VANCOUVER - The mayor of Utica, N.Y., is bullish on having the Vancouver Canucks operate their American Hockey League franchise in his city and is fairly confident the team will be well supported if the franchise does indeed land there.
“Utica definitely has hockey in its blood,” mayor Robert Palmieri said Tuesday in a phone interview. “Utica is a hockey town and it's been that way for years and years and years. I think, quite frankly, bringing in another AHL team makes a tremendous amount of sense. I think Vancouver and Utica would be just a perfect marriage for great hockey in this area.
“I'm very optimistic. We are a city on the rise and I think there is a lot of interest in hockey. Behind the scenes, we've been working diligently for multiple months and I'm very encouraged. I think it would be outstanding for civic pride for Utica to have another AHL team.”
Utica, in upstate New York, has been without an American League franchise since the New Jersey Devils left in 1993 after a six-year run. Since then, Utica has been home to lower-level teams called the Bulldogs, Blizzards and Mohawk Valley Prowlers, the latter operating until 2001 in the United League.
Currently, the main hockey tenants in the 4,000-seat Utica Memorial Auditorium are the Utica College Pioneers, an NCAA Division III school. According to assistant athletic director Gil Burgmaster, the Pioneers averaged roughly 3,800 per game and sold out more than half of their 17 home dates. Ticket prices are a bargain basement $5 for adults and $2 for school children. Utica College students get in for free with their student identity cards.
“We're well followed by both the community as well as students,” noted Burgmaster. “It's a good mixture.”
By contrast, AHL prices, in Abbotsford for example, are $40 at the high end and $15 at the low end.
“If you present a good product, people will come,” stated Mayor Palmieri. “As far as putting people in the seats, I think Vancouver is going to have a great product and I don't see any problems what-so-ever in generating the revenue that's needed to facilitate an AHL team, specifically Vancouver,”.
The mayor wouldn't say, however, that the tax-payers of Utica would be willing to cover any losses the Canucks might incur if things don't go as well as planned.
“I would have to say 'no' at this point simply because where they would be playing is a regional facility,” he explained. “The Utica Memorial Arena is a regional facility so they would be negotiating with that facility, not the city of Utica.”
Utica, once a thriving textile town of 100,000, has a population of roughly 62,000 but Mayor Palmieri says there are “maybe” 200,000 in the Mohawk Valley area from which to draw fans. From a geographical standpoint, Utica is well situated in the American League. Syracuse is less than an hour away. Albany is a 90-minute drive. Binghamton and Rochester are approximately two hours away.
The closest airport is in Syracuse, the second closest in Albany.
The Canucks had been hoping to place their farm team in Abbotsford but no deal could be struck to have the Flames relocate the money-losing Heat. American League officials have given the Canucks until June 14 to settle the matter.
Canuck assistant GM Laurence Gilman, who has been charged with the task of finding a home for the orphaned franchise (formerly the Peoria Rivermen), remained largely silent Tuesday on how things were progressing.
“We were given an extension by the American Hockey League to find a location for our team and we're continuing to explore potential cities,” Gilman said. “It is still our intent to operate a farm team in the league next year.”
John Pitarresi has been covering sports in Utica for 40 years and says the departures of previous professional teams have all been financially related. He would not hazard a guess whether an American League team would do any better this time around, noting that the Utica Devils never broke 2,800 in average attendance during their six seasons.
“You know what? I really do not know,” said Pitarresi, who works for the Observer-Dispatch. “I do know that pro hockey has been problematic here in the past.”
Like everyone else in Utica, arena manager Will Berkheiser would like to be informed whether pro hockey is indeed coming back. An AHL team would add 38 regular-season dates, plus playoffs, to his calendar. Right now, in addition to Pioneers hockey, the building hosts circuses, monster trucks, cheerleading competitions, concerts, school hockey tournaments and graduations, among other events.
“We do pretty much everything that comes down the pike and there is not a bad seat in the house,” Berkheiser said. “The building opened in 1959 and we're constantly upgrading it a little bit at a time. I have heard the rumours for months about an AHL team. Now I am waiting to see what happens. Me and my staff.”
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