In Utica, AHL team can coexist with Division III attendance leader, officials say

Professional hockey is returning to Utica, N.Y., but those involved with the top-drawing Division III men’s hockey team say it will be a benefit, not a detractor, for their program.

The Utica Pioneers have played at the Utica Memorial Auditorium since the school added the teams in 2001, gaining a following for men’s games to the point where they have led Division III in attendance for the last seven seasons.

Next season, they will share the Aud with the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL affiliate. The Utica Comets were unveiled on June 13 after months of rumors surrounding the arrival of an AHL team for the first time since the Utica Devils left in 1993.

The Pioneers helped fill the void left by the Devils. Will the Comets replace the Pioneers in terms of scheduling and fan interest?

Gary Heenan, the only head coach the Pioneers’ men’s team has known, said he welcomes the Comets to Utica.

“Our players are excited to have the team coming in,” Heenan said. “A chance to play in front of their staff each and every day just might provide an opportunity for one of our guys down the road.”

Todd Hutton, the president of Utica College, said he believes that having a professional hockey team back in Utica will help not only the men’s and women’s teams but the city of Utica as a whole.

“I believe the Canucks’ AHL team will provide additional family entertainment and will benefit our restaurants and hotels,” Hutton said. “With a truly cooperative relationship between UC and the new AHL team, I am very enthusiastic about the possibilities for creative programming that could distinguish Utica, N.Y., from the other cities that host AHL teams.

“We have an opportunity to do something truly unique and positive with a cooperative relationship between an AHL team and Utica’s NCAA women’s and men’s teams. I am especially interested in enhancing opportunities for our women’s hockey team and for girls’ hockey within our communities, which often are overlooked.”

The Utica Memorial Auditorium will undergo renovations with $5 million in state funding. But some in Utica have voiced concerns that the Comets will not be able to stay in Utica long and that all of the time and money spent by the city and state could be for nothing.

Ray Biggs, the play-by play announcer for the Utica Pioneers, is cautious but optimistic about the Comets being successful in Utica.

“First of all, I believe that the odds are not great, but it is not impossible for this to succeed under the right circumstances,” Biggs said. “But the franchise and the community will have to make all of the right moves for the AHL to even have a chance of succeeding. Not even guaranteed success, but a chance that this will be a productive relationship on the city’s end.”

Biggs said the Comets have to set ticket prices so families can afford them. The weakened economy in Utica is a main concern and has some people skeptical that professional hockey can succeed there.

As for the college teams?

“As far as UC is concerned, I think that attendance could dip slightly in the short term when the franchise sets down its roots because people are just inherently attracted to new things,” Biggs said. “But where Utica College could benefit is in the long term, and simple economics will justify where I am going with this.

“Just because people can buy tickets during the first few months doesn’t mean that they can sustain it. Eventually, the luster wears off and we may be left with an Abbotsford-type situation, and that’s where UC picks up right where it left off and comes away a winner because of the millions of dollars in upgrades they will receive, but won’t pay much for.”

The Utica Memorial Auditorium has a seating capacity of 3,800. Over 500 Comets season tickets quickly sold after they went on sale June 15, which surprised even team officials.

Mark Laible, who sells merchandise at Pioneers home games, said he thinks that the Comets will be successful in Utica and that the Comets and Pioneers will be able to coexist.

“There’s no reason to not think having an AHL franchise in Utica will benefit the entire Central New York region,” Laible said. “From an entertainment and economical standpoint, sports fans now will have another avenue to spend quality time with friends and family.”

The location will help both parties, he said.

“This region is a hockey crazed hotbed,” Laible said. “Students and season ticket holders will continue to support UC hockey. It’s a winning program with deep roots within the community. Think of a second hockey team in the Mohawk Valley this way: People who enjoy ice cream don’t eat just one flavor but find many flavors appealing.”

The Canucks believe that their relationship with Utica will be for the long term. The franchise has signed a six-year lease with the city, which means that all parties believe that pro hockey in Utica will be around for a while.

John Ryan, a longtime goal judge at Pioneers games, said he thinks it’ll work.

“Given that two high-profile, reputable local businessmen [Rob Esche and Frank DuRoss] are behind the operation, I am confident that things will be done right,” Ryan said. “The biggest factor in the demise of the Devils/Bulldogs/Blizzard/Prowlers I believe was poor management decisions in the front offices.”

The Utica Pioneers’ men’s and women’s teams already have their schedules set for 2013-14, so the Comets will not affect their schedule. In fact, even if the Comets stay long-term, the Pioneers’ schedule being altered in the future is not likely.

“The AHL will have no impact on our schedule,” Heenan said. “The local ownership group has agreed to lock in our dates well in advance of the AHL schedule release.”

Both sides are optimistic they can work together to benefit each other and the city of Utica.

Biggs spoke with the Canucks’ assistant general manager, Laurence Gilman, at the Comets’ news conference about the scheduling.

“I haven’t really thought about it. I would assume that at some point we will sit down with them [the Pioneers], take a look at their schedule and what their needs are, and see how we can accommodate them,” Gilman said to Biggs.

Heenan, who led the Pioneers to the NCAA tournament for the first time last season, said he’s excited for the upcoming year.

“We have been working together with this group for about six months on forming a partnership. It is an exciting project,” Heenan said. “I think this group will be creative in their marketing efforts and have a great shot at staying here in Utica.”