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Utica Comets' Rob Esche: Outdoor game 'in the cards' in the future

Ben Birnell
Sports writer
email / twitter
Posted 9/28/22

A few years ago, the Utica Comets were planning to be the latest American Hockey League team to head outdoors to play a game.  However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the myriad challenges associated …

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Utica Comets' Rob Esche: Outdoor game 'in the cards' in the future

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A few years ago, the Utica Comets were planning to be the latest American Hockey League team to head outdoors to play a game. 

However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the myriad challenges associated with the health crisis played a substantial role in the “once-in-a-lifetime” outdoor event – known as the Empire State Classic and originally scheduled for early 2021 at Rome’s Griffiss Business and Technology Park – being postponed. The Comets also decided not to have the game in 2022 as the team turned a focus to a smooth transition in beginning a new AHL affiliation with the New Jersey Devils. 

Comets President Rob Esche said this week the goal remains to have the Comets participate in the event in the future. The Empire State Classic was previously described as being like a winter festival with various forms of entertainment.

“It is definitely in the cards down the road,” said Esche, who previously acknowledged that he’s been pushing to host an outdoor game in the Mohawk Valley since at least 2017. “We’re planning on it” but there is work that needs to be done on the planning side.

No date has officially been set or announced for the postponed event that officials hoped would draw approximately 16,000 people to a site on the grounds of Griffiss, which spans about 3,500 acres and was also notably the site of the Woodstock 99 music festival. 

There isn’t infrastructure in place at Griffiss to host the outdoor hockey event, meaning materials would need to be brought into the site, most notably temporary seating for more than 10,000 people. A temporary “stadium” structure with an “NHL-caliber” sheet of ice was part of the original announced plan. 

Esche said there is “significant issues with pricing” on seating since after the event was announced in February 2020. That would have made ticket prices increase substantially for fans attending the event, Esche said. 

“(The price) was something I wasn’t prepared to go with,” he said. 

Esche noted that he and state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-47, have been “working on a solution” on the issue.

Notably, the Empire State Classic got an assist from $345,000 that was earmarked through the state’s Regional Economic Development Council. Esche previously said those funds were key for helping put on the expensive event. 

Esche noted that the state has allowed that funding to be moved ahead for at least “another year or so.”

When the Empire State Classic was announced in 2020, the Comets were set to play the rival Syracuse Crunch in the first AHL outdoor game played in Oneida County. It would be the third AHL outdoor game in New York state. Rochester and Syracuse have both had outdoor hockey games.

The Utica University men’s and women’s teams were also announced as being involved in the Empire State Classic. Other details surrounding the event have not been announced. 

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