Thursday, January 14, 2016

Toronto Marlies 3 at Utica Comets 2 (SO, AHL) - January 13, 2016


My primary goal over the next two hockey seasons is to complete all active AHL rinks, and that was the reason for this stupid trip - to add Hershey and Utica to the list. It was important that the league-leading Marlies were a visitor in one of the two games, which is why I chose this particular week to make the trip.



Utica plays out of the Utica Memorial Auditorium, located on the north edge of downtown, next to the old Erie Canal. The building is perfectly round and quite impressive at night when surrounded by a thin layer of new-fallen snow. The Aud was an architectural innovation when it opened in 1960 and was recently designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by for its innovative cable suspended roof, which was the first of its kind. In fact, it was one of only three sports venues without an obstructed view seat back when it first opened. Those who have been to MSG will see the similarity in the roof; no doubt the Aud was a key development in stadium design.



There are parking lots for $5, but you can probably find a free spot on the street if you look hard enough on Whitesboro, behind the arena. Before the game, check out Tony's Audelicious Sports Bar  for cheap beer and dozens of TVs showing every sports channel out there.



Speaking of cheap beer, Labatt Blue sponsors the team and their advertising is visible everywhere, but avoid that Canadian crap and try Utica Club, made by local concern Matt Brewing. There is a stand next to section 105 (below), where all draft beers here are $5, a bargain for a sporting event.



Tickets here are surprisingly hard to find for an AHL game. The venue is small, with a seating capacity of 3,860 for hockey. The team is also extremely popular, selling out every game (even then, the Comets rank 25th in the 30-team league in attendance). The box office had no seats online, but I found a Facebook group where season-ticket holders post extra tickets. One gentleman had a pair in the second row in the end zone that Toronto would shoot twice, so I immediately contacted him and made the transaction. The tickets were delivered by email and Dom and I were able to enter by having the bar codes scanned from my phone. This technology is still not available at many major league venues, so once again Utica is ahead of its time.



The seating bowl tapers toward the middle here, and there is not a bad seat in the place. I really enjoyed this old-school rink, which probably hasn't changed much in its 56 years.



There was one cool attraction - the production room which is right on the concourse. If you wanted to see how a televised hockey game is produced, you can stand here for a bit. Also note the collage of photos on the wall, this motif is repeated throughout the concourse, including some long-time sponsors who show historical photos of their brand with their most recent ad. I'm not a big fan of the omnipresent advertising in sports, but it is cool to see some thought put into keeping the commercial in line with the rest of the building's decor.



The Comets have a mascot Audie, whose backstory is also quite inventive.



Overall, this is probably my favourite rink in the league, the epitome of what minor-league hockey should be. Having a passionate fan base, a nearby bar that raffles jerseys before the game, affordable food and beer options, ticket exchanges with no fees, and a unique, innovative arena combine to make this a must-see experience for any hockey traveller. It is great to see an organization committed to making its gameday experience the best it can be, something that rarely happens in the big leagues these days.

The Game

Did you know the Marlies are tearing up the AHL? They came in with a 29-7-2 record for 62 points, five more than Wilkes-Barre. Utica, who are Vancouver's affiliate, were on a six-game skid, including a 6-3 loss in Hershey that we saw on Sunday.



Toronto dominated early and were rewarded when Nikita Soshnikov (an undrafted free agent who played two seasons in the KHL, barely visible behind the net in the above photo) showed some serious sniping skills, beating Richard Bachman (taken in the 4th round by Dallas in 2006, he has 42 NHL games to his credit, in net above) with a laser from the edge of the right face-off circle. After that, though, Utica began to take it to the Marlies, and minor-league journeyman Jon Landry tied it up on the power play with a wicked slapper from the point.



Toronto had a 5-on-3 early in the second but could not capitalize, but they did take the lead a few minutes later when Ryan Rupert (sixth-round pick by Toronto in 2012) scored on a backhand from in close while the teams were four aside. The third period was dominated by Utica, who outshot Toronto 16-3 but Antoine Bibeau (6th round in 2013, guarding the goal above) kept the Marlies in it with several spectacular stops,  until Darren Archibald popped home a rebound with 7 minutes left. Neither team could score after that, and overtime solved nothing, so we went to a shootout. Hunter Shinkaruk (Vancouver's top pick in 2014, #9 above) went first and was stopped by Bibeau. Soshnikov then tried for Toronto, and scored on a nice backhand through the five-hole. The next shooters missed for both teams, and when Curtis Valk (no relation to one-time Canuck Garry, but a great-nephew of Kelly Hrudey), slid one just wide, the Marlies escaped with a 3-2 shootout win.



Toronto was outshout heavily on the night, but Bibeau won it for them and fully deserved the first star. Check out the highlights, especially if you are a Toronto fan. For me, it was the highlight of the Stupid Trip, which wasn't so stupid after all.

Notes

I have ten rinks to go to complete the AHL. Next month, I'll be seeing all five rinks in California, plus a trip to Portland for the Pirates, and then a flight to St. John's, Newfoundland for the Ice Caps in March. That will leave Grand Rapids, Iowa, and Winnipeg for next season. As always, keep checking back for updates.

Best,

Sean

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