Utica Comets President Rob Esche: 10th AHL season ‘special’
The puck is about to be dropped on the Utica Comets’ 10th season in the American Hockey League.
That’s a noteworthy milestone for any team.
It is especially significant considering Utica’s pro hockey history over the last 50 years has included a share of teams to call the city home.
None of those other Utica pro hockey teams have had quite the same level of interest and support as these Comets, who are beginning their second season of an announced 10-year affiliation with the New Jersey Devils. The team was the Vancouver Canucks affiliate for eight seasons. Utica, which has played more than 600 games, is one of the smallest markets among the 32 AHL teams.
“For me, it is special,” said Rob Esche, the Whitesboro native who is the Comets President and President of Mohawk Valley Garden, the group that oversees the team, the Adirondack Bank Center and other properties. “The thing that is really hard not to say is the most proud thing for the area is: The fans. They took to the Comets like what I grew up hearing about with the Clinton Comets. That, to me, has sparked positivity to our area (since June 2013). …
“I think it is the fan base and their eagerness to root on the team through good times and bad. Not every year has been a playoff team. Some years have been terrific years, others not so much. That didn’t really waver with fans. I think that’s something to be proud of. Not just for me, but all of us.”
In 2018, the Comets set the AHL record for consecutive announced sold-out games at the downtown Utica arena, which has undergone a multi-million dollar expansion and modernization project assisted by funds from the state.
Esche said the team has about 3,000 season-ticket holders for the 2022-23 season. That would leave about 900 available tickets for the team’s 36 scheduled home games this season and there’s emphasis on group sales within the organization. There’s also a goal to have the team and players return to being more involved in the community. That’s been hard to do since March 2020 as the team and AHL have navigated through COVID-19-related restrictions, Esche noted.
More: Utica Comets' MacKinnon expects 'competitive' team in 22-23 season
“I really felt when we started this off … I wanted it to be a staple of the community. I really felt the fans wanted the same thing,” said Esche, the former NHL goalie. “Through the years, the fans have driven so much of Utica’s success in the eyes of the AHL and the eyes of the NHL. It is obviously rewarding.”
The Comets are set to begin training camp early next week in Utica. The team opens the regular-season Saturday, Oct. 15 at Hershey before the home-opener, which is set for 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 17. The home opener date is meant as one of many nods to the 35th anniversary of the Utica Devils, which played their first game on that date in 1987 as New Jersey’s affiliate.
“We’re always looking forward,” Esche said. “We’re always trying to re-invent ourselves. We try not to get stagnant to the best of our ability. The 10 years (of Comets hockey) have been pretty powerful.”
Here’s a few other notable topics as the team begins its 10th season:
Utica Devils appreciation
On Tuesday, the Comets revealed a retro throwback jersey to go along with already released plans to honor the Utica Devils.
The jersey features the well-known “U” logo that was worn by the Devils from 1987 to when the first affiliation ended in 1993. The jersey features a white base with green and red accents. Green hockey pants are set to be worn with the uniform, according to the team.
The throwback appeared to be an immediate hit with people on social media.
The jersey, designed by Utica native and VP of Creative Services Eric Kowiatek, is expected to be worn a multiple times throughout the 22-23 season at home games.
“It was such a natural fit based off what Eric has done for us with other jerseys,” Esche said. “For me, it was important that is what Eric wanted to do. He felt strongly about it. We’re doing it only for this year. … We feel strongly about the connection between the New Jersey Devils and Utica.”
Esche said many of the former Utica Devils players will also be honored at games. Last season, legendary goalie Martin Brodeur was at one game.
Affiliation with New Jersey
Esche said he sees the Comets’ affiliation with New Jersey continuing to grow. He noted the organization has many young prospects and the NHL team appears to be improving, which could force some bubble players to the Comets.
He said he has strong relationships with many of the people in New Jersey’s hockey operations, including Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald and assistant GM/Comets GM Dan MacKinnon.
“It makes for easy discussions and candid talk. Everybody knows where everybody is at. It is simplistic in nature,” said Esche, who said he looks up to Comets coach Kevin Dineen. “With Tom Fitzgerald, if either one of us (has a question), we contact each other directly. There’s no beating around the bush. … It is a whole great group of people.”
Nexus Center update
The Comets will be among the teams to have access to Nexus Center, which is under construction next to the Aud. There’s still work left to do.
Esche’s group is set to take control of the multi-purpose sports complex on Friday, Nov. 4. There is a Jr. Comets game planned for Nov. 9 and a tournament set for Nov. 11.
The complex — which has a $63 million price tag — is designed to host hockey, soccer and sports tournaments.
For example, the space gives the Comets, junior Comets team and Utica University hockey teams a place to continue to work and practice if the main arena might be booked for another event.
“It is more ice time for developing for pro, college, junior and youth kids,” Esche said.
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