were tough and aggressive. And the fans liked that." Victories didn't come often that first year. It wasn't until the sixth game the franchise picked up its first victory. It came on a Tuesday night before a crowd of 6,381 as George Drysdale, the Komets first elected captain scored a pair of goals in a 6-5 win over the Grand Rapids Rockets.
For the season the Komets were 20-32-2 and finished fifth in a six-team league. But they split even against league-champion Cincinnati, 6-6. "We always played them tough." Recalled Long. "We had a hard- hitting team and Cincinnati didn't like to be hit."
The fans liked the hard-hitting Komets, too. They soon began to fill the coliseum regularly on weekend nights and came close to filling it on weeknights.
Included among the heros of that first team were Jack Sieman, the goalie who at times was the loneliest guy on the ice; Long, for his hustle and seemingly endless-pool of energy; Drysdale, who led the team with 35 goals; and Len Wharton, a stand-up defenseman who had helped Wood win the two championships in Toledo.
"When Alex talked to me about playing for him in Fort Wayne, he said 'You'll get a lot of ice time, Lennie. I can promise you that.' And I did. It seemed like the defense was on the ice all the time," Wharton said.
The IHL expanded to nine teams for the 1953-54 season, adding the Johnstown, Pa., Jets, Marion Barons and Louisville Shooting Starts. But Wood didn't return as the Komets coach. He was replaced by Jack Timmins who was Wood's choice as captain when the first team broke training camp. Drysdale was elected by the players later.
Timmins didn't last the season. He was replaced by Pat Wilson who brought the team close to the. 500 mark, finishing with a 29-30-5 record and sixth place. The Komets qualified for the playoffs but bowed out in two straight games to Johnstown.
The Komets dropped to the bottom the next season, winning just 22 games. Wilson also dropped out of the picture at season's end. Berg replaced Wilson with Doug McCaig, a former National Hockey League defenseman who also had success in the IHL as coach and player in Toledo.
Under McCaig the Komets had their best finish, 29-29-2 for third place. And the team won its first playoff game-on the road in Cincinnati 2-1. But the powerful Mohawks swept the next three on the way to their fourth straight Turner Cup.
The season featured the Komets' most productive line up to that point, a unit that would become a crowd favorite for the next three seasons. Artie Stone was the center and he was flanked by Long and little Edgar Blondin, one of the most popular players ever to wear a Komet uniform. The three were thrown together the season before. "That was the year the dingbat Wilson let the centers pick their wingers," said Long. "And when it came Artie's turn to pick, Edgar and I were the ones left."
The three combined for 68 goals between them during the 1955-56 season. During their three years together, the threesome combined for 199 goals. Long was the leader with 99, but Stone was the trigger making the play which opened the gates. Blondin retired after the 1 957-58 season, Stone two years later to become the Komets Coach, a post he held through the 1961-62 season.
McCaig became the first Komets coach to return for a second season but the 1956-57 season wasn't a good one for the Komets or McCaig. The team slipped below .500 again, finishing 25-29-2 for fifth place and missed the playoffs.
Eddie Olson, an American, became the Komets fifth coach in six years when he was hired to lead the Komets in the 1957-58 season, The Komets had their best finish in history under Olson, coming in second to Cincinnati with a 28-28-8 finish. It marked, the first of 11 great seasons as a Komet for Lennie Thornson who led the team with 81 points. But the Komets were upset in the first round of the playoffs by the Indianapolis Chiefs in four games. The Chiefs were led by Marc Boileau who would return to the IHL two decades later to coach the Komets to their third Turner Cup.
Olson didn't return the following season. Neither did Berg. Berg was replaced as general manager when Van Orman and Ramon Perry, who was the team's legal adviser when the franchise was organized and eventually the third partner, hired Ken Ullyot as general manager and coach. It marked the beginning of a new era and one of the team's most successful.
Under Ullyot, the Komets finished second again in 1958-59 and advanced to the playoff finals before losing to Louisville in a hard-fought six-game series.
"Next year" finally arrived for the Komets and their faithful in 1959-60. The Komets set a league record for points with a 50-16-2 record and 102 points. They also won a record 14 straight games on their way to the first league championships.
Ullyot put together an exciting team that was explosive offensively and almost impregnable
defensively. Goalie Reno Zanier posted a 2.61 goals against average and seven shutouts, still club records. In front of Zanier was a skilled defensive unit featuring Komet Hall of Famer Lionel Repka and Duane Rupp as one tandem and the two enforcers, Connie Madigan and Andy Voykin, as the other. Len (Rifleman) Ronson led the offense with a club record 62 goals and 109 points. Thornson had
107. Rookie Bob McCusker had 89 points and Long 88. Another rookie, John Ferguson, had 25 goals, including 10 winning goals. But total victory was denied the Komets in the playoffs when they lost the championship series to St. Paul in seven games. The turning point was the fourth game, won by St. Paul after 58 minutes and 29 seconds of overtime, 5 4.
The best was soon to come. When Ullyot came to Fort Wayne he hired Colin Lister to be his business manager. Lister had served Ullyot in the same capacity when he was general manager and coach of the junior team in Prince Albert. Over the next three decades, the combination produced the best years in the team's history, financially and competitively.
From the Players:
George Drysdale:They picked me up in Chatham on the way home from training camp in
Woodstock, Ont. They were using Chatham's equipment and the sweaters just had numbers on them. The colors were white with black lettering on them. It was ugly."
Eddie Long on Komets owners Harold Van Orman, Ramon Perry and ErnieBerg: "They were active. Ray Perry was the P.A. announcer and he'd get so excited he'd say, 'That's not a penalty!' Eventually they had to take him off it."
Len Wharton: "We had special nights to explain the rules. It was an education process for the Fort Wayne fans. The fans were so supportive of the club it was a really good experience. The second year was a lot diff erent because the fans were a little more knowledgeable."
Eddie Long: "I got $95 a week, and for the first month I had headaches after every game and they didn't know what was wrong with me. This was the first time I had played in a heated rink, and it took me a while to adjust."
Len Wharton: "It was something. They didn't know how to flood the ice. We had to tell them about the 55-gallon drums and spreader bars. There were no Zambonis then. They didn't know anything about the hockey businessso we all pitched in."
Eddie Long: "We played the last two games of the year that season in Troy and Cincinnati and we had five or six bus loads of fans even though we were out of the playoffs. There had to be close to350 to 400 Fort Wayne fans at those games."
George Drysdale on the fans: "It was just unbelievable. We didn't wear helmets then and they got to recognizing all the guys. We seemed to spread out across the city and they just took a liking to all the players. I think we set the tone. I really believe that because.. I remember we were playing Milwaukee and they were in last and we were second to last and we had to turn people away from the door."
Joe Kastelic: "I didn't come the first year, but I remember even in practice you'd have about a thousand people come out. we out-drew the basketball team and that's why they moved to Detroit.
Hartley McLeod: "I was 29 or 30, and I was on my way to finishing. I hurt my leg in Buffalo and as soon as you get injured, they send you down. I wanted to head as far south as I could get and this was the furthest south they had a hockey team in those days. I was heading for Florida."
Billy Richardson: "The first thing I remember was the one-way streets were kind of tough to get around. Then I found out it was the right size of city, the kind that I liked to live in. It was small enough that people got to know you and you got to know a lot of people. They also had a lot of golf courses around here."
Bob Chase: "It was good hockey, but the whole game was different. It was all finesse play. You didn't dump the puck, you made the puck work for you. There was lots of nice passing, a lot more art to the game."
Billy Richardson: "I guess back then we didn't know any better, but we sure loved the game just as much back then."
Eddie Long on Ken Ullyot's 1958 arrival: "You could see that we had a nucleus over the years, but we needed direction and guys who were committed. We needed somebody to come in and show us some more basics of hockey, which he did. He made us think."
Bob Chase on Eddie Long, the Komets' first star: "He rose to being the star because he survived when others didn't. There were others at the time who might have been as talented, but Eddie was so dedicated to the game and being the best he could be."