In the late 1990s, I was about to get my diploma from our fine state university and was out on the job hunt. One of my first interviews was in a fine city in northeastern Indiana.
As job interviewers are often wont to do, they asked me what my hobbies and interests were. I told them I was a rabid hockey fan. Knowing I was from Indy, the rest of the exchange went …
“Yes. In fact, when I leave here, I’m going to their playoff game tonight.”
“You won’t be too popular around here.”
That wasn’t my introduction to the Indy-Fort Wayne hockey rivalry, but was certainly the introduction to the other side of it. Little did either of us know at the time that a rivalry that had galvanized both fan bases would go on a decade-and-a-half hiatus just two short years later.
That rivalry gets renewed tonight for the first time in 15 years. The Fuel open their inaugural ECHL regular season tonight at the Fairgrounds Coliseum against the Fort Wayne Komets, with a 7:35 p.m. puck drop (TV: WRTV-6, radio: WXNT-1430). The Fuel then travel to Fort Wayne on Saturday (Radio: WXNT-1430).
Fort Wayne didn’t forget — for the next 15 years, there were stories in the Fort Wayne papers noting how the Komets ownership would love to have an Indy team in their league (which changed twice before it finally happened). Indy didn’t forget, either. Early in the 2000s, when the Ice were in the Central Hockey League and the Komets in the United Hockey League, there were proposals for interleague play and other solutions to try to revive the Ice-Komets rivalry. The last time the two teams met on the ice was in 1999, when the CHL Ice and the UHL Komets played an exhibition game at a steamy, foggy Fairgrounds Coliseum that was called after two periods due to the dense fog that settled over the ice.
And when the ECHL Fuel were announced last fall, one of the first things hockey fans in both cities were saying was, “The Indy-Fort Wayne rivalry is back.” Twitter fights erupted between fans of the two teams. An Indy radio host introduced an interview by saying, “I don’t know much about hockey, but I know the Komets s**k.”
The rivalry is back. It commences this weekend, when the Fuel open their franchise and the new Fairgrounds Coliseum with the Friday-night opener (puck drop 7:35 p.m.). The two teams then head up to the other end of I-69 and play the second half of a back-to-back on Saturday in Fort Wayne. The Fuel and Komets will play each other 11 times this season – more than any other opponent either team will face. Fort Wayne has traditional games on Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, and the Fuel are the opponents both nights.
No question the two are trying to rekindle a rivalry. But, even after a 15-year hiatus, it doesn’t need much kindling.
The Indy-Fort Wayne rivalry officially began in 1955, with the introduction of the Chiefs to the International Hockey League. The Komets were born into the IHL three years earlier. The two teams met in the playoffs in 1958 — the Chiefs eliminated the Komets three games to one en route to winning their first and only Turner Cup championship. The two teams met again in the playoffs the following year, which the Komets won four games to one before eventually falling in the Turner Cup Final to Louisville. But there was never an indication of a significant rivalry developing between the teams — Toledo had developed as Fort Wayne’s main rival, and several Chiefs home games against the Komets were actually moved to Cincinnati after the demise of that city’s Mohawks. When the Chiefs closed up shop in 1962, there would be no more inkling of a rivalry for nearly a quarter-century. The Komets continued in the IHL, building a championship-level team with several former Chiefs — including Chuck Adamson, Len Thornson and coach Marc Boileau — as key parts. Meanwhile, Indy went without hockey for a dozen years — save the start of the 1963-64 season, when the Coliseum explosion forced the Indianapolis Capitols to move to Cincinnati after nine games. For the next decade, Indy had a major-league team and a team in the top minor league, the Central Hockey League’s Checkers. Fort Wayne was actually the Checkers’ “AA” affiliate during that time.
The Indy-Fort Wayne rivalry was finally restored in 1984, when the CHL disbanded and the Checkers (as well as the Salt Lake Golden Eagles) moved to the IHL. But the rivalry really didn’t take off then, nor did it in the first couple of years after the Ice came into existence, when the two teams were in different divisions.
If one really wants to look at the genesis of the Ice-Komets rivalry, look no further than 1991. The Ice were the defending champs and looked to be primed for a repeat, with a roster stocked with Blackhawks prospects. The Komets, an independent team, had put together a solid roster of veterans — essentially marking two different visions of what minor pro hockey should be.
The two teams were placed in the same division, and battled for playoff positioning throughout the year in 1990-91. They met in an epic playoff series that saw close games, fans traveling to each others’ buildings, huge and passionate crowds and enough hatred to last a few decades. The sellouts Fort Wayne had in those games had a big hand in building a link to the fanbase that remains today. Few remember the Komets actually moved the previous summer (hockey was saved in Fort Wayne when the Franke family, which still owns the Komets, purchased the Flint Spirits and moved them to northeast Indiana in 1990).
In that playoff series, five of the seven games were decided by a goal, two went to overtime — including Game 7 — and some of the most memorable hockey seen in either city was played. Martin Desjardins’ OT goal in Game 1 gave the Ice an early upper hand, and Brian Noonan gave the Ice a 2-1 lead in the series when he scored with 18 seconds left in regulation in Game 3. Fort Wayne stormed back and took games 4 & 5, and looked to be on the verge of clinching in front of a wild, noisy Saturday-night sellout crowd in Fort Wayne for Game 6. That night, Dominik Hasek turned in a stellar goaltending performance, making 33 saves and backstopping a 4-3 Ice win, thanks to Warren Rychel’s two goals and Mike Stapleton’s three points. The next night, Noonan’s two third-period goals tied the game and sent it into OT, making Indy fans hopeful of a comeback. But 18:29 into overtime, Fort Wayne’s Lonnie Loach beat Jim Waite with a long shot, ending the Ice’s hopes at a repeat and one of the great playoff series in the hockey history of either city.
The passions incited in both cities by that one playoff series — the two teams would never meet in the playoffs again in their eight remaining years as IHL foes — kindled the rivalry. The Ice began referring to the Komets as the “eeeeeeevil Fort Wayne Komets,” and their 10-plus regular-season meetings a year usually featured big fights (Steve Fletcher vs. Kerry Toporowski, anyone?), intense games and full houses. Indy hated Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne hated Indy. It was one thing that galvanized the fan bases. Both teams won Turner Cups in the early 1990s. They had a long fight for a playoff spot in 1995.
Yes, it’s still hard for me to see Bruce Boudreau behind the Anaheim Ducks bench and not see him as a Komet. The sight of Steve Fletcher, Robin Bawa or Stephane Beauregard make me shiver … and Jim Waite, Warren Rychel and “Topper” bring a smile to my face.
Indy and Fort Wayne also have a strong rivalry because they maintain two different visions of what minor pro hockey should be — Indy has always seen the game as a developmental one, expecting to have significant ties with an NHL team (and, of late, the preferred team being the Blackhawks), with fans enjoying seeing players star here, and then see them on TV playing on NHL ice a few years later. It’s likely part of our heritage as a “AAA” baseball city, as well as being a major-league football and basketball city. Fort Wayne has usually embraced independence – although the Komets did take on an affiliation this year — so they can keep a core of players familiar to the fans together, as the Komets are the major-league team in Fort Wayne. Rather than seeing players move on and star at a higher level, Fort Wayne has generally preferred to keep a veteran core together, dating back to the days of Len Thornson, Len Ronson and Chuck Adamson. The Komets operated as an independent throughout the 1990s — so Ice-Komets games were often Blackhawks prospects vs. Komets minor league veterans — and have continued to do so in their post-IHL days. Since joining the ECHL in 2012, the Komets held an affiliation one year, dropped it and played as an independent last season, and picked up an affiliation with Colorado this year.
It’s why, after 15 years of not playing each other, the rivalry and passion still exists between them. The two teams went their separate ways in 1999 — the Komets to the United Hockey League, the Ice to the Central Hockey League, a circuit the team’s then-owner, Horn Chen, was instrumental in founding and whose league office was in Indianapolis. Two different Indy franchises played five years in the CHL, then 10 more in the junior United States Hockey League under the Ice name. Fort Wayne maintained continuity of franchise through three leagues with four names — the UHL later took on the International Hockey League name and claimed the history of the defunct league. The new IHL merged into the Central Hockey League in 2010, and both the Komets and Evansville IceMen left the CHL for the ECHL in 2012. Two years later, the rest of the CHL followed them.
The rivalry is back. Enjoy it, Indy hockey fans.