“Mikey’s keeping us in, Mikey’s keeping us in,” Dave Green calls out from behind the home team goal late in the third period, not long before the puck flies across the gymnasium eager to go into the other team’s net. Despite missing it completely, and losing the game 13-14, Green’s excitement to stay in the game along with others is a common sight every Thursday when you’re in the Mohawk Valley Hockey Club.
With groups like MVHC springing up all around the area, the Utica Comets having a golden string of success in the AHL playoffs, and the return of the New Jersey Devils to Utica, a new interest has sparked in hockey. The pastime will open the sport up to the community, give those interested an opportunity to play when they previously couldn’t, and teach young players valuable skills and experience they can apply to the real world.
The Valley’s History With The Sport
Hockey in The Valley can be traced back to the 1970s and earlier with the Mohawk Valley Comets being the first large presence in the area. After disbanding and leaving the Utica Memorial Auditorium vacant, the Utica Comets would take the reins in 1989.
The original Utica Comets would play in the AHL with an affiliation with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. One famous goaltender, Martin Brodeur, would play on this team during their last season in 1992 to 1993 before the franchise would be bought out by the Calgary Flames and move to Saint John, New Brunswick.
After that the area had no professional hockey presence, letting the sport dissipate in favor of football or basketball. However the AHL would allow a new farm team to be founded by the Vancouver Canucks in 2014 sporting the classic “Utica Comets” name.
The team wouldn’t see much interest publicly though until the New Jersey Devils retook the team as an affiliate when Vancouver moved their rookies closer to home. Combined with a historic 15 win streak in the beginning of their second year with the Devils, hockey was finally cool again.
Locals Step Up
The Mohawk Valley Hockey Club is an organization aiming to give youth in the area a chance to learn hockey first-hand using a more accessible form of the sport, Ball Hockey. A representative wrote, “[MVHC]’s Youth Hockey Program was started in 2015 with one goal in mind: To give kids in the area the chance to play the great game of hockey! They say that necessity is the mother of all invention, and that is certainly the case with this program.”
Not only is the sport exhilarating to experience, it also builds on key skills that are especially useful for young players. IceSkatingPassion.com writes that one of twelve of these important skills is teamwork.
“Every year, the sport proves to be a great way for young kids to learn about bonding and working towards a common goal. Skin color, looks and personality, or socioeconomic status are of no importance. Instead, every team member must be committed, talented, dedicated, and adhere to work ethics.”
MVHC has also set up a separate adult league to let those over 18 years old play and experience the sport, with new members always coming in willing to play. A player in the group who asked to remain anonymous told us, “It’s refreshing seeing groups like these pop up. We’re always seeing new guys come in every few weeks, and they usually stick around ‘till the summer.”
The sport also develops motor skills, hand-eye coordination, balance, and visual perception. These benefits can come at the cost of injuries as with any physical sport, but as long as players are playing in a league with strict rules and they’re wearing proper protection hockey can remain as beneficial as possible.
New players are encouraged to come and play a game with the group. MVHC’s Adult League meets every Thursday at 6:00 pm at the Mohawk Youth and Family Center on East Main St. in Mohawk. All they require are a pair of hockey gloves, a stick, and $5 to participate.
Utica’s Hockey High
The Utica Comets have always seen good turnout at games, averaging almost 4,000 attendants to fill out the Utica Memorial Auditorium’s 5,700 maximum occupancy. However they’ve made a splash in the city’s culture and identity ever since the New Jersey Devils affiliated with the team back in 2021.
The real interest began however last season, when the Comets tied an AHL record for winning their first 13 games in a row. The streak ended against the Rochester Americans on November 24th, 2021.
Rather than falling back, the team put on a show for their fans, coming back to win the next two games. Spencer Davidson of WKTV described this unlikely start after their second bounce back win.
“In sports, they say that the character of a team is measured by how it handles adversity. Well, the Comets seemed to have handled it well, showing resiliency after the disappointment of seeing a historic streak end.”
This new interest in the Comets, combined with their current run in the AHL playoffs have got fans buzzing about their home team. “What a nail biter. Tough loss Utica but you played AWESOME. You’ll get the win next game.” is what Rosie Hayes, a fan of the team, had to say in response to their losing game against the Toronto Marlies on April 27th during this year’s Calder Cup Playoffs.
The Nexus Is The Next Step
The Utica University Nexus Center is another sign of hockey’s resurgence, being opened just a couple of months ago right next to the Utica AUD with plenty of room for hockey games of all skill levels. The center is anticipated to help the Valley and the city of Utica both culturally and economically.
The staff of the center wrote about its purpose, writing it as, “A key driver of the economic growth currently happening throughout Utica. In conjunction with the development of The Wynn Hospital of the Mohawk Valley Health System, Harbor Point, the sports and entertainment district, and Bagg’s Square, the Nexus Center is a primary catalyst of economic development in the region.”
The center also finds itself in a unique position, self describing themselves as being in a perfect location to host tournaments for several hockey clubs across New England, “the geographic location of Utica makes the Utica University Nexus Center the perfect tournament destination. Located on the New York State Thruway in Central New York, the Utica University Nexus Center is less than a five-hour drive from most major cities in the Northeast.”
One of these tournament hosts just so happens to be the International Ice Hockey Federation, or the IIHF, who announced on April 26th that the 2024 Women’s Hockey Championship would be hosted in Utica. This is expected to bring hockey fans all around the world to see what the Valley’s brand of hockey has to offer.
Hockey doesn’t seem to want to go away in the Mohawk Valley, and for the foreseeable future it wont. For anyone who wants to get into the sport there’s no better time than ever to get started. And for those who want to actually start playing the sport, be on the lookout for the MVHC and other similar groups offering open leagues and opportunities to play hockey.