Robert Esche was 12 years old when he first played hockey in 1990. Though he had to wait a year until he could play the position that would lead to a six-year NHL career and 13-year pro career in the sport.
"My coach would not let me go into the net until I learned how to skate," he recounted, "which was frustrating because I only wanted to play goalie. By the end of the season I got in goal in youth hockey and never looked back."
Esche had been hooked on the position ever since attending his first Utica Devils game three years prior in 1987. Though he grew up playing football, baseball, and basketball, the Devils arrival in Utica changed everything for Esche and other youths in the region. It inspired him to lace on a pair of skates and pursue the game.
"It was because of the Utica Devils," he said. "My father took me to all the games he could that didn't interfere with the other sports I played. I really loved the Utica Devils. It was the only thing that I wanted to do."
So, it's only fitting that 30 years later, Esche, 43, would reunite the Utica community and the Devils organization, making the Utica Comets the new American Hockey League affiliate to New Jersey in a 10-year partnership announced on May 6.
"To be able to align ourselves with the New Jersey Devils has been great for the fans," said Esche, president of Comets for the past eight years. "We've had a lot of positive responses, overwhelming actually. Just on the synergy that aligns with the New Jersey market and the Utica market."
Esche watched the Utica Devils until their departure in 1993. For Esche, the franchise's return was personal. Growing up in the Whitesboro area, a suburb of Utica, Esche remains connected to the area. He had a lifelong dream of returning to the city and bringing hockey back.
"Even when I was playing, I talked about bringing an AHL team back," Esche said. "When I retired, I came back (to Utica) and started the process of getting a team here, infusing some capital into the building. It's something I always wanted to do."
That dream became a reality in 2013 when the Vancouver Canucks agreed to place their affiliate in the city. The club called themselves the Comets, in honor of the Clinton Comets (1954-73) of the region, and with the blessing of many former Clinton players that remained in the region. Hockey's return meant a lot to the alumni, who have acted as ambassadors for the team, and the homegrown boy who brought it back.
"When we started eight years ago, every one of the season-ticket holders I knew for the most part," Esche said. "It's always hit a very genuine chord for me, and in doing so we want to be as close to an NHL team as possible, the way that we operated, the social media, the fan experience, the social experience."
The Clinton Comets franchise grew the roots of hockey in the area initially and the former players helped continue the sports development in the absence of a team. With that hockey history dating back decades, it was no surprise that the Comets quickly became one of the AHL's most successful franchises, selling out every single game for seven straight years, ever since their second season in the league.
"Over 70 plus years, there has been a passionate chord that's been struck with the Clinton Comets (in the 50s)," Esche said. "(They were a) staple of community, and created a small hockey hotbed that punches way above its weight class.
"We galvanized the community and it became bigger than a sport. It was a catalyst for a lot of development, a lot of businesses starting to sprout up."
With a team came a $2-billion (with a B) dollar investment in the county, which includes a new manufacturing plant and hospital across from the Adirondack Bank Center, home of the Comets. But with Vancouver playing on the west coast, the deal always seemed gossamer.
"It wasn't a matter of if (Vancouver) would move back west, it was a matter of when," Esche said. "Through the last eight years we helped them explore options out west from the business side."
That when was 2021 with Vancouver relocated their AHL franchise to Abbotsford, British Columbia. And with that, an empty and dark building loomed on the horizon for Utica. Esche watched the Utica Devils leave the city, and he stressed over a repeat of history.
"Half of our staff is local, born and raised in the area. It really is a focal point for the whole community," Esche said. "Those four months that Vancouver decided to move out west, there were a lot of sleepless nights, I can tell you that."
Those sleepless nights came to an end May 6 when the AHL's Board of Governors unanimously approved the relocation of New Jersey's AHL franchise from Binghamton to Utica. Esche celebrated with a three-day trip out west to exhale.
The puck will drop on Oct. 17, 2021 for the inaugural Utica Comets home game at Adirondack Bank Center, 34 years to the day of the inaugural Utica Devils game. And the vibrant hockey community in Utica can now follow their favorite stars from Utica and onward to Newark.
"Our fans are terrific. They tracked all the players that went up to Vancouver," Esche said. "Those Vancouver games are on later at night. For these kids, to watch their local idols that play in the American Hockey League and get called up to the NHL was a little difficult.
"With this relationship we're going to be able to track all the players and follow them. … It gives them a chance to embrace their path to becoming an NHL player."