Attempt to bring AHL to Utica underway, but no agreement yet

UTICA, N.Y. (WKTV) - Officials tell NEWSChannel 2 that an effort is underway to bring an AHL team back to Utica, but that no deal has been finalized. Former NHL Goalie Rob Esche is leading a team of investors and is dedicated to bringing a team back to the Utica Memorial Auditorium.

It has been 20 years since the Utica Devils called the AUD home.

Rob Esche said, "This project has been 20 years in the making, since the day the Devils left I've been dreaming of the day where it might be possible of bringing the AHL back."

Esche also owns Aqua Vino, a restaurant in North Utica, but turned over the day-to-day operations to family members nearly a year ago, so he focus solely on bringing the AHL back to Utica.

Esche said, "We've been talking to several teams, a lot of teams actually, and right now, we have no agreement. We've had a lot of interest, in the building and in the smaller venues. It makes a lot of sense for AHL clubs, but on the same hand there's no signed agreement."

Officials say there are many obstacles to overcome to get a team to relocate to Central New York including upgrades to the Utica Memorial Auditorium and from where that funding would come.

A seven-member board oversee the AUD, which is owned by New York State. Board Vice-Chairman Carl Annese told NEWSChannel 2 that the AUD Authority has applied for several state grants to improve the facility and recently received a $250,000 grant to make some improvements.

Utica College currently fills the AUD on a consistent basis, but the question remains if the AHL team would pull fans away from college hockey or if the two can co-exist.

Annese said, "I think everyone in the area would love to see the AHL back. I've heard things like it will kill Utica College's program. We think it may enhance their program. UC has been a tenant for 12 years. We hope it's the just the beginning of the relationship. There are rumors that we are trying to replace UC, absolutely not."

In fact, an AHL team could benefit Utica College, according to Rob Esche, as a recruiting tool.

Several teams have been reached out to, including the Abbotsford Heat in Canada, a farm team of the Calgary Flames. Vicki Hall of the Calgary Herald shared a response from the team via Twitter. The team said, "We have been approached by representatives in Utica concerning an opportunity for the AHL. We understand they are building a case for the AHL to return there. We are under contract and committed to Abbotsford, and have made no alternate commitments."

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