When Ernie Berg and Harold Van Orman were sitting around in 1952, trying to come up with a name for their new professional hockey team, they wanted a name that conveyed speed, flash and excitement.
You can bet a koala didn’t enter into that conversation.
They nicknamed the team Komets : with a “K” to honor Berg’s wife, Kathryn : and the team is coming up on its 67th season at Memorial Coliseum.
They’ve almost always had orange as their signature color and there have been a multitude of logos, including the meteoric K from the 1950s, the iconic Spaceman of the 1960s, a depiction of the Historic Old Fort that arrived in 1969 and the fireball that has been the centerpiece since the Franke family took ownership in 1990.
One of the oddest things to show up on the Komets’ uniform was a koala as a secondary patch in 1988-89, as well as on puzzling and hilarious merchandise from the era, such as a bumper sticker touting “UNBEARABLY EXCITING KOMET HOCKEY.”
I’d always been fascinated by the koala, its brief marriage to Komets hockey and why I could never get a good answer on how it ended up in team lore. Whenever I’d asked someone, I’d get a roll of the eyes and some variation of: “That was David Welker for ya.”
The late Welker is known for being the oddest owner the Komets ever had and for moving them to Albany, New York, almost killing hockey in Fort Wayne before the Frankes bought the defunct Flint Spirits and resuscitated things in less than a month.
However, Welker gets no credit for actually having helped to save the Komets after his predecessor, Bob Britt, had put the club into bankruptcy. Welker certainly put some strange ideas into action, such as hiring baseball great Denny McClain as organist or : and you younger fans may want to sit down for this : changing the team colors to red, white and blue. As for the koala, almost everyone nowadays seems to recall it being part of a non-alcoholic beverage from Australia that Welker had been peddling.
I tracked down Welker’s son, Billy, who was an equipment manager with the Komets at the time and now works for the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Huntsville Havoc. Billy said his father had struggled with alcoholism and had a fascination with koalas.
“As a part of my dad’s bipolar disease, he had often used alcohol to self-medicate,” Billy said. “One of his anti-alcohol time periods led him to the koala. In case you do not know, the koala bear does not drink but lives on eucalyptus leaves that do not contain alcohol. Many drug rehab facilities used this as their logo.”
And this is where the koala story, to me, took an unexpected, sort of awesome turn, because David Welker could have almost been an innovator. If you take a close look at the Komets’ koala, he donned a headband with “A2D2” and that, according to Billy, was his father’s promotion of Athletes Against Drunk Driving.
“He might have been a little ahead of his time on that one,” Billy said, and he’s correct if you consider how much social activism is a part of sports uniforms today.
“His ideas may have been zany,” Billy continued, “but it was his way to promote the anti-drunk driving campaign. Unfortunately, many of these ideas were never fully implemented due to (his illness).”
That’s why we can look back at some of the other David Welker things with koalas and kind of chuckle, such as the giveaway of Kidd’s marshmallows, which were made in Ligonier, and wound up on the Coliseum ice, where the game had to be halted.
David Welker, who died in 2011 at age 73, is a villainous figure to many local hockey fans. But, in hindsight, some of his decisions make some comedic sense. Even ditching the orange.
“Some people wondered why he switched from orange and blue (colors) to red, white and blue,” Billy said. “The most obvious (reason) was the affiliation with the Winnipeg Jets and the Washington Capitals. But, my dad and his family were big Cubs fans. Their rival was the Mets, whose colors were blue and orange. And he always hated the fact ‘Met’ was part of the ‘Ko-mets’ name.”
Justin A. Cohn, senior writer for The Journal Gazette, has covered Fort Wayne sports since 1997. He can be reached by email at email@example.com; phone, 461-8429; or fax, 461-8648.