Memorial Coliseum was packed with 10,477 fans – the most for a sports event in Fort Wayne in 17 months – and they were festive as you’d expect Friday night.
They chanted “Fergie” as Dylan Ferguson made one acrobatic save after another. They did The Wave as “Welcome to the Jungle” blasted through the speakers. They went ballistic when Stephen Harper scored both his goals. And they made a deafening amount of noise when the final horn blared.
The fans had plenty to be excited about, watching their Komets defeat the South Carolina Stingrays 2-1 to capture the Kelly Cup as champions of the ECHL.
“To win in front of these fans right now, let me tell you, there’s no better place to play hockey than as a Fort Wayne Komet,” coach Ben Boudreau said. “If you look at our recruiting, we talk about these moments and we talk about these experiences. They’re living it right now and this is the reason they came to Fort Wayne. For all those guys who made that jump here, I hope they enjoy it because this is what it’s all about.”
Harper, a rookie, was one such player, exuberant as he hoisted the Kelly Cup and the June M. Kelly trophy as Playoff MVP, a product not only of his two goals in the decisive game but also his six goals and 13 points over 12 playoff games.
“This is unbelievable. Words can’t describe it,” Harper said. “This is my first championship ever. It’s a great group of guys and this was the best playoff run with all the bus trips, all the planes, all the games. I just had this weird feeling we were going to win and I’m so proud of our group.”
The Komets took the series 3-1, after upsetting the Wichita Thunder 3-2 and Allen Americans 3-1 in earlier rounds. The Stingrays fought to the bitter end, getting 23 breathtaking saves from netminder Hunter Shepard and a goal from Justin Florek, but they were unsuccessful in their attempt to become the first ECHL team to capture four Kelly Cups.
Fort Wayne won its 10th championship in 69 seasons of play and its first since the 2012 Central Hockey League title, just before it moved to the ECHL. The Komets are believed to be the only professional hockey team to win championships in four different leagues, including the International and United Hockey Leagues.
The Komets stole road games in each of their playoff series and won 6 of 7 games at the Coliseum, boosted by huge crowds the final two games because loosened health restrictions allowed them to return to full capacity.
“This is the best team I’ve ever played on. It’s the best night of my life, it really is,” said Shawn Szydlowski, the Komets’ longest tenured player with eight seasons donning the fireball. “This city, with the way they support the team, it’s an NHL city and an NHL arena. The organization has been nothing but good to me. The fan base, the crowd, I can’t say enough about it.”
It had been a long time coming for several of the Komets’ players, including captain A.J. Jenks, who hadn’t won a Cup in his previous 10 pro seasons, and Justin Vaive, who had been thwarted in his first nine seasons.
“This is tough to put into words, but it feels pretty darned good,” Jenks said. “This is just an unbelievably resilient group. And just a tight-knit bunch of dudes who never gave up on each other.”
Even by playoff hockey standards, this run to a Cup was particularly difficult.
The Komets’ final 19 games were played over only 36 days, in five states, and they traveled 8,355 miles (4,625 by bus, 3,730 by air) along the way. They played in less-than-ideal conditions in practice arenas at Wichita, Kansas, and North Charleston, South Carolina, and the defining game came against Allen – down 1-0 in the series, they rallied from a three-goal, third-period deficit to get a 5-4 overtime victory in Game 2 in Texas.
After that, the Komets lost only once – Game 2 of the Finals at South Carolina.
“This is indescribable,” said Ferguson, who stopped 26 of 27 shots Friday. “I’m still in shock. Every single guy on this team deserved this. If you look back to the start of the playoffs, we (beat Wichita) in five and that comeback in Game 2 against Allen, man, just the way we got here is so crazy and I’m so proud of this group. I’m at a loss for words, really.”
Fearful of the financial losses they expected to endure during the pandemic, and that COVID-19 might halt play altogether, the Komets’ owners didn’t opt into the season until Jan. 5 and didn’t begin play until February. The 13 other teams had started back in December and 12 opted out altogether.
The Komets used 770 COVID-19 tests throughout the season and didn’t have a single positive, which they credited to the players’ willingness to abide by rules implemented by the team, the Coliseum and the ECHL.
“The players adhered to what we told them needed to happen,” team president Michael Franke said. “At the end of the day, they made it happen out on the ice. I’m so proud of them. This is special. This is really, really special. It’s special for the community and this brings back some semblance of normalcy to the community. We’re just happy we could be a part of it.”