VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Canucks helped welcome the Utica Comets to the world of the American Hockey League Friday.
Comets is the nickname chosen by local interests for the Canucks' new AHL affiliate in upstate New York, which is in the breadbasket of minor-league hockey but many travel hours and three time zones away from Vancouver.
The Canucks and the Mohawk Valley Garden group, led by former NHL goalie Robert Esche, signed a six-year agreement Friday. Canucks assistant general managers Laurence Gilman and Lorne Henning both attended the news conference at the Aqua Vino Restaurant owned by Esche, a Utica native. The Canucks had been seeking a home for the franchise since purchasing the Peoria Rivermen two months ago from the St. Louis Blues.
“When we began this endeavour, our original intent was to have our farm team play in B.C. as an extension of our brand,” Gilman said from Utica. “When that wasn't available, we began to explore other options and we went through an exhaustive search looking at potential locations. The reason we chose Utica is that it is very much in the heart of the American Hockey League.
“There are five franchise within a two-hour drive from Utica — Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Wilkes-Barre and Adirondack — and when you have a team located in the heart of the American League, you get so much more practice time than you do when the team is based in the west,” Gilman added. “A team in the west may have as many as 70 hotel nights, which is 70 times when you're not able to practise. That is a substantial in terms of practice time, which impacts development.”
According to Gilman, there are mutual outs for both parties at various points throughout the term. He also noted the Canucks won't “bear the risk” financially if the Comets don't generate enough revenue to meet obligations. The aging 4,000-seat Utica Memorial Auditorium, built in 1959, will be upgraded with $5 million in renovations both inside and outside the building.
“There will be a new 7,200-square foot dressing room that will include workout facilities, coaches offices and a classroom in addition to other amenities that a team needs,” Gilman explained. “The visiting team dressing room is also being re-done as well as some other upgrades with respect to concessions and other things (scoreboard, luxury boxes).”
Gilman insisted travel from Utica to Vancouver won't be that large of an issue.
“It's not a big deal, honestly,” he said. “Fifty per cent of the time the Canucks are going to be on the road and 50 per cent of the time the Utica Comets are going to be on the road. My experience with having to deal with farm teams on the East Coast is that there are rarely problems getting players from the minor-league team to the NHL team, particularly because you can use the three-hour time change to your advantage.
“Where it can be problematic sometimes is getting a player back to the minor-league team for a 7 p.m. game in the East.”
As far as a coach for Utica is concerned, Gilman admitted it's not a given that Scott Arniel will be the man even though he's under contract to coach the Canucks’ AHL affiliate for two more seasons.
“Things are currently in a state of flux as we choose a new head coach for the Canucks and that's our priority right now,” Gilman stated. “Nothing has been determined with the composition of our coaching staff at the NHL level or the American League level.”
Arniel has interviewed for the Canucks’ head coaching position and may also be in consideration for NHL assistant coaching jobs.
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