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Rallying around the Comets

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks
What’s a “Utica”?

That’s the first question.

“It’s in New York,” you answer.

“Oh, I’m jealous! Times Square! Central Park! Broadway!” they say.

Not quite.

There’s a single traffic light always flashing yellow at the intersection of Seneca Street and Oriskany Street in Utica, which automatically drummed up visions and a comparison to the town of Radiator Springs from the movie Cars.

An old-fashioned, quiet town with kind people. It’s no New York, New York, but it’s got character and heart.

Hearing how important the Comets are to Utica, it’s clear the comparison fits. The American League franchise coming to the heart of the Mohawk Valley is akin to Lightning McQueen bringing flash, dazzle and ka-chow to Route 66.

When it comes to the Comets, Utica is as animated as any cartoon out there.

The team has played in Utica, a town of 60,000 located in Oneida County, for two seasons, and after the initial excitement of having a team return to Utica wore off, fans realized the Comets are good – real good.

The community also started coming together like it hadn’t in a while; flash, dazzle and ka-chow was back.

“We’re kind of an old industrial city, we’re trying to reinvent ourselves here and the Comets have really taken the lead in this,” said Steve Lachacz, a 50-year-old born and raised Utican.

“As a city and a community, we’re very proud of the Comets and of ourselves and we’re trying to use this as a springboard to the future. We’re very appreciative of the Canucks for the Comets; it’s really brought the community together and a lot of good feelings and we’re excited about it.”

Dressed in a white, blue and yellow Charlestown Chiefs jersey, with a frizzy dark wig and thick black Hanson brothers glasses, Lachacz arrived at the Utica Memorial Auditorium more than three hours before Game 3 Wednesday evening, waiting around in the gravel parking lot neighbouring the rink.

It’s not as bad as it sounds; he was surrounded by hundreds of Comets fans taking part in some epic pre-game tailgating.

“We tried to get this going in February, but it was too cold,” laughed Chris Fullen, the man behind the alluring meat aroma capable of floating a grown man off his feet from one end of the parking lot to the other.

Fullen kicked off the tailgating at 11 a.m. Wednesday morning. He was first in the lot, claiming his spot mega early for a reason: be hauls a barbecue grill trailer to the party and smokes every meat you can imagine.

“I get here early to get the fires going and make sure everything was ready,” boasted Fullen, Comets t-shirt on his chest, friend and fellow smoker Terry by his side. “We’ve had a lot of support from local restaurants, a lot of the food is donated and we’ve got quite an impressive spread. Pork loins, chicken, sausage, chicken riggies (a Utica staple), Utica greens, chicken wings – all the good stuff.”

The first tailgating party was for the Comets final regular season home game and the tradition has continued throughout the playoffs. Rain or shine fans gather for what feels like a family reunion. The family has gotten bigger and better with each home game and the tailgating will as well for the final two Comets games in Utica this season, this coming Friday and Saturday nights.

Tents are being brought in just in case Mother Nature tries to interupt and a 200-pound pig is being smoked to celebrate the Comets and their fans, and their incredible ride to the Calder Cup Final.

“Then we’ll all make our way to Manchester to make sure the boys bring home the Cup,” said an elder lady with a cowbell (whose name I forget and I feel terrible because we talked for a long time and she’s so sweet and reminded me of my grandma, who I miss, and I can’t wait to talk hockey with cowbell grandma again Friday!).

Will the smoker make the trip?

Fullen smiled.

“We’ve had it going on the highway before,” he laughed. “Sparks flying from the fire, smoke blasting out of the top.”

What’s a “Utica”?

It’s a place where people will blaze a smoker on wheels down the highway like a steam engine to support what they believe in.

“There’s nothing like the support we get,” said Comets forward Hunter Shinkaruk. “I was a little unsure about this place when I first got here, but that wore off the first day what I saw how proud and warm and welcoming everyone is. Then they get behind us during games and you can try to block it out to focus on the game, but it’s impossible. It’s everything you could want from your fans, and more.”

A week from now the Comets will either be planning a parade or packing up for the summer. Either way, Utica is home of the Comets and 35 pounds of silver could never get in the way of that.

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