The Daily Gazette
The Locally Owned Voice Of The Capital Region

AHL comes to Utica

Well, it’s official. The AHL is returning to Utica next season.

I’ve said before that I didn’t think this would happen, but looks like it’s a reality now that the league’s Board of Governors unanimously approved the relocation of the Peoria Rivermen to Utica under the ownership of the Vancouver Canucks.

The Canucks had been operating the Chicago Wolves, but purchased the Peoria franchise from the St. Louis Blues this spring. The rumor was Vancouver would move the Peoria club to Abbotsford, assuming of course that the Calgary Flames would move the Abbotsford Heat to Utica.

Calgary, which is guaranteed a profit by the city of Abbotsford (the city pays the difference every year when it falls short of that profit, which, as I understand, is a regular occurance), so the Flames had no intention of moving.

Vancouver instead moved the Peoria club to Upstate New York and changed the name. They will be the Utica Comets, and though no division/conference realignment has been announced, it has got to be in the cards.

The Comets will play in the Utica Memorial Auditorium, which is where the New York State Public High School Athletic Association plays its state final four each year, and where the Utica College hockey teams play their home games.

The club will be under the management of Mohawk Valley Garden, led by former AHL, NHL and U.S. Olympic goalie Robert Esche and former AHL owner Frank DuRoss.

“The city of Utica has a rich hockey history and a passionate fan base,” said AHL president and CEO David Andrews in a news release. “We welcome the Comets to the American Hockey League and look forward to returning to the Mohawk Valley.”

So now it actually IS a done deal. I was doubtful back in the early spring when the Utica Obsserver-Dispatch blog was calling it a done deal that the Flames were bringing their AHL team to town for a 10-year contract. Turns out, I had reason to be doubtful.

The AHL release did not disclose the terms of the contract between the Comets and the Aud. I would be willing to wager, though, that the deal is not for 10 years. At the very least, not without opt-out clauses arranged after two or three years.

Don’t get me wrong. I am glad for the people of Utica, glad they will have great hockey in their town. And I hope they can keep it there.

The Aud seats 3,800 for hockey, according to the arena’s website. While that’s only 60 fewer than the Albany Devils averaged this season, it still means they’d have to sell out every night to be 28th out of 30 teams in attendance, using this season’s numbers. This season, Peoria averaged 5,027.

Maybe selling out will go a long way toward paying the bills in a smaller arena. What pays the bills more, though, is advertising. Especially in the first year or two, it may be a challenge for the business department to attract advertisers, but hopefully, they can lure in enough of them to keep the club at least close to the black. Or at least enough to pay for the flights that will have to carry recalled prospects and reassigned prospects across the continent.

Back to the arena, it will be interesting to see what renovations they make. The Observer-Dispatch reports the state made an investment to help with the costs. Locker rooms will have to be improved and a video scoreboard installed.

I sincerely hope they make it work. It would be nice to see it work and see them keep another AHL team in Upstate New York.

Follow @Bill_Cain_ on Twitter. Follow @dgazettesports on Twitter.

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