by Nick Mecca | AHL On The Beat
When thinking of a place that could be considered a hockey hotbed, Utica, New York, doesn’t exactly come to mind. When looking at it’s history, it can be argued that the area has one of the richest hockey histories in the country.
Hockey in Utica can be traced back to the late 1920’s and the original Clinton Hockey Club. The club’s rise to fame began in the mid-1950s when the team played in the Eastern Hockey League as the Clinton Comets. The team compiled a 677-513-93 record winning five championships and only missed the playoffs three times in 19 seasons. Among these teams was the famed 1967-68 team that went 57-5-10, a record that will probably never be broken. The team included famed players like Ian Anderson, Dave Armstrong, and head coach Pat Kelly. The team would win two more titles under Kelly’s leadership before fading out to the NY-Penn league after the 1973 season.The area had finally landed an AHL team when it played host to the Utica Devils from 1987-93. The likes of which saw players like Martin Brodeur and Bill Guerin spend some development years in the area. Herb Brooks even spent a year as head coach for the New Jersey affiliate. Despite the team making the playoffs four out of its six seasons, the team never made it out of the first round and were eventually purchased by the Calgary Flames and relocated to St. John, New Brunswick after the 1992-93 season.
Hockey would stay in Utica following the relocation of the Devils, but not long. The city was home to United Hockey League franchises like the Utica Bulldogs, Utica Blizzard, and Mohawk Valley Prowlers. Each team fell victim to relocation and Utica was soon left with nothing.
The departure of the Mohawk Valley Prowlers in 2002 left the city starved of professional hockey. Fans could get their fill from attending Utica College games, often selling out the Utica Memorial Auditorium and consistently leading the nation in Division III attendance, but it was never quite the same. When it was announced in 2013 that the Vancouver Canucks were moving their AHL affiliate to Utica, all of the Mohawk Valley was elated.
The return of pro hockey to the Mohawk Valley breathed new life into an area that desperately needed it. It gave the famed Utica Memorial Auditorium a much-needed facelift and put the arena back on the map. The team narrowly missed the playoffs in their inaugural season only to come back and play for Calder Cup a year later, falling in five games to the Manchester Monarchs. The playoff run gave the fans something to cheer for, something to believe in. The Comets again made the playoffs the following season but bowed out in the first round. This season brought its shares of ups and downs, but the team hasn’t given up yet. Comets don’t go down without a fight as they battle for their playoffs lives heading into the final week.
What really set this incarnation of the Comets apart were the fans. Comets fans stand with their team to the bitter end. Just look at the attendance. The raw numbers won’t wow you, but the consistency and passion will. Ask any Comets player or staff member and they will all tell you the same thing: the atmosphere at The AUD is unlike any other. Players and coaches talk about feeding off the energy of the crowd all the time.
The Aud seats roughly 3,900 for hockey games and the fans fill every single seat every home game. In their first season alone, the Comets sold out 17 of their 38 home games. Now the Comets hold the second longest sellout streak in AHL history. The number of sellouts will stand at 93 consecutive games when the 2016-17 campaign concludes. The official streak solely includes regular season sellouts (78) which dates back to April 10, 2015 and is well within the striking distance of the record of 120 set by the St. John’s IceCaps from October 2011 to October 2014. The streak speaks volumes of how much the fans care for their team, no matter the result on the ice.
The history speaks for itself. The dominance of the Clinton Comets paved the way for professional hockey in the Mohawk Valley. It brought back the hard working, grind it out style of the Clinton Comets, something many fans in the area can relate to. Today’s Comets are the latest chapter in the book of Utica Hockey. Like the teams before them, the Comets hope their story ends with success and longevity for years to come.