Utica Comets thrive in small market, give city a nice jolt
UTICA, N.Y. (AP) Robert Esche's biggest save of his hockey career has dazzled this blue-collar city.
After a decade without a professional team, the former goalie along with businessman Frank DuRoss have resurrected the hockey ghosts and given this struggling central New York city a nice jolt of optimism.
Say hello to the Utica Comets, the latest incarnation of the pro game in a city that had been starved for a team to call its own.
''I think the Comets have given us the ability to put our hat on something,'' Mayor Robert Palmieri said. ''They've galvanized the city.''
Hockey had taken center stage before in the region, and Esche was well aware of the legacy of the Clinton Comets.
A member of the old Eastern Hockey League from 1954-73, the team was wildly popular, with the old rough-and-tumble action providing the grist for Nancy Dowd and brother Ned to write the screenplay for ''Slap Shot,'' the 1977 comedy starring Paul Newman.
The 1967-68 Comets lost only five times in 72 games under coach Pat Kelly, believed to be the fewest number of losses in a season in the history of modern professional hockey.
The 37-year-old Esche was born too late to witness the wrath of legendary enforcer Ian Anderson, the scoring exploits of Borden Smith, the grace of center Archie Burton, winger Dave Armstrong's hard shot, or the deft touch of captain Jack Kane.
Still, he asked their permission to use the Comets nickname when he was laying the groundwork for the franchise that transformed the Utica Memorial Auditorium into a hockey hotbed. That he has embraced the past has meant the world.
''It's been wonderful, and he's been wonderful to us old guys,'' the 71-year-old Armstrong said. ''He includes us in everything. It's been incredible.''
Esche, who grew up in the Utica suburb of Whitesboro, has had a passion to bring the American Hockey League back since the Utica Devils left town. Utica was the AHL affiliate of the New Jersey Devils from 1987-93, and the city hadn't had a pro team since the Mohawk Valley Prowlers of the United Hockey League went bankrupt in 2001 after a three-year run.
Esche ignored the naysayers and brought the Comets back two years ago.
''Everybody just said what a horrible idea it was. It'll never work,'' said Esche, who had tried once before a decade ago after the Prowlers packed their bags. That venture failed because there were ''just too many people, too many politicians, involved.''
When Esche decided to try again, he kept his plans under wraps. Over nine months he put together a business plan, talked to state politicians, secured a deal with the Vancouver Canucks to get an AHL affiliate, and negotiated a contract with the ''Aud.''
''It's incredible the passion that he has,'' Comets coach Travis Green said. ''It wouldn't have happened if he wasn't from here.''
The long hockey legacy played a part.
Esche never saw tough guy John Brophy, who racked up nearly 4,000 career penalty minutes from 1955-73, a league record, and is believed to be the role model for Newman's character Reggie Dunlop ''Slap Shot.'' But he knows the history.
Brophy and his Long Island Ducks often wreaked havoc in the nearby Clinton Arena, where the original Comets played. No surprise that scenes from the movie were filmed in both Clinton and Utica.
Fighting was in its heyday then, and when the Comets were on the ice, oftentimes the players weren't the only ones to get hit. Since the old rink didn't have Plexiglas atop the boards, fans were fair game for opposing players who, just like the Hanson brothers in the movie, never hesitated to venture into the stands if provoked enough. And when things weren't going well for the home team, fans never shied from tossing the arena's folding wooden chairs at enemy players as they skated past.
''They (the games) were wild,'' Kane, now 79, said. ''There were a lot of chairs thrown on the ice.''
Esche has tapped into that past and made sure it remains an integral part of the hockey experience today. Likenesses of several bygone stars in their playing days adorn the inside of the unique Aud, a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark with a cable-suspended roof and unobstructed seating. And although Anderson died here two years ago, amazingly, Burton, the elder statesman at 83, Kane, Smith, and Armstrong are among a group of seven former Comets who still live in the area and attend nearly every home game.
The Utica Devils made the playoffs four times in the team's tenure in Utica but were eliminated in the first round every time and never attracted more than 2,700 fans, even when Olympic hero Herb Brooks was coach.
Last season, only the current team's second year, the Comets hosted the league all-star game and won the Western Conference title to reach the Calder Cup finals before bowing to Manchester. The team had 26 sellouts in the regular season and every playoff game in the 3,835-seat Aud sold out, too, its raucous fans enjoying what turned into a 99-game season, the longest in the century-long history of hockey in the Mohawk Valley.
''There was never a place to play like that in all of the places we played,'' Armstrong said of the Clinton Arena. ''The fans were right on top of you. A Saturday night in Clinton was like Hockey Night in Canada, but this place here has absolutely come alive.
''I think kind of the same atmosphere has come back here. It's nice to see,'' Armstrong said. ''But I would love to have an old wooden chair that I could just grab if something went wrong. It would be wonderful, I'm telling yah.''
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