Big hockey in a small town: The AHL returns to Utica

The horn sounds at the end of the final game of the season. “Comets Win” flashes across the jumbotron. Everyone in the 3,815 sold-out crowd is on their feet chanting “U-TI-CA” at the top of their lungs. The Comets retake the ice for a victory lap as the standing ovation continues and the players salute the crowd that has cheered them on relentlessly for the past eight months. Their playoff hopes were dashed just two nights prior, but one would think they had just won the Calder Cup.

If you drive about four hours North of Madison Square Garden on the New York State Thruway you’ll run into a city of less than 62,000 people with a small hockey arena nicknamed the Aud. There isn’t a lot going on in Utica, New York, but an AHL hockey team has finally returned and the city has taken notice. Over one thousand season tickets were sold in the first three days of sales. Fans began lining up at 3:30 a.m. for tickets to the home opener and a line of over 300 wrapped around the Utica Memorial Auditorium by the time the ticket office opened.

When Robert Esche and Frank DuRoss, members of the board of the Utica Comets organization, decided to make another push to get the AHL back in Utica, they wanted to bring the entire professional hockey experience back with it. Aside from the talent on the ice and size of the arena, there are few differences between a Comets game at the Aud and an NHL game at MSG. The jumbotron shows live replays and hosts gimmicks such as “Know Your Comets” and the Kiss Cam. Shawn Smith, a former contestant on NBC’s The Voice, sings the National Anthem. The Aud even has its own pair of Green Men that show up to every home game behind the penalty box to torment the visiting team.

Hockey legend Gordie Howe dropped the ceremonial first puck in front of a sold-out crowd at the home opener and the support continued to grow over the season. An average of 3,416 fans per game passed through the Aud selling over 90% of tickets. There were 18 sellouts, more than the previous AHL team had in its entire six-year tenure in Utica. The fan support for the Comets didn’t stop at the Aud either.

Season ticket holder Tom Walker organized a bus trip to Syracuse for a matchup with the Crunch back in February. He never imagined that interest would be so high when nearly 900 Comets fans took the 50-mile trip across Central New York. “That was by far my fondest memory of the season,” recalls Walker. “It seemed like all you could hear were Utica fans cheering and being mouthy to the home crowd.” The Comets delivered a 2-1 overtime victory proving coach Travis Green’s sentiment, “When the crowd gets going, the Comets get going.”

The support has not gone unnoticed among the players either. “Utica embraced us and we as a team embraced this city,” said Brandon DeFazio, who scored the game-winning goal in Syracuse. “We didn’t leave anything on the table.”

The inaugural season didn’t look very impressive in the standings, but its effect on the city of Utica far exceeded anyone’s expectations. Forward David Marshall summed it up best after that final game: “I know a lot of teams in the Playoffs right now that wish they had our fans to play in front of.” Those fans stood on their feet for over ten minutes that final night at the Aud, but it was a standing ovation 20 years in the making.

***

Professional hockey made its debut in Utica, NY in 1960 when owner Edward Stanley decided to split home games for the Clinton Comets with the Aud. He wanted to increase exposure for the team while also preventing any other team from moving into the area. When the Comets first came to the Aud they only played 12 games a season in Utica, but by the 1969-70 season they were playing over 20 of their 36 games there.

The Clinton Comets were arguably the greatest team in the history of the Eastern Hockey League. They won six regular season championships, the most in EHL history, and tied the record for most playoff crowns with five. They made the playoffs 16 of their 19 years in the league and to this day are the only professional hockey team to win a playoff title on Utica ice. On April 18, 1969, 4,117 fans crammed into the Aud in standing room only sections to watch the Comets beat the Nashville Dixie Flyers 3-2 in Game 7 to win the Walker Cup.

The Clinton Comets would be the last successful team to come through Utica, NY. While the NHL saw major expansion in the late 60s and early 70s, the cost of operating a minor league team skyrocketed. After the EHL dissolved into two new leagues, Stanley reached out to local businessmen to try to save the Comets. Together, they purchased the team for $75,000, renamed it the Mohawk Valley Comets and permanently moved to the Aud.

In the Mohawk Valley Comets’ five-year tenure, they never recorded a winning season and never won a single playoff round. Because of poor performance and lack of interest, the team was put up for sale at the end of the 1976-77 season.  For the first time in 17 years, Utica was without a professional hockey team.

Over the next decade, local businessmen desperately tried to make hockey work in Utica in both the North Eastern Hockey League and the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. No team lasted more than four seasons due to poor attendance, financial problems and lease agreement issues with the Aud. The building had begun to deteriorate and the city of Utica refused to recondition it.

Some good news came to Utica in 1987 when the New Jersey Devils moved their AHL team from Portland, Maine to Utica and renamed them the Utica Devils. A federal grant allowed for renovations at the Aud and provided new locker room facilities, boards and Plexiglas that made it possible to host an AHL team.

In their six-year residency at the Aud, the Devils only had three seasons over .500 and won only three playoff games. Still, it was the highest level of hockey to ever come through Utica. Five members of the Hockey Hall of Fame played or coached for the Devils, including legendary Olympic gold medal-winning coach Herb Brooks. Other notable players included Bill Guerin, Eric Weinrich and Martin Brodeur.

Despite the talent and quality of hockey that the Devils brought to Utica, the organization lost money every year due to poor attendance. “We had the second best league in the world,” said DuRoss. “We had the top development league for the NHL. We just really didn’t grasp how special it was.” New Jersey moved its affiliation to Albany after the 1992-93 season where they thought they the larger population and arena would lead to more financial success.

Twenty years later, thanks to the persistence of DuRoss, the Vancouver Canucks moved their AHL affiliation from Peoria, Illinois to Utica. DuRoss spent 14 months speaking with the AHL office in Springfield, Massachusetts, working with elected officials for funding to improve the Aud, and courting NHL teams whose affiliation agreements were expiring.

On October 11, 2013, 26 years to the day after the Utica Devils played their first game, the AHL was back in Utica. The entire staff was blown away by the initial outpouring of support. “When this place is full, the atmosphere is unlike anywhere else in the league,” stated Adam Banko, director of ticket sales at the Aud and former director for the Albany Devils. “The businessmen down to your blue collar workers all come together to enjoy a great game. They’re really excited about something new.”

***

A lot has changed around the community since Howe dropped the ceremonial first puck. It’s difficult to walk around town without seeing Comets jerseys, hats and bumper stickers on every corner. Over 200 kids joined the Junior Comets hockey its inaugural season and get to skate with the players and participate in special practices. Some of the French-speaking players have visited different high school French classes in the region to lead a class. The players also periodically serve food at the local Rescue Mission and they raised $32,358 in 50/50 raffles and Comets jersey’s auctions for the Mission this season.

The Comets are bringing money to the area in other ways as well. Local businesses have thrived in the area since the season began in October. Gerber’s 1933 Tavern reopened after being closed for the past three decades. Owners Mark and Susan Mojave saw renewed potential in the area and wanted to be a part of it. A few blocks down, Tony’s Pizzeria changed into a full-service sporting venue for the start of the Comets season. They added over 30 flat-screen televisions to their new bar area and turned into Tony’s Pizzeria and Sports Bar.

According to Sam Tornatore, a member of the Comets board, the players, coaches and Comets’ staff are earning approximately $2 million a year. This translates into $1.6 million in disposable income that is being spent in the area without taking into consideration visiting organizations and their fans. There’s also sales tax that’s collected on in-game purchases, hotels, bars and restaurants that benefits the entire county.

“It’s really stimulated the first part of a big wave of development in Utica,” said Tornatore, who also owns Babes Bar and Grill down the street from the Aud. In October, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that six leading global technology companies will invest $1.5 billion to create a “Nano Utica,” making it the state’s second major hub of nanotechnology research and development. This will create over a thousand new jobs in the next couple of years to further expand the region.

“The money people have been spending in this area is hard to fathom,” says Tornatore, referring to a night in early February when America’s Got Talent quarterfinalist Leon Etienne performed a sold-out performance in front of 3,000 people at the Stanley Theater. Meanwhile, just half a mile away, the Comets had drawn over 3,700 to the Aud for a game against the Rockford IceHogs. “Almost 7,000 people going out and spending that kind of money in Utica on the same night. That’s unheard of.”

Next year promises to be even better. They have already sold over 1,000 season tickets for next year with fans lining up at 7 a.m. the morning after the Comets were eliminated from the playoffs. Work has already begun on more suites, box seats, a season ticket holder bar, private clubs and additional parking at the Aud. “Once we accomplish these additions it will open up the door for even more entertainment to come into the area,” added Tornatore. “We’re looking towards concerts, circuses and leisure shows at the Aud.”

DuRoss is amazed at the way the community has responded to the AHL’s return to Utica. “Utica, New York is one of 30 cities in the country that has an AHL team. We wanted to give our community something to be proud of.” Despite a disappointing season in the scorebooks, any one of the 3,815 people at the Aud on April 19th will attest to how proud they truly are. DuRoss brought professional hockey back to Utica, but he never imagined what hockey would bring back to Utica in return.

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