Utica Comets Fans Don’t Fear AHL Realignment
—by Jay Flemma, Special to Facewash Magazine—
The AHL will look more radically different next season than it has it its 80 year history. Five western NHL franchises will move their AHL affiliates to California for the 2015-2016 season, forming a Pacific Division of the Western Conference. Here’s what the realignment will look like:
TEAM PRESENT AFFILIATE 2015-16 CITY
San Jose Sharks Worcester Sharks San Jose
Anaheim Ducks Norfolk Admirals San Diego
Los Angeles Kings Manchester Monarchs Ontario
Edmonton Oilers OKC Barons Bakersfield
Calgary Flames Adirondack Flames Stockton
Citing economic reasons for the expansion – fewer cross country flights and having parent teams closer to their top prospects – the league also expends into new markets and becomes truly continental, spanning from coast to coast, and from Baja to Bangor. It also opens up wider markets for merchandise sales, growing the game not just geographically, but financially as well.
Speculation in both the Denver and Los Angeles press warned that Utica might be next on the chopping block as Vancouver and Utica are as close to one another as Moscow, Russia is to Khartoum, Sudan or Bombay, India. These same outlets also predict the demise of the Lake Erie Monsters since, in their eyes, the team isn’t selling as many tickets as it might and like Utica and Vancouver, the distance between the two cities is fairly significant.
But rumor loves to make the hearer’s flesh creep, and Denver and L.A. writers are being alarmist. Neither the Monsters nor the Comets are going anywhere for the short term…for a whole raft of reasons.
First, both Utica and Lake Erie have long term deals with their NHL parents.
“I saw those reports, and I had to wonder where the got their information,” explained Comets beat writer Don Laible. “The Avalanche have a few years left on a multi-year deal with Cleveland, and the Comets are in the second year of a six year deal with Vancouver.”
Moreover, Laible went on to echo what many on the Vancouver organization and the entire AHL have come to understand – Utica is in the heart of the AHL, both literally and metaphorically. There are five teams within two hours and over half of the league within four-and-a-half, and Utica is right in the middle of it all. By comparison, Califormia is a huge state. Some of the distances between the cities in the new division are certainly not a quick drive. San Diego, for example, is seven-and-a-half hours away from both Stockton and San Jose by road when there’s no traffic, but there’s usually horrible traffic in California. Los Angeles alone is the second-worst city for traffic in the USA, behind only the mind-boggling, nerve-rattling mess in Washington, DC.
But additionally, Utica has become the darling of not just the AHL, but the entire hockey world. The team that started by losing it’s first ten games rallied late last season to make a playoff run. And this season they have been at or near the top of the Western Conference since the start of the season. They went an amazing 7-0-3 in December alone. They not only hosted the AHL All-star game, but they earned Head Coach Travis Green head coaching honors for the game. By all accounts – unanimously – Utica showed the hockey world a phenomenal time for the entire weekend. The plucky, feisty Comets have been a feel-good story right out of Walt Disney script. They have been all the parent Canucks could have asked and then some. Minimum competence in this gig is a competitive team and a good farm system. The Comets win, fill the Aud every night, sell lots of merch, put a whole city on their back and hosted the swinging-est party of the AHL year!
Boy, talk about sending your dog out for the paper and your slippers and having him come back with a steak and a blonde!
When asked about the ambiance of the Aud and the fan support Canucks president Trevor Linden gushed gratefully and sincerely.
“It was tremendous…it was really special….so well supported by the community. It’s a great rink and a great atmosphere. It reminds me of Bull Durham and Triple-A baseball.”
It’s an electric scene night after night. There’s the Green Men torturing the enemy players that get sent to the penalty box by twerking in their face, just like in Vancouver, (only in Utica they wear blue shorts and hats too). There’s the rowdy, upbeat, vocal crowd. And there’s the chant…that flippin’ chant…the one that has to drive the opponents apoplectic when it starts ringing intheir ears…
U! TI! CA! U! TI! CA!
It’s old time hockey and it’s the modern game perfectly meshed. All times are one, and with the right kind of eyes you can see lines of Jack Kane, Jeff Madill, and Cal O’Reilly subbing info Bill Bannerman, Tim Lenardon, and Hunter Shinkaruk.
So it makes perfect sense for Canucks to keep the affiliate in Utica. Besides, it works perfectly for forming an all-New York State Division…perhaps the Empire Division: Utica, Binghamton, Syracuse, Albany, and Rochester. Indeed, Syracuse Crunch Head Coach Rob Zettler was fully behind it when asked about the idea at the Frozen Dome Classic at the Carrier Dome in November.
“I’d love to see the two teams play more often. It’s a great rivalry,” he said. “They could work very well in the same division.”
Comets front office officials were equally supportive.
“It seems to make a lot of sense,” said Comets Director of P.R. Mark Caswell, and it does. With three Eastern Conference teams moving west – Worcester, Norfolk, and Manchester will all become Pacific Division teams – moving Utica and Rochester into the Eastern Conference works perfectly, so much so that it’s hard to say no to the idea.
And then the rivalries, already fierce, would go thermonuclear.
“You think we hate Syracuse now?” asked Comets superfan Rodney Zilla. “Wait they get a load of us for 10 games! They’ll have to build a wall between the two cities!”