After a slow start, Komets blazed to Turner Cup wins twice in decade

Turning point
Turning point
Len Thornson, center, holds the 1963 Turner Cup trophy next to Eddie Long, right.
By BLAKE SEBRING of The News-Sentinel

What might be the greatest investment in minor-league sports history started with a bluff.

Prospective Fort Wayne Komets owners Ernie Berg, Harold Van Orman and Ramon Perry attended a league meeting in 1951 in hopes of acquiring an expansion franchise. The cost was only $2,500, a far cry from today's $8 million expansion fee for an IHL team.

At the IHL meeting, league officials asked the trio if $2,500 was too steep a price.

Van Orman assured the board that it was no problem, going so far as to put his wallet on the table, backed up with the bold statement, "Do you want a fee now?''

"Fortunately,'' Van Orman would say later, "they didn't ask to see our money. I think I had about $11 in my wallet. If the board had asked to see our money, we wouldn't have gotten in. If they'd asked to see it, we were done.''

Berg came up with the name Komets because he wanted a name that suggested speed, flash and excitement. He spelled it with a "K'' instead of a "C'' after his wife Kathryn, who went by Kay.

Although the franchise was an instant financial success, it struggled on the ice until the 1960s, when the Komets began to dominate the league. In 1958 the owners hired Ken Ullyot, a successful coach and general manager of a junior hockey team in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, to run the team. Ullyot then hired Colin Lister to be the team's business manager.

It took Ullyot a season and a half to turn the Komets into a championship contender. The 1959-60 Komets finished with an amazing 50-16-2 record, earning their first trip to the Turner Cup finals, where they lost to St. Paul.

That finals series included the longest game in IHL history at 118:28. St. Paul's Elliot Chorley scored on the Saints' 29th shot in overtime to end the game at 1:25 a.m.

The Komets struggled the next two seasons, but came back in 1962-63 to beat the Minneapolis Millers for their first Turner Cup championship. A crowd of only 5,026 fans watched in Memorial Coliseum as the Komets clinched the title with a 4-2 win.

The Komets advanced to the finals again in 1964, but lost to arch-rival Toledo before regaining the title in 1965 by beating Des Moines in a six-game final.

Fort Wayne returned to the Turner Cup Finals in 1967, but lost to Toledo again as age began to catch up with the Komets. They would not return to the finals again until they won the title in 1973.

Besides winning two titles, the Komets also had a great deal to do with keeping the IHL alive during the 1960s, as Ullyot and Lister helped out other struggling teams with money and players.

"It's very accurate to say Fort Wayne saved the IHL in the mid-'60s,'' former commissioner Bill Beagan said. "We would have gone under a couple of times without their help.''

Other highlights of the decade include the formation of the Wildcat Baseball League in 1960, and individual accomplishments by South Side's Willie Long and Snider's Sharon Wichman.

Long won the Mr. Basketball award in 1967 after leading the Archers to the Final Four. He became the second Mr. Basketball from Fort Wayne; Mike McCoy received the honor in 1958.

Wichman was only a 16-year-old junior when she won a gold medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. She won the bronze medal in the 100-meter breast stroke and the gold medal in the 200-meter breast stroke.
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