UC hockey continues to benefit from the Comets

Zach Thomann, Sports Editor

With the addition of the Comets to the Utica Memorial Auditorium in 2013, the American Hockey League affiliate to the Vancouver Canucks has helped spark renovations to the Aud.

After the most recent renovations, which included a redesigned exterior and the addition of suites inside, officials have changed the name of the Aud to the Adirondack Bank Center. The changes have members of the Utica College hockey teams excited for the growth of the venue.

Head men’s coach Gary Heenan says the accommodations to the former Aud have trickled down to the college teams.

“Each of the last few years, we have seen remarkable improvements at the Aud,” Heenan said. “It’s all been very positive for our program.”

In addition to the suites, the venue has also seen improvements in lighting, seating and the video boards within the last few years.

Members at Utica have called the venue the “Aud” since the team began playing there in the early 2000’s, but Director of Physical Education and Athletics David Fontaine respects the decision to change the name.

“Historically, it’s always been the Aud,” Fontaine said. “When you rename a building, you want to respect individuals who have contributed to its growth so we will formally address it by its new name.”

Fontaine says the plan to add on to the Adirondack Bank Center was set a few years ago, and, once there was an opportunity to get funding, officials jumped on it. UC was contacted shortly after the plan was formulated, and Fontaine showed nothing but support.

“Any time you can make renovations or upgrades to your facilities that can be utilized, there is nothing but positives that come from it,” Fontaine said. “It was exciting to see the Aud being worked on and have a finished project.”

Heenan said he has seen a slight dip in attendance since the Comets came to Utica, but the renovations have outweighed the shift in fans. Fontaine was unsure of how the program would be impacted in 2013, but could not be happier with how Comets president Robert Esche has focused on the community.

“Esche has been great to work with, and Utica College continues to be in his plans going forward,” Fontaine said. “He understands the popularity of the program and the success we’ve had.”

In addition to being the president of the Comets, Esche was a Whitesboro native who became a goaltender in the National Hockey League from 1998 to 2007 with the Philadelphia Flyers and Phoenix Coyotes. After his professional hockey career, Esche started multiple businesses in the Utica area, including the Aqua Vino Restaurant and the Mohawk Valley Garden.

Fontaine has also seen a slight decrease in attendance, but believes that Utica College has been the catalyst to creating a fan base for the Comets.

“This is a town that loves hockey,” Fontaine said. “We have been able to provide people something they love during the winter over the years which helped pave the way for the Comets.”

Fontaine said he doesn’t mind sharing fans with the Comets because he believes attendance is driven by a quality product.

“All these renovations became possible because the Comets came to Utica,” Fontaine said. “They gave the Aud the opportunity to expand.”

Members of the hockey teams believe the expansion will only make the team better because it will be another tool they can use for recruiting.

Fontaine thinks the atmosphere during games is a strong selling point for potential athletes in the future.

“This is a top-notch type of promotion for our student-athletes that other places just don’t have,” Fontaine said.

Fontaine is continuing to work with officials at the Aud to drive more fans to the games and thinks the hockey teams are in a great position.

“We are really proud and happy to be playing at the Aud,” Fontaine said. “Utica hockey probably has the best venue in all of Division III hands down, and that was before all the renovations in the past few years.”