Comets a hit as AHL returns to Utica

by Mark Caswell Jr. || AHL On The Beat Archive

Before the night of Oct. 23, 2013, the National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark known as the Utica Memorial Auditorium had spent 20 years without the American Hockey League.

While the building never went hockey-less, it never felt the same without the AHL’s presence.

Thanks to a collective group’s efforts to bring the Vancouver Canucks’ top affiliate to town, this year The Aud once again feels right.

Professional hockey in the Mohawk Valley dates back to 1928 with the debut of the Clinton Hockey Club. The club played at the Clinton Arena, and mixed in some home games at The Aud starting in 1959. However, it was not until 1987 that the AHL made its Utica debut with the Utica Devils.

The argument can be made that the Devils’ top affiliate that called The Aud home was the building’s glory days. And to many, it was. Unfortunately, the Devils’ AHL run in Utica ended in 1993.

Followed by three unsuccessful lower-level professional hockey teams, The Aud’s lone tenant after the 2001-02 season was Utica College, a Division III program. While Utica College built (and continues to build) a big and passionate fan base and collected winning seasons, to many local hockey fans, The Aud was still missing something.

After rumors swirled for months of a possible American Hockey League return to Utica, an announcement on June 14 delivered the news that many Mohawk Valley hockey fans had been waiting on for years. The American Hockey League would return to The Aud, effective immediately.

The news came with much fanfare. A jam-packed Aqua Vino restaurant played host to the press conference that officially rang in the team that would be known as the Utica Comets. Multiple standing ovations pleasantly interrupted the announcement. Not only did those in attendance — and the thousands watching online via webstream — get to see the Comets logo debuted, they also were given a glimpse of the team’s sweaters.

The next day season tickets went on sale at a fast and furious pace. The first four days saw over 1,000 season tickets sold, an astronomical amount that blew away the Comets leadership team.

“One thousand season tickets sold, with our box office being open for under thirty hours, is a great indication as to just how ready Utica, New York, is for AHL hockey,” said team president Robert Esche. “Utica is a hockey town, and the response through ticket sales and social media further solidifies that fact.”

Although the logo and the team name were everywhere throughout Utica over the summer, a lot had to be done before the team could hit the ice in time for the season. The Aud underwent massive reconstruction in just over 90 days. In that time frame, many people worked literally around the clock to get in a new sound system, a brand new state-of-the-art locker room, a new ice chiller, two massive Eversan videoboards, and a new paint job for the inside of The Aud.

The Horton Room — a room dedicated to one of the best hockey players to play in Utica, Bill Horton — was completely redone into a season-ticket-holders-only bar. A new Irish Pub was built in the bottom concourse, another bar exclusive to season ticket holders. Just about everything inside the 55-year-old building saw an upgrade over the summer, right on down to the offices and concession stands.

It is an impressive makeover that isn’t quite done yet. The outside facade will see an upgrade, and eight suites are currently slated to debut for the 2014-15 season as well.

As the summer bore on, pieces of the team started to fall into place. A coach, Travis Green, was named. Pat Conacher, a one-time Utica Devils captain, was added on as the director of hockey operations. Players were signed to Comets contracts at a breakneck pace. The team started to really take form on paper. The excitement level in the community was at a boiling point. Tickets to the Comets’ lone home preseason game sold out in hours, with over 75 fans lining up three hours before they went on sale.

The preseason game, a 4-2 victory over the Adirondack Phantoms, was the first time Mohawk Valley fans were able to see the team in action. The fans showed their appreciation with a raucous ovation as the players took to the ice for both warm-ups, and to begin the game.

Just a few days later, on Oct. 5, individual tickets to Comets games went on sale at 10 a.m. Over 300 fans were lined up around The Aud, with some lining up as early as 3 a.m., to make sure they had their tickets to the home opener. The long awaited day was a success, as players and staff delivered coffee and doughnuts to the fans that lined up in the cold. More importantly, the home opener sold out by the end of the day, promising that the historic home opener would have a packed house.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity but in reality was only 131 days, Oct. 23 arrived in the Mohawk Valley. The historic day, which Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri officially named “Utica Comets Day”, kicked off with a pre-game block party that shut down several streets around The Aud. The party was headlined by the rock band Night Ranger, but also featured a meet-and-greet with hockey legend Gordie Howe, and hockey’s best-known goons, the Hanson Brothers.

After an impressive fireworks display right above The Aud, fans headed inside for their first-ever glimpse of the newly redone “round mound of sound.”

After Gordie Howe dropped the inaugural first puck, and an extensive pre-game ceremony that drew a loud applause, the puck was dropped and the American Hockey League had finally, and officially, returned to the Utica Memorial Auditorium. And what a night it was. The local paper’s headline the next day summed up the previous day’s event in eight perfect words: “It’s A Dream 20 Years in the Making.”

While the fans left disappointed in the score, a 4-1 Comets defeat to the Albany Devils, the birth of a franchise happened that night in front 3,815 fans.

To date, the Comets have only one home win, but what a home win it was. On paper, the Nov. 23 victory over the Rochester Americans looks like your normal, routine 2-0 win. Ask one of the 3,815 fans in attendance that night, and you will get a different story.

“The final two minutes were insane. It was so loud that you couldn’t hear yourself think at times,” said season ticket holder Frank Broadbent. “That is an experience I will never forget.”

The sold-out crowd loudly showed their appreciation for the final two minutes, all the way through the announcement of the three stars, all Comets. The Comets players surely felt the energy, as several of them noted that they had never heard a building that loud.

After the game, equipment manager John Forget, who was with the Hamilton Bulldogs during their championship season in 2007, said, “I have not heard a building that loud since we (Hamilton) won the Calder Cup. That was awesome.”

Despite a rocky start to the season on-ice, the Comets remain an integral part of the community. Everywhere you go in Utica you see a Comets logo, or you bump into a fan who wants to talk about the Comets latest game, or “the hit” — referring to Darren Archibald’s hit that flipped Lake Erie’s Karl Stollery and made national news.

The Comets remain active in the community as well, routinely you will see players at events throughout the 315 area code. The Comets remain a big talking point in the community that has missed AHL hockey over the past 20 years. As with anything in its infancy, the team, both on and off the ice, are growing and will continue to improve. As for the now, the Comets are glad to be here, and Utica is glad the AHL is back where it belongs.