The 1980's were a time for changes - both within the structure of the Komets as well as the league. During the decade, ownership of the franchise changed four times and financial difficulties forced one owner to file bankruptcy. Only four of the franchises which started the 1980's were around to greet the 1990's- Fort Wayne, Kalamazoo, Milwaukee and Muskegon. But the league expanded its boundaries as far west as Salt lake. The National Hockey League also became involved, adopting seven of the nine teams as primary farm clubs. While the recession which started in the early 1980's put the franchise on thin ice financially, from a competitive standpoint things were much better. The team won three regular season championships, setting team records for points with 112 twice. The decade was also marked by successful coaching tenures of two former players- Ron Ullyot and Robbie laird. Each coached the Komets to a league championship with laird giving the team back-to- back titles and a finalist in the 1986 Turner Cup playoffs. Popular players of the era included Barry Scully, who averaged over 60 goals for three straight seasons with a high of 69; Terry McDougall, Dale Baldwin, Wally Schreiber, John Hilworth, Steve Salvucci, Doug Rigler, Tony Camazzola, Craig Channel, Ron Leef, Jim Burton, Colin Chin, and goalies like Pokey Reddick, Alain Chevrier, Bob Essensa, Stephane Beauregard, Darren Jensen, Danny Sanscartier, Michel Dufour and Rick Knickle. Reddick, Chevrier, Essensa and Beauregard all played their way into the National Hockey League.
The 1980-81 season was marked by a quick start - the Komets won eight of their first nine - and another disappointing playoff performance. The Komets finished second in the West Division and third overall with 89 points. They beat Milwaukee in a seven game series in the first round of the playoffs but were bounced by Saginaw in five games in the semi-finals. Highlights included a 69-goal season by Scully and an impressive rookie year by Dale Baldwin. It was also the last season for veteran goalie Robbie Irons, whose career spanned three decades. It was also the last year for Moose Lallo as coach. He was replaced by Ronnie Ullyot, who played seven seasons with the Komets and was on the 1973 Turner Cup champions. He also had coaching experience in the IHL at Port Huron and Columbus as well as two seasons in the now defunct Central league. Under Ullyot, the Komets struggled during the regular 1981-82 season, dropping below .500 with a 35-41-6 record. They finished fourth. But they upset Kalamazoo in the first round of the playoffs and appeared in a good position to advance to the finals in second-round format that featured a home and home round-robin with other first round winners, Saginaw and Toledo. But they dropped the opening game of the round-robin at home to Toledo and were eliminated by also Iosing at Toledo and Saginaw. It was the rookie season for Ron Leef and Jimmy Burton; and the last for veteran Terry McDougall who was traded to Flint along with defenseman Bob Phillips for centers Mike Clarke and Brian Keates and forwards Bruno Baseotto and John Cibbs.
Newcomers in 1982-83 included Doug Rigler and Wally Schreiber, both of whom would make major contributions during the season as the Komets finished second to the Toledo Goaldiggers with 103 points. They bumped Flint in a three game series in the first-round of the playoffs, 3-2; then lost to Toledo in the semi-finals in five games.
Schreiber and Rigler provided most of the offense in 1983-84 as well, combining for 217 points between them as the Komets set a team record for points with 112 as they won their fifth league championship with a 52-28-7 record.
Laird who had signed with the Minnesota North Stars following the 1978-79 season, returned to the Komets and teamed with Rigler and Schreiber as the K's most productive line. Laird added 83 points with 37 goals and 46 assists. Schreiber had 113 points with 47 goals and 66 assists. Rigler was 42-62-104.
Darren Jensen was the top goalie with a 2.92 average. But the Komets misfired in the playoffs again, losing to Toledo in the semi-finals. The season was the last for Scully as a Komet. He was cut in January and played a few games with Milwaukee before leaving the IHL. The Komets dropped to fourth in 1984-85 (second in the West) with 90 points on a 37 34-11 performance. Schreiber had a banner season with 51 goals and 109 points. After nipping Salt lake in the first round of the playoffs in seven games the Komets were eliminated by Peoria in the semi-finals in six games. The summer of 1985 produced some dramatic changes in the franchise. First, Ullyot resigned to take over as general manager and coach of the new Indianapolis Checkers. And a short while later, Colin Lister sold the franchise to Bob Britt. Lister had run the team since 1982-83 when his partner, Ken Ullyot, gave him voting rights to his stock from the estate of Ramon Perry.
Before selling to Britt, Lister hired laird as coach and Britt honored the transaction when he took over. Britt and laird were a winning combination -on the ice. The Komets tied the club record of 112 points with a 52-30-0 record to finish first but were not sure winners at the box office. Attendance did not reflect the won-loss record. The team advanced to the finals of the playoffs before losing to Muskegon in four straight games.
The Komets came home first again in 1986-87 but continued to struggle at the gate. Included among After the season, Britt put the franchise in bankruptcy and David Welker became the third new owner the newcomers was Fort Wayne native Colin Chin who contributed 75 points with 33 goals and 42 assists. when he purchased the team from the bankruptcy court in the summer of 1987. Laird remained as coach and the Komets continued to be successful on the ice but not at the box office. The team finished second in both the East Division and overall in 1987-88 with 100 points but lost to Saginaw in the opening round of the playoffs. They were fifth overall the following year with 98 points although they were one of just three independent teams- Kalamazoo, Denver and Peoria.
Laird left the Komets to take an assistant coaching job with the Washington Caps of the NHL and AI Sims, a former NHL defenseman who had been Laird's assistant, took over as head coach for the 1989- 90 season. The Komets stayed competitive despite the fact seven of the nine teams were primary farm teams for NHL clubs. The Komets finished fourth overall with 85 points, and ahead of three NHL clubs. The second season (playoffs) was short. Muskegon eliminated the Komets in the first round in five games.
From the Players:
Ken Ullyot: "I sold my interest in 1985 and the check is still in the mail. I did the right thing. You're doing what you love. It was a beautiful run for me and the family. Fort Wayne is a damn good place to run a hockey team and raise a family. I left the keys on the desk with a note that said, 'I hope this is the key to success."
Colin Lister: "I took over in 1982, which was wonderful timing because that's when Havester had its problems. I got out in 1985. we did pretty well for part of the time, but those last three years obviously were a disaster. I got through them and out with nothing. That's the gamble that you take, but I thought it was a good gamble at the time. I had a car, an old car, and my clothes and that's absolutely it. I had nothing put away. My checks started bouncing because an attorney put holds on my own personal bank accounts. It was a tough time, but I still love the game. I have no regrets."
Ron Leef: "When I first got here that kind of happened. The crowds were dismal* we had better crowds in my junior hockey. we might have 1,500 people out for a Wednesday night game and maybe 3,500 for a weekend game. It was really the economy at that point that kind of messed things up. My last year it got kind of rough, but they never missed a paycheck. They talk about the Frankes saving hockey in Fort Wayne, but Colin Lister is the guy who kept it here."
Robbie Laird: "We went through some ownership changes. When I first took over, the team was going from Colin to Bob Britt, and Colin held onto the team long enough to land me the job. To me, he's the man who's been very responsible for me being able to stay in hockey the rest of my life- I'm very thankful to Colin Lister."
Derek Ray: "There were times there when payday came around and it was a drag race out of the rink to get to the bank to get your check cashed. It happened to me once where there wasn't enough money to get my check cashed. Colin Lister tookcareof it immediately. It was very scary."
Ron Ullyot on following his father: "To me, I don't think it was any different than a guy going to work for his dad in a business. Here's somebody who you always admired and idolized and here we had a chance to work together. I know there was a lot of pressure and some people didn't think I had earned it, but I never felt that way. I didn't worry about that. It was exciting to be able to come home and work with my dad."
Ron Ullyot: "I felt that the third year I was there we should have won it. At Christmas we were nine points out and finished nine points ahead of Milwaukee, but the last week of the season Ron Leef, Wally Schreiber and Doug Rigler got hurt and that just killed us. I thought we were going to win it all there."
Ron Ullyot on Barry Scully: "He was amazing how he got goals. He just had a gift to put the puck in the net. He wasn't really a selfish player, but he always got in the right position to score. He was a pretty strong guy and you couldn't take him off the puck. He had a really quick release and was really good at deflecting pucks."
Ron Leef on the promotional calendar: "Anytime you do something different you're going to hear about it. Being in a small market we had to do something. It was a blast. I don't know why they don't keep doing it."
Doug Rigler on Toledo: "The wildest thing I ever saw was (Steve) Salvucci knocking a couple of fans out over there. There was a bit of a ruckus down near Toledo's bench and some fans had reached over the board and they grabbed Baldwin or someone on his line and he jumped straight up and punched both people. He ended up getting an unsportsmanlike penalty and we had a team fine for about $50. There was a standoff for a couple of weeks where he didn't play until he got his money back."
Robbie Laird: "I was working with Bob Benhower at Knob Brick, driving a forklift that summer. It was that summer that I was thinking it was probably time for me to retire. It was later on in the summer around late July that Ronnie Ullyot took the job in Indianapolis, and I threw my name into the hat thinking I had nothing to lose. Colin gave me the opportunity to talk to him. He was looking for somebody with experience, but he trusted me enough to give me a chance-"
Doug Rigler: "On a lot of aspects, he was real good. The first year was a big adjustment for some players who had played with him. He would never admit it, but on the first trip to Salt Lake, Wally (Schreiber) and I roomed together. Our wake-up call never came and we were fined for being late to practice. We have no doubt in our minds that Robo canceled our wake-up call to set the tone that year that even his linemates could be fined heavily. He always got an evil grin when we blamed it on him, but he never admitted it.
Robbie Laird: "I don't think there's any truth to that. Going from player to coach, you wonder how that transition is going to occur, but I thought it went pretty smoothly actually. I don't think I was a heavy, but I was able to have some discipline, largely because we had some real good character people on our team."
Derek Ray on the 1986 Turner Cup Finals: "We got out-played. Muskegon had a really good team that year. The tough part about the way we played was we played with more intensity than most teams during the regular season and then you get in the playoffs and the other team would crank their games up and we didn't have as high a level to go."
Robbie Laird: "I probably remember the first year (1986). We battled all the way to get to the Finals. We ended up playing in Muskegon and for some reason the dates were a little bit messed up. We lost our first game at home and could never really get untracked. At that time Muskegon had a powerhouse. They really had a good group of players."
Derek Ray on Jim Burton: "I remember some plays that he made to me that if I didn't have my stick on the ice, I wouldn't have gotten the puck because I wasn't expecting it. He had good vision and he knew where his teammates were. He probably had the worst body in all of professional hockey. He's not an athlete. He never went to gym unless it was to pick up his girlfriend, but the guy could play."