The team has played a big role in the revitalization of Utica, N.Y., (population 62,235) and a “Rust Belt” city if there ever was one, helping pump $20 million into their home ice, Adirondack Bank Center (“the Aud” which opened in 1960 and seats 3,860), anchoring businesses in their business district and even leading the 169,400 square foot, $60 million Nexus Center community center project, currently under construction adjacent to the Aud.
Mohawk Valley Garden, Inc., not only leases the team from Canucks Sports & Entertainment, the owners of their NHL parent Vancouver Canucks, but it also manages the arena, runs the concessions company and owns the building’s other sports tenant, the MASL Utica FC. The company also owns three restaurants either in the arena or very close by.
Team president Robert Esche, the Utica native who spearheaded efforts to bring an AHL franchise to his hometown, has helped the organization successfully meet and overcome numerous challenges. “There was a lot of doubt this team could be viable here, basically we had to beg, borrow and scrape to make it happen.”
Seven seasons in, Esche proudly tells TMR that the team helps drive $26 million in annual economic impact to his hometown.
Prior to his time with the Comets, Esche played goalie for 10 years for the NHL‘s Arizona Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers, plus four more years in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and one year in Switzerland with the Swiss Elite League (NLA). He also minded the net for the U.S. in multiple Ice Hockey World Championships, at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and the 2006 Torino Olympic Games.
All that is to say, the guy has faced high-pressure situations. What is his take on this unprecedented shutdown?
“This is the fight of our lives, for sure,” he explains while he takes a brief break from writing Thank You notes. (More on that later.)
What guides him right now?
“To be honest, you just want to make sure you’re doing right–right by the community, right by our fans, right by our staff,” adds Esche. “We are working to survive, and by doing the right thing, we will make it through, and we will make this community proud.”
— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) March 16, 2020
On Mar 11, 2020, life was pretty good for the Comets.
Yes, they had their three-game wining streak snapped that night by the Syracuse Crunch in a 3-1 loss at the Aud. But they were still in third place in their division, two points out of second place with 15 games to go in the regular season.
Better yet, the game marked the team’s 200th consecutive sellout. The team had shattered the old AHL record of 120 sellouts in Oct 2018 and everything pointed to the Comets continuing the streak through the regular-season and–hopefully–deep into the Calder Cup playoffs.
By the morning of Mar 12, COVID-19 was unavoidable, dominating the news, social media and all conversations at work. The NBA had already shut down their season, and Esche knew things were going to be very different–and very uncertain.
As the operator of not just the Comets, but the arena, concessions and Utica FC, Mohawk Valley Garden and Esche are responsible for about 50 full-time staff and another 420 part-time staff.
To put on games without fans would mean the vast majority of employees would have their jobs eliminated.
“We gathered up the staff and I wanted to be as honest about the situation as possible,” explains Esche. “It was important to let everyone know and be upfront and lay it out, ‘Guys, here’s the reality of this–we’re going to stick with employees as long as we can, but we have got to rethink how we operate and how we act.’ Basically, this is the space for us to be entrepreneurs.”
The situation was changing by the minute, however. By early afternoon, the NHL announced the suspension of play with the AHL following suit shortly after that, and suddenly everything was completely up in the air.
At the same time, staff kept busy brainstorming ideas on what they could do for fans, for staff and for the community that had been so supportive.
Cecelie Pikus, the Comets VP of Marketing, came to Esche with the idea to sell unique t-shirts as a fundraiser for staff displaced by the sudden shutdown.
They called up Brent Riley, owner of Graph-Tex, a Cortland, N.Y., apparel design and customization company and a team supplier for the last four years, and explained the concept. Riley immediately committed to help in any way he could, charging only cost for the shirts and printing them for free.
Next, Esche gathered the troops again to kick around ideas, with the goal of creating something viral–definitely no pun intended–to catch people’s attention and generate as many dollars as they could.
That’s when lightning struck.
In a lighthearted moment, Joe Roberts, the team’s broadcaster, blurted out “Puck the virus!”
Much needed aughter filled the room.
“It was exactly how we felt,” says Esche with a chuckle. “We talked about it some–were we thinking about this the right way? We wanted to make sure we were not being insensitive to the situation. But this was so perfect. We decided, ‘seriously, screw this thing!'”
As they discussed pros and cons, Erik Kowiatek, Comets VP, Creative Services, went to work. He laid out the text in the team’s font, using the Comets’ existing secondary “U” (for Utica) logo to replace the “U” in “PUCK,” and the design quickly took shape.
A little more than 24 hours later, the team was scheduled to play another sold out home game Friday night against the Belleville Senators–the division’s first place team just eight points ahead of the Comets in the standings.
Instead of a puck drop at 7:01pm, however, the team dropped Puck the Virus t-shirts for sale on the team’s website or their special URL, www.puckthevirus.com. The first social media post featured Roberts and in-game host Alicia Daddario. It was kept simple–one-color, white t-shirt all sizes $25.
— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) March 13, 2020
The shirts immediately gained traction. Players all posted pictures of themselves modeling shirts. Soon national outlets like NHL Network, NPR, Yahoo! Sports and NBC Sports were picking up the story. Olympians, NHL players and celebrities all jumped in to show their support.
More than 1,500 shirts were sold in a little over five days. And as of the morning of Mar 23, sales had surpassed 1,700.
“Every order helps boost the morale of the staff,” Esche says. “And to see orders from Hawaii, Alaska, every Canadian province, Vegas, California…it’s just so great to see this support.”
One problem? “Once it went national, I thought ‘Oh no, now the pressure’s on–we can’t screw this up!” laughs the man who faced down slapshots from the world’s best hockey players.
At first, with about 75 percent of staff already working from home, a skeleton staff of around a dozen people answered calls and kept the arena secure. A handful of those folks–careful to practice social distancing–took turns helping pick, pack and ship the shirts out.
That’s where Esche can see the effect this effort is having.
“During all this uncertainty, this has re-energized the staff like I’ve never seen,” adds Esche. “We’re the smallest building in the AHL by a long shot, so every order truly helps not only with morale but the every dollar will impact people’s lives here.”
UPDATE: Due to N.Y. state’s stay-a-home order, the staff are working in pairs to keep the orders going out.
Shirt orders seem to be particularly helpful for one staff person in particular: Esche. Genuinely moved by all this support, he has handwritten a thank you note for every single order.
I'm a die-hard @mkeadmirals fan but in the fight against the virus were one big Hockey family!! So Happy to support the folks with @UticaComets like @AliciaDaddario together we can all rise above and #PuckTheVirus Thanks again!! pic.twitter.com/RdwIKMcnUW
— Jon 'Novak-coholic' Nowicki (@frontrowjon) March 21, 2020
“When this does subside–and it will–there’s going to be a massive need to socialize,” Esche expounds. “Sports will be huge and the Comets are going to be there to thank all our fans.”