On Friday, the American Hockey League announced that the Board of Governors had unanimously approved the addition of Utica, NY as an AHL city with a new team joining the league, the Utica Comets, who will be the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks.
Like the Charlotte Checkers, there have been Comets sports teams in and around Utica for a long time, so it was only fitting that the new professional team in town would adopt that name as well. The Clinton Comets first came into existence in 1927, though they didn’t officially adopt the “Comets” name until 1949. Over the years, they played in a number of leagues, including the Eastern Hockey League and ECHL that brought the Checkers great success.
The EHL Comets have another close tie to the Checkers, and that’s Pat Kelly, who after his time with the Comets, coached the Checkers during the 1970’s, and went on to help establish the ECHL and have its championship trophy named after him.
But back to the Utica Comets, and how they came to be the latest addition to the American Hockey League. Here’s how all of this went down… and it didn’t happen exactly how many had speculated early on.
A while ago, the Canucks, who had an affiliation with the Chicago Wolves for the past two seasons, purchased the Peoria Rivermen from the St. Louis Blues. But they never planned to keep the franchise there. The rumors were that the Calgary Flames were interested in moving their AHL team from Abbotsford, British Columbia to Utica New York, and that the Canucks would in turn move their AHL team to Abbotsford. But it didn’t shake out like that. There’s even a Facebook fan page for the “Utica Flames” that has almost 2000 “likes.” Regardless, the small city of Utica has a professional hockey team again, and for that they should be grateful.
The AHL isn’t new to Utica. The Utica Devils found their home there for five years between 1987-1993, and had a few United Hockey League teams since then, but no professional team since 2002. The UHL was a low-level professional league that folded in 2010.
The Comets become the sixth American League team in the state of New York. There are eight teams that are three hours or less by car (or bus) from them (Albany, Binghamton, Glens Falls, Hartford, Rochester, Springfield, Syracuse, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) and at least a half dozen more that are closer to them than the Norfolk Admirals are to the Checkers (Bridgeport, Hamilton, Manchester, Providence, Toronto, Worcester). Needless to say, travel wise, it’s a great place to be in the American League. But is it good for the rest of the league, a league named after this great country, and not just the state of New York? I’m not so sure.
How does this new team affect the Checkers? In the immediate future, it’s hard to tell. It means that with the departure of Peoria as a true-Western city, there’s one less team in the Checkers conference, though since Utica isn’t far from Rochester (a mere 2.5 hours), there’s a good chance they have to remain in the Western conference, though would possibly change divisions.
How will conferences and divisions be broken down? For the most part, the Midwest was largely unaffected even after losing Peoria because Des Moines, IA isn’t that far from most of the other Midwestern teams. But the South Division lost the Houston Aeros, and a potential (heavily rumored) replacement is Norfolk, which would have a harder transition to the travel than the Checkers did simply because they are not in a city with a major airport hub like Charlotte. And a move by Norfolk shuffles the rest of the Eastern Conference until all of the dominos fall into place.
Regardless, with one less team in Texas, no more Peoria, a new team in Iowa and now another team in New York, it’s fairly certain that divisions will be significantly shuffled, and the Checkers could very well find themselves in their fourth division in as many seasons, and at the very least, a new division mate to round out the numbers in the South.
Be prepared… the rest of this might get a little ranty, but the beauty of writing a blog is that it’s ok for my to express my opinions, and I have quite a few on this topic.
Utica is a city of 62,000 people. They have a rink that seats 3,500 people (a little over half the average attendance of the Charlotte Checkers, and a bit over 1/4 of the number the Checkers had this year at some of the big events like Pink in the Rink). Whereas Charlotte has dozens of large corporate headquarters which can turn into significant sponsorship revenue, and a population in the uptown area of as much as all of Utica, which of course can turn into ticket sales, Utica doesn’t have a lot in the way of major corporations that could generate significant revenue.
I think it’s great for the city of Utica for landing a professional hockey team. I’m happy fans there will have their own team, but it seems like a pretty over-saturated market with so many other American League teams in the vicinity. And by allowing one more team into an over-saturated area of the country, the league has further hurt the likes of teams in cities like Charlotte, Abbotsford, St. John’s and Oklahoma City who become even more isolated, and instead of expanding to new markets, have shrunk even more.
I guess only time will tell what is to come of the AHL divisions, and how the Checkers are affected. Until then, there’s still AHL hockey going on! Tomorrow at seven is game six of the Calder Cup finals between Grand Rapids and Syracuse, and it should be a good one!