The very notion that the American Hockey League would return to Utica was farfetched. The Utica Devils weren’t exactly a rousing success, despite a pretty impressive cast. But the game was in a different place back in the 1990s and that place had no room for a building with seating for less than 4,000. Ownership, for which development of players was more important than development of a local fan base, didn’t help. It hurt badly. Then came Mohawk Valley Garden, a group of local investors who had the, well…let us say testosterone, to buy into the idea of a local guy who also happened to be a former NHL goaltender. The history is still in the making, but so far it has been amazing.
That Robert Esche had an idea to bring back pro hockey to the Mohawk Valley is only part of the story. The concept went beyond just hockey but was connected to a dream to revitalize a community. That Esche was a generation removed from so many who could be described as naysayers was a help to his efforts, but it what he was seeking to do would need a great deal of support from others – including those who might think it an effort unlikely to succeed.
One by one, things began to come together. The 21st century AHL was different place. It had absorbed the IHL years ago, the game presentations were grand and more NHL teams recognized the value of their own minor league franchises. But, that was the situation in Utica and the AHL before and that did not go well. But, under the Esche idea, the operation of the team would be run by the local folks with the operation of the on ice product run by the parent team. There was franchise movement taking place in the league and opportunities opened up. Then, due to events unfolding almost three thousand miles away, it looked as though those doors were closing. But, as the old saying goes…as one door closes, another opens and when the door to the AHL opened in walked the Vancouver Canucks and the Utica Comets.
The reception was greater than ever expected, season ticket sales were better than any local pro hockey team had sold before. But the start on the ice was far from what was hoped for. In the first ten games of the season the Comets only points were for a shootout loss to Syracuse and an overtime loss to Abbottsford. Finally, in the eleventh game of the season, the Utica Comets got their first win. It was fitting that it was a one goal win because 40 of the Comets 68 games played so far this season have been decided by a single goal. Somewhere, someone keeps stats on things like this in the AHL and I cannot imagine that the number of one goal games in a season for a team is much greater than 40.
For fans, it seemed like love at first sight. Although the team was winless in the first ten, the Comets did not give up, worked hard and kept the respect of the local fans. It paid off. The team battled to above 500 and, with just a handful of games left to the regular season, they are still very much in the hunt for a post-season berth.
The math may not be favorable and this edition of the Comets may not be able to play beyond the regular schedule, there is no doubt that this has been the start of something big.