Utica, N.Y. - The Utica Comets return to play cleared another hurdle with the team announcing it has officially opted in to the 2020-21 American Hockey League season, Monday.
After team officials consistently voiced the intention to play - and play in Utica - this year, the move was all essentially a formality.
The Comets will be among 28 teams that will compete.
The Charlotte Checkers, Milwaukee Admirals, and Springfield Thunderbirds have each elected to opt out of play this year and will return to operation for the 2021-22 season.
With the Thunderbirds a healthy scratch, the Vancouver Canucks have announced they will partner with the St. Louis Blues to share affiliation with the Comets for this season.
"We are very pleased to partner with the Blues to find solutions that help both teams during this unique season," said Jim Benning, Canucks General Manager. "We have strong leadership and support in Utica and I believe our players and our teams will benefit from this partnership."
The Blues, who just entered into an affiliation agreement with Springfield this past March after two seasons with the San Antonio Rampage will temporarily send their players to Utica to help fill out its roster and allow their prospects to play.
"Due to the unique circumstances, we are pleased to partner with Vancouver and Utica for the upcoming 2020-21 season," said Blues President of Hockey Operations/General Manager Doug Armstrong. "We trust that our players will be in good hands with the direction and leadership of the Canucks, Comets and especially Robert (Esche), Ryan (Johnson) and Trent (Cull)."
This year will be the eighth for the Comets franchise and its partnership with the Canucks, but will be the first time hosting players from another NHL club.
"I'm actually really excited about that," said Comets President Rob Esche. "Any time you work with two elite NHL organizations like Vancouver and St. Louis, something good is going to come from it. We're going to see some new prospects this year which is always exciting for our fans and selfishly for us as well. It'll be a mixture of coaches and trainers in here, it is something very exciting."
While not necessarily common in the current landscape of the AHL, it is not entirely unheard of for multiple NHL teams to share AHL affiliates.
Esche, himself, played in a situation where there was a dual NHL affiliation with an AHL club. Towards the beginning of his professional career in 1998-99 as a prospect for the then-Phoenix Coyotes (now Arizona Coyotes), he was paired with prospects of the Los Angeles Kings organization on the then-Springfield Falcons.
The Blues are a season removed from a Stanley Cup championship. They are also no strangers to Utica, with their then-affiliate Chicago Wolves facing the Comets in a first round playoff series in the 2014-15 season in which Utica won three games to two.
"Having them just win a Stanley Cup a few years ago, it's an exciting organization to be a part of," said Esche. "They obviously have been pretty successful so I'm sure we'll learn a lot."
Despite the addition of Blues prospects to the lineup, the Comets coaching staff and front office will remain the same.
Trent Cull will be returning for his fourth season behind the bench, along with associate head coach Gary Agnew and supporting staff.
The only change to the coaching unit will be filling a vacancy left by the exit of assistant coach Jason King, who was moved up to the same capacity in Vancouver.
This altered AHL season, there will be five realigned divisions.
The Comets will remain in the North Division along with its in-state rivals Syracuse Crunch, Rochester Americans and Binghamton Devils. The Devils, however, will be playing this season in Newark, New Jersey along with its NHL affiliate New Jersey Devils.
Usual divisional opponents Belleville Senators, Laval Rocket and Toronto Marlies will join up with the Manitoba Moose to form a Canadian Division, pending provincial government approval.
The Cleveland Monsters, meanwhile, will be joining other teams from the midwest in the Central Division.
In their place, Pennsylvania-based Hershey Bears, Lehigh Valley Phantoms, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins will join the Comets North Division.
According to Esche, the Comets will begin the season with no fans in attendance with the hopes of slowly returning spectators to the Adirondack Bank Center in accordance with health guidelines over the course of the season.
"The first step is introducing players back to a healthy competitive atmosphere so that they, the officials, and the staff can manage that," he said. "The next step is introducing fans back into the building which is all of our goal obviously. That's what makes sports, sports. It's going to be awkward at the onset of all this without the fans, but I do think brighter days are ahead."
As has been previously noted by Esche and other officials from around the league since the pandemic began, the AHL is a gate-driven league. Void of major TV deals that most major leagues enjoy, revenue is generated primarily through ticket sales and in-arena spending with spectators in attendance.
Playing an extended period of time without fans present would present financial difficulties for teams to face.
"We're in a very unique situation in Utica where we can keep costs down with travel," said Esche. "Partnering up with another team will help quite a bit. It helps Vancouver's side of things and St. Louis' side of things. We're just looking forward to getting going, starting up, letting these guys compete and develop as young athletes with aspirations of going to the NHL. Then we'll have a strong focus on reintroducing fans, at whatever capacity, back into the building."
Further details on the structure of the season, and format of the playoffs are yet to be determined.
The AHL regular season will start on February 5.
"I think its going to be a unique season," said Esche. "I think it's exciting to have new prospects on the ice that aren't necessarily ours, under the same Utica Comets umbrella. I think its a great thing that Utica, as one of the smallest market in the American Hockey League, has the ability to operate and function. It's a testament to the fans over the course of the seven years [so far], and the community at large."
The full 2020-21 AHL division alignments are as follows:
Bridgeport Sound Tigers
Hartford Wolf Pack
(pending provincial government approval)
Lehigh Valley Phantoms
Grand Rapids Griffins
Henderson Silver Knights
San Diego Gulls
San Jose Barracuda