While Toledo and Fort Wayne have rich and long pro hockey traditions, the Walleye and Komets continued the re-ignition of a once dormant rivalry this spring with another spirited playoff series.
Toledo and Fort Wayne met for the third time in the past four postseasons in what has become the top rivalry in the ECHL. The Walleye grabbed the upper hand in the the best-of-7 Central Division finals, taking a 2-1 lead, before Fort Wayne rallied with three straight wins to knock out top-seeded Toledo.
Players from the Walleye and Komets have to be separated by officials during the recently completed Central Division finals won by Fort Wayne.
FORT WAYNE JOURNAL-GAZETTE/RACHEL VON Enlarge
The hotly contested series hearkened back to early days of the rivalry. The acrimony between the blue-collar, Midwestern cities that have supported hockey for well more than a half century extends back to the 1950s.
Toledo's first team was founded in 1947, while Fort Wayne's first franchise was established in 1952. The early teams from Toledo and Fort Wayne played in the International Hockey League.
However, the franchises went their separate ways after the 1985-86 season. There was a gap of 25 years where the cities' teams did not meet. The rivalry was rejuvenated when Fort Wayne joined the ECHL in 2012-13.
The acrimony between the Central Division foes reached a fever pitch this spring with bitterness and animosity in abundance on and off the ice.
Fort Wayne defenseman Dan Maggio was suspended for a game for an illegal hit from behind on Walleye defenseman Simon Denis. Former Fort Wayne forward Mike Embach, who switched allegiances and joined the Walleye along with former Komets goaltender Pat Nagle, was fined for a slew-footing incident in the series.
Jabs on social media between both organizations and their fan bases added to the friction. The close proximity of the cities — they are the closest two teams in the ECHL with just 106 miles separating Toledo's Huntington Center from the Komets' Memorial Coliseum — only heightens the hostility.
The bad blood has spilled over into the stands at both arenas with unacceptable behavior, including fights and vulgar language, on both sides.
The teams have won a combined total of 20 championships. The 11 Cup banners that hang from the rafters at the Huntington Center represent titles captured by the Mercurys, Blades, Goaldiggers, and Storm.
Chick Chalmers of the Toledo Blades scores a playoff goal against Fort Wayne goalie Chuck Adamson in 1964. The Blades won the IHL championship over the Komets that season.
“It's great because of the success the teams have had over the years,” Walleye coach Dan Watson said. “The rivalry has intensified again in recent years. It's really built up again over the last few years.”
The Walleye started play in the 2009-10 season and have qualified for the playoffs six times. Toledo reached the conference finals in 2015 and last season, beating Fort Wayne on the way each time.
Going into this season Toledo had posted a 22-14-6 record against the Komets during the regular season. Fort Wayne particularly had trouble winning at the Huntington Center. But the Komets turned the tables this season, going 6-2-0 against Toledo during the regular season. Fort Wayne went 2-2 in Toledo during the regular season and 2-1 in the playoff series.
This year’s series had its fair share of rancor. Denis missed the rest of the series after the hit in Game 4 by Maggio. Walleye officials also allege Komets defenseman Cody Sol and Maggio physically threatened Denis after Game 3 and during warm-ups for Game 4.
After Games 2 and 3, Fort Wayne officials requested the ECHL look into on-ice incidents for possible supplementary discipline.
Embach was not suspended for his incident in Game 2. Nagle and Embach refused to talk to their former teammates, including Fort Wayne captain Shawn Szydlowski, during the series.
With 50 seconds left in Game 3, Toledo forward A.J. Jenks was called for boarding for his hit on Garrett Thompson. Jenks and Thompson were battling for the puck when Jenks shouldered Thompson, who landed awkwardly into the boards. The Komets requested the ECHL look into that hit, but league officials ruled the correct call was made and no further action was warranted.
It’s no surprise, then, that Fort Wayne and Toledo have a long-standing acrimony that stretches back to the Komets' inception. Toledo's pro team at the time was called the Mercurys, who played at the old Sports Arena from 1947-62.
While the Toledo franchise became the Blades (1963-70), then the Hornets (1970-74), the Komets moniker has stuck for more than 60 years.
The Blades won two IHL championships, each achieved with victories in the Turner Cup finals against the Komets.
The Blades defeated Fort Wayne in the 1964 Turner Cup finals. Toledo beat the Komets four games to two behind stellar goaltending from Glenn Ramsay and scoring provided by legendary forwards Greg Jablonski and Chick Chalmers.
The Blades and Komets had a rematch in 1967, and Toledo prevailed again 4-2. It was a chippy series, according to the The Blade book Hockey Night in Toledo.
Fort Wayne's Cal Purinton and the Blades' Jim Sanko squared off in a memorable donnybrook. Sanko smacked Purinton over the head with his stick. Toledo's Jim Niekamp then fell to the ice with Purinton and the pair began kicking each other.
Then the famous Goaldiggers made their home at the old barn in East Toledo from 1974-86.
Overall, teams from Toledo and Fort Wayne have met in 12 playoff series, including eight times from 1976-84.
But the franchises went their separate ways after 1985-86. The Komets subsequently played in the United Hockey League before going back to the revamped IHL, then moved to the Central Hockey League.
Toledo went without a franchise four seasons until the Storm was formed in 1994 and played in the then East Coast Hockey League (later shortened to the acronym ECHL) until 2007.
Fort Wayne won seven IHL titles, including the last three in the refurbished league from 2008-10.
Toledo's teams captured nine IHL championships — two by the Blades, three by the Mercurys, and four by the Goaldiggers.
The Storm won two Riley Cup titles in 1993 and 1994. Those are the last two championships captured by a Toledo team.
With rabid and loyal fan bases, the rivals also have battled for the top spot in total attendance in the ECHL since 2012.
“It's not only a rivalry on the ice, it's always a rivalry off the ice,” Watson said. “It's also a battle between fan bases, who both travel well.”
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