The Comets are back.
After more than a decade without professional hockey — and 30 years before that of teams coming and going — the game is returning to the Utica Memorial Auditorium.
After months of rumors and speculation, it was announced Friday that the Utica Comets will play in the American Hockey League beginning this fall as the minor league affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks of the NHL.
And the team will be skating in a refurbished Aud.
Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri, who feels the AHL fits in with his vision of a revitalized Bagg’s Square and Harbor Point development, was passionate in his welcome to the team.
“What a great day for the city of Utica,” he said. “The emotion is overwhelming. … Welcome Vancouver to Utica.”
A key draw for Vancouver was that the state will be pumping $5 million into the Utica Aud — inside and out.
- Infrastructure improvements, including repairing the arena’s façade, updates to the heating and air conditioning systems and electrical upgrades.
- A 400-car parking lot on Whitesboro Street.
- New locker rooms.
- Workout and medical facilities.
- A players’ lounge.
- Upgrades to food service areas.
- A new video scoreboard and luxury boxes.
Additionally, the move to Utica will create 54 jobs, including front office positions, coaches, players, trainers and equipment managers. An additional 34 part-time positions also will be created for the days of games and events.
The new team was introduced with great fanfare at a jam-packed Aqua Vino Restaurant owned by Rob Esche. The former NHL goalie is president of Mohawk Valley Garden, which will operate the team.
The team revives the name of the hugely popular Eastern Hockey League Clinton Comets of the 1950s and ’60s and is the latest in a long succession of pro hockey organizations that have operated in the area since the EHL closed up shop in 1973.
Frank DuRoss of New Hartford — another of the owners of MVG and a long-time operator of minor league hockey, soccer and lacrosse franchises — said he is confident of success despite the troubles of teams over the last four decades.
“We have local ownership,” he said. “You have lifelong residents of Oneida County operating the team. … We have reasonable ticket prices. And we are working hand in hand with Utica College, which will help both teams.”
“The Utica Devils left town (in 1993) and I think the whole area felt down,” he said. “My dream was to bring an AHL team back here.”
The Comets will share the building with a number of hockey programs, including Utica College but Esche does not see a conflict.
“UC hockey is what started this,” he said. “Scheduling will not be an issue.”
Laurance Gilman, the Canucks’ vice president for hockey operations, was asked if Utica might be a stop-gap site for the Canucks, who according to reports in Vancouver media are deeply interested in Abbotsford, British Columbia, the current home of the Calgary Flames’ AHL affiliate.
MVG’s contract with the Canucks is for six years.
Esche acknowledged there is an escape clause but suggested it is heavily weighted in MVG’s favor and something the Canucks would be very reluctant to exercise.
“We signed a multi-year agreement,” said Gilman, who signed Esche to his first NHL contract with the Phoenix Coyotes. “We are deeply committed to be here, and we will ice as great a team as possible.”
Gilman said there is no clause in the deal that would call for the city of Utica to make up financially for any operating losses.
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