The Komets were one of the hottest teams in the ECHL, hopeful of winning their first playoff championship since joining the league in 2012, and there were only 10 games remaining in the regular season.
Those 10 games may not be played.
The ECHL suspended its season Thursday afternoon because of the coronavirus pandemic and will determine at a later, not-yet-determined date if the 2019-20 season can be resumed.
“As the ongoing developments regarding COVID-19 in North America continue, and precautionary measures ensue to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the ECHL has suspended the 2019-20 season for the safety of our fans, players and employees,” a statement from the ECHL read. “The ECHL and its member teams continue to work with national and local health officials and local governance to monitor the situation. In the interim, we encourage those in the ECHL community to take precautions and stay safe during this time.”
The Komets (31-23-8) had a game scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday at Memorial Coliseum against the Toledo Walleye, which Wednesday became the ECHL’s only team to host a game in which fans weren’t allowed. The Walleye had been forced to close its doors to fans after a directive from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine that sports events in the state needed to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Swiftly, professional and amateur sports events at all levels around the country were either postponed, called off completely or deemed they could only go on only if close to fans.
“You kind of saw the writing on the wall, starting with the NBA and the NHL (suspending seasons). I’m not entirely shocked that our season is suspended. I’m just trying to remain hopeful that at some point, we can pick it back up,” Komets captain A.J. Jenks said.
Fans holding tickets to remaining Komets games will have to wait for information on if they can get refunds. That information will come from the Komets or Memorial Coliseum, depending on where they were purchased, perhaps not until next week or beyond.
The Komets had six remaining home games in their 68th regular season.
“The suspension of the season, of course, means things will be under review and then a decision will be made later (if the season can continue),” Komets president Michael Franke said. “A cancellation, which could be forthcoming, you never know, would end the season and the playoffs. That has yet to be determined.”
Teams are not allowed to hold practices while play is suspended. However, Franke said, Fort Wayne players will remain in town and still get paid.
“With everything being so uncertain, you’re looking for direction,” said Fort Wayne coach Ben Boudreau, who added he cannot give players instructions to skate on their own, per instructions from the league office.
“I can’t tell them what to do because the league is going to say, we don’t want guys playing. Right now, there are big, giant question marks. All we know is the season has been suspended and now we’re going to be in limbo, waiting for the next thing and the next thing, until we know what we’re doing.”
Boudreau did remind players to keep their minds and bodies right for a potential restart of the season.
“When we spoke – we had meetings today – we told them to be prepared,” Boudreau said. “‘Don’t think for one second that the season is done, or think that it’s going to be done. Approach every day like you’re professional hockey players and that means making sure you’re in shape and looking after yourselves.’ That’s our mindset.”
A player with another ECHL team told The Journal Gazette that at least two teams were performing exit physicals on players and proceeding as if play will not resume.
The Komets were in third place in the Central Division – nine points back of second-place Toledo and six points up on fourth-place Indy – and looked as if they would get one of the division’s four playoff spots in Boudreau’s first season as head coach.
They were looking to make the postseason for the seventh straight year and win a championship for the first time since 2012 in the Central Hockey League.
“Nobody wanted this. Nobody looked forward to it, especially when you’ve won 10 of your last 14 games,” Boudreau said. “There was a common belief that we had a chance to capture Fort Wayne’s first ECHL Kelly Cup. There was a general belief of that in (the locker room). That’s the disappointing thing. For now, we don’t know what’s going to happen. But that’s the fear, that we don’t get to finish out (the season) when we have a chance to accomplish something.”
The Komets led the ECHL in average attendance this season with 8,090 fans per game, including an announced crowd of 6,637 Wednesday when they defeated the Wichita Thunder 7-2, paced by Brady Shaw’s and Brett McKenzie’s two goals apiece.
The NHL and Triple-A American Hockey League suspended play earlier Thursday, though the ECHL, as an independently operated league, wasn’t necessarily required to follow their lead. Almost all ECHL teams are affiliated with NHL teams, however. The Komets are an affiliate of the Vegas Golden Knights and have a less-formal working agreement with the Los Angeles Kings.
“It’s an unfortunate situation that the entire world is dealing with right now,” Franke said. “We have to do what we are mandated to do by our league. As of today, the schedule has been suspended and we will adhere to that. There’s really not much more to say.”
Shaw ranked seventh in ECHL scoring with 27 goals and 62 points in 48 games. McKenzie had 23 goals and 60 points in 56 games. Shawn Szydlowski had 15 goals and 56 points in 55 games. Alan Lyszczarczyk was fifth among ECHL rookies in scoring with 19 goals and 46 points in 57 games.
The Komets had the league’s seventh-ranked offense (3.52 goals per game), the top-ranked power play (25.5%), and led the ECHL in penalty minutes (16.8 per game).
Heading into Wednesday’s game, the Komets had already taken some precautions to limit the spread of the coronavirus, including disallowing fans from congregating outside the locker room for autographs and close contact with the players. The Komets also planned to not allow players to participate in postgame skates with the fans.
Asked if there was nervousness in the locker room playing in front of a crowd Wednesday, Jenks said: “For me, personally, it was business as usual. I didn’t treat it any differently or think about it any differently.”