The slogan picked for the Utica Comets heading into this season was “a new era begins”, and as the team rings in their brand new chapter, this era is off to the best start that anyone could have hoped for.
It seems as though everything that was once old is new again for the Comets. From 2013 right through to 2019-20, they were the AHL affiliate, or “farm club” if you will, of the Vancouver Canucks. In 2013, the club was newly incepted, opened by a group led by former NHL goaltender Robert Esche, who bought the Peoria Rivermen and re-located them to Utica. Along with the new franchise came an affiliation with the Canucks, and Utica was ready to set up shop in the American Hockey League.
The arena that the Comets were to call home, the Utica Memorial Auditorium, was not up to the AHL’s standards. Constructed in 1959, the building was starting to show signs of aging and that it was in need of a desperate upgrade. It had been home to the Utica Devils, which was the city’s first AHL franchise from 1987 until 1993.
The conditions that existed were no longer adequate. With the promise of a new AHL franchise coming to town, the ownership group, led by Esche was successfully able to secure millions of funding dollars, and “the Aud”, as it was known to locals, was transformed into a state-of-the-art facility. It would also become known as the Adirondack Bank Center resulting from a naming rights agreement with the regional bank.
In sports, franchises move – it’s part of the business. This season, the Vancouver Canucks moved their AHL franchise to Abbotsford, B.C. to no doubt move the team closer to home. To fill the vacated void, the New Jersey Devils moved their farm club to Utica. The blue and green that once adorned the walls of the Adirondack Bank Center are now red and black, with the same applying as well to the uniforms. A new era has indeed begun.
The 2021-22 Utica Comets are off to a 3-0-0 start and currently sit atop the AHL’s North Division. Head Coach Kevin Dineen has his team playing with grit and swagger – similar to the style of his playing days. Offensively, they are led by Alexander Holtz, the rookie sensation from the Swedish Hockey League. The 19-year-old native of Stockholm has amassed three goals thus far on fifteen shots, and so far looks very worthy of being last year’s seventh overall draft pick.
Defenseman Reilly Walsh, former third-overall pick, actively paces the Comets with a team-leading four assists. Alternate captain Brian Flynn has contributed two goals and one assist, with Aarne Talvitie also lighting the lamp twice – one of which was the game-winning overtime goal against the Providence Bruins.
Along with Walsh, the Comets defense corps is led by Robbie Russo and Tyler Wotherspoon. Although he has yet to tally a point, Russo’s veteran leadership on a young Comets blue line is immeasurable, as this season is his seventh in the American Hockey League. Wotherspoon has played parts of four seasons with the Calgary Flames and brings NHL experience to mentor the team’s young defensemen.
Grit, physicality, and energy look like they will be a calling card of the Utica Comets this season, and it comes in the form of Kevin Bahl, Nolan Foote, and Joe Gambardella, among others. At six-foot-six and 230 pounds, Bahl, an Ottawa 67’s alum, uses his size to impose a physical presence all over the ice. Foote, who was acquired by the Devils in the Blake Coleman trade, is a relentless “puck hound” who will not shy away from physical play. Gambardella, who played in the 2019 AHL All-Star Game as a member of the Bakersfield Condors, provides constant energy for the Comets and is part of the team’s leadership group as an alternate captain.
The backbone of this Utica Comets team thus far into this season has been solid goaltending. Nico Daws began the season as the team’s starter and secured a 6-2 opening game win against the Rochester Americans. Daws was recalled to New Jersey in the wake of their goaltending injuries (and won his NHL debut as well), so Utica turned for help to the likes of Akira Schmid. Since taking over as the starting backstop, the 21-year-old backstop has been simply outstanding.
The Comets will play twelve games in the month of November, hosting six on home ice, followed by six on the road.