The Utica Comets: a long-term fit or a short-term solution?

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Last week the Canucks finalized an agreement with Utica, New York to place an American Hockey League team in the Mohawk Valley. On Friday the deal and the team’s logo and jersey was officially unveiled at a Press Conference in Utica.

Geographically speaking, Utica is far from an ideal spot for Vancouver’s top farm team. But in agreeing to a deal with Utica the Canucks come out net winners on balance. First of all, the club avoided having their AHL affiliate franchise go dormant and dodged a player development nightmare in doing so. Secondly, the club will be in a better position next year – even in Utica – then they were this past season when they reportedly clashed with their Chicago Wolves affiliate over a variety of issues.

Still as more details about the deal emerge, we’re interested in looking forward. What does the affiliation deal between Utica, New York and the Vancouver Canucks tell us about the teams future plans and the future of professional hockey in the Mohawk Valley? We’ll get into it after the jump.

On Friday, the parameters of the deal between Utica, Mohawk Valley Gardens (MVG), and the Canucks remained murky and in truth that’s still the case.

We know that it’s a six year agreement, the length of which – surprise, surprise – precisely mirrors the time remaining on the deal between the Calgary Flames, Fraser Valley Sports and Entertainment (FVSE), and the city of Abbotsford. MVG President, former National Hockey League puckstopper Robert Esche, confirmed to the Utica Observer Dispatch that the agreement has "an escape clause," though he vaguely added that the clause "is heavily weighted in MVG’s favor and something the Canucks would be very reluctant to exercise." Meanwhile Elliott Pap fleshed out this topic further, passing along that "According to [Canucks Assistant General Manager Laurence Gilman, there are mutual outs for both parties at various points throughout the term" of the deal.

In that same Vancouver Sun piece, Laurence Gilman was explicit about Vancouver’s long-term vision for their AHL franchise:

“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."

In addition to the above Laurence Gilman quote, it surfaced this weekend that the Canucks had previously pursued the possibility of locating their AHL affiliate club in Seattle before settling on Utica. Interestingly their need to find a suitable location for their AHL affiliate franchise was overruled by the NHL’s long overdue Phoenix Coyotes backup plan.

Taken together, I think we can safely conclude that cumbersome out-clauses aside, it’s clear the Canucks will eventually look Westward with their AHL affiliate. If the length of their agreement withthe  MVG and the city of Utica implies what I think it does, Abbotsford very probably remains the organization’s first choice.

There’s one more part about the deal that we don’t quite understand yet and that’s how much of the financial risk the Canucks will bear. In advance of the deal’s announcement, it was speculated that the Canucks were looking for a generous package from potential AHL destinations, and it was reported that the club sought one million from Peoria.

It’s not uncommon for American Hockey League teams to run at a loss, though Comets season ticket sales in Utica got off to a strong start this weekend. Still, it’s not clear at the time of this writing whether or not the Canucks worked out some sort of deal whereby any losses sustained by the Comets would be covered by either some layer of government or a third party organization.

Laurence Gilman, for example, noted to the Vancouver Sun that, "the Canucks won’t “bear the risk” financially if the Comets don’t generate enough revenue to meet obligations." Elsewhere Gilman is paraphrased by the Utica Observer-Dispatch that "there is no clause in the deal that would call for the city of Utica to make up financially for any operating losses." While it superficially sounds like Gilman is contradicting himself, the fact is, those statements are in no way incompatible. It seems possible that the Canucks won’t "bear the risk" in this agreement and also that the city of Utica isn’t responsible to cover a possible operating deficit.

I have no theory on what’s actually going on with this, beyond a sense that if public funds were being committed in this manner, we’d almost certainly have more information about such an agreement. For example, we know that New York State is committing five million dollars in funding to upgrade the Utica Memorial Auditorium ("The Aud"). According to New York Governor Cuomo’s office, upgrades will include:

Infrastructure improvements include enhancing the arena’s façade, HVAC updates, and electrical system upgrades. Additionally, the resources will be used to construct new locker rooms—both home and away, a work out facility, medical facility, players’ lounge, upgrades to food service areas, a new video scoreboard and hospitality club boxes.

Nowhere in the release from the Governor’s Press Office does it touch on the state guaranteeing to cover any losses. As such, I’d suspect that if the Canucks are in fact protected from covering any deficit in the club’s operating budget, that it would be done through a private agreement with some type of third party. But that’s just a suspicion based on the reasoning I’ve laid out. I suppose we’ll have to keep our ears to the ground for more details.

What are your thoughts on the Utica Comets agreement? Are you excited to see how the Canucks manage an AHL affiliate team, now that they’re in full control of the hockey operations?

  • I don’t believe there is any guaranteed revenue coming to the Canucks by any local governments in Utica or the State of New York. While not going into the full details Frank DuRoss one of the local investors here in Utica explained how the agreement works in a radio interview today.

    The local investors formed a corporation named Mohawk Valley Garden to operate the Utica Comets. Vancouver will manage the hockey side of the operation by providing all of the players and coaching staff. Mohawk Valley Garden (MVG) will run all of the business side of the Utica Comets. MVG will pay the Vancouver X amount of dollars per year for the affiliation agreement. That is what isolates Vancouver from any operating loss – assuming the affiliation agreement covers all of the cost of the hockey side of the operation.

    So it is up to MVG to generate enough revenue to cover the cost of the affiliation agreement with Vancouver plus what ever operating cost the Comets have locally.

    So when you think about it Vancouver now controls 100% of the hockey operation and how their prospects are developed. Something they didn’t have in Chicago….plus they are not burdened with having to manage the business side of an AHL team. From the Utica perspective the local owners who are closer to the community get to run the business side without having to manage the hockey side of the equation. Sounds like a win-win type of arrangement.

    • khlhfs

      Informative, thanks for sharing with us! I wonder ultimately how the team will do considering the major league affiliation though. Like in Abbotsford, Canucks and the fans of various teams throughout NY state aren’t exactly compatible. I don’t know if you can say there’s any bad blood remaining between the NYR and Vancouver, but I still wonder how interested people will be to watch the farm team of Vancouver prospects.

      • Mantastic

        There are a lot of Rangers fans in the Utica area but we are a 4.5 hour drive from NYC. We are actually much closer to Buffalo (3 Hrs) so there are a lot of Sabres fans here mixed in with Devils, Islanders and Bruins.

        If you were putting a Vancouver farm team in one of the NYC suburbs than it might be an issue but not so much up where we are. I expect the Utica fans to embrace this team as their own and the Comets name has a lot of history here.

        An eastern team would have been nice in that you can follow the players easier on TV when they get called up to the big club but we do get CKWS out of Kingston, ON on our local cable system so we do get Hockey Night in Canada.

  • @UticaHockey wonderfully informative thank you (and sort of what I was picking around the edges of in my reasoning in this piece).

    What radio station did this occur on? I’ll contract the producers and ask for a podcast.