Esche on Keeler: ‘This is More Than Hockey’
Bill Keeler compares the success of the Utica Comets to 1980's "Miracle on Ice." The miracle in this case is the big thaw that has taken place in Utica, the warming up of a community that has nothing to do with the aseasonal temperatures of late and everything to do with its newest sports team. Utica is the city that has been - in the past - somewhat cynical about its future. And, given the area's history, few can blame the apparent lack of optimism.
That was, however, before Utica was hit by a comet...or a team of them.
This year, the franchise's second, the Utica Comets have made it to the championships, the American Hockey League's Calder Cup Playoffs. And while every game at this point is of critical importance, no one really believed that the Comets would make it even this far.
No one perhaps, besides Bill Keeler and his guest, Robert Esche, the team's president.
Esche , himself an Olympic player, was Keeler's guest on WIBX First News with Keeler this morning. Said Keeler, "To me what is going on right now means more to this community. It's about our trip out of a dismal period, out of decline...I think there's a bit of hope out there right now. So, this is more than hockey."
Esche says, "There is definitely an underlying theme which is it's bigger than hockey...Hockey is just a small part of what our business plan entails. And we believe that you could energize the hearts and minds and civic pride...With that being said, though, I don't think that I'd envisioned it would be this transformation."
I was talking with Markey after the game and as the crowd got louder…he’s telling me, the puck seemed like it was getting bigger and bigger.
He goes on to say that the other thing that truly means a lot to him is how not only the fans have embraced the players, but how the players have embraced both the fans and the community. "They do genuinely love the area. They've embraced the fans, they've been able to embrace the communities... You know when something is genuine you're never going to fool anybody...You're not going to 'B.S.' one of us. I think you can tell that with the players; they're all in."
Producer Andrew Derminio asked Esche about how community support affects the players. "The energy of the crowd...shapes their overall game. They feel like there's a bigger cause...there's something pulling them to a bigger...goal..." Speaking of goalie Jacob Markstrom Esche said, "You know I talked with Marky after the game, the last game, and even to him, who is (a) very accomplished goaltender to say the least, you know as the crowd got louder, you know he's telling me, the puck seemed like it was getting bigger and bigger. And that's exactly how you feel...you feel like you can do no wrong...You know that you have 3,800+ fans in your corner... You can't put a pricetag on that, you can't put words to it either but there is the feeling there of a 'can do' attitude that comes when your fans are truly behind you and we've seen that in the playoffs."
The economic compact that the team has had on the community as well is significant. "The impact of just the Comets, the (Utica Memorial) Auditorium, what the building itself has done....is actually pretty monumental."
On the rivalry between the Syracuse Crunch and the Utica Comets Esche says that the rivalry is indeed "pretty real." He says, however that he does not really have time to deal with the rivalry at the moment because they are playing. Keeler achknowledges that the Crunch, however, has time for the rivalry because, unlike the Comets, they are not in the playoffs. Esche suggests that perhaps that should be on the next billboard, acknowledging the Crunch's sign on Route 690 in Syracuse that boldly exclaimed, "Friends Don't Let Friends Root for Utica."
The Utica Comets take on the Oklahoma City Barons tonight in the Western Conference Semifinals.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Update: 05/08/2015 1:35am The Utica Comets fell to the Oklahoma City Barons 2:1 in fourth overtime on the game that began on Thursday, May 7th and ended Friday morning, May 8th].
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