For the past two seasons, all anyone in the city of Utica, N.Y., can talk about are the Comets.
In their homes, at their schools, in the workplace, the Comets dominate the conversation. Around town, business windows are adorned with newspaper inserts proclaiming, "WE WANT THE CUP." Their home ice, the Utica Memorial Auditorium, sold out 27 times in the regular season and all 13 games in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Buildings light up blue and green at night, and office windows are coordinated to spell out "Comets" once the sun goes down.
In Utica, the Comets are at the heart of what makes the city tick, and Vancouver Canucks prospect Jake Virtanen learned this almost immediately.
"The first game when I got to Utica was pretty cool. I wasn't sure what to expect, but when I got there it was just unbelievable," Virtanen said recently in an interview with radio station TSN 1040 in Vancouver. "The fans were unbelievable, and the atmosphere. … They're behind our team, and it definitely gives the guys momentum to go out there and work hard."
Virtanen, 18, made his professional debut with the Comets in Game 6 of their Western Conference semifinal series against Oklahoma City, and has skated in 10 Calder Cup Playoff games to date, earning his first professional point with an assist on a Sven Baertschi goal during the conference finals against Grand Rapids.
Vancouver Canucks sixth overall pick Jake Virtanen, 18, made his professional debut in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals. (Photo: Lindsay A. Mogle)
Virtanen was drafted with the sixth pick in 2014 by the Canucks after a point-per-game season in his third year with Calgary of the Western Hockey League. A native of Abbotsford, Virtanen was the first British Columbia native selected by Vancouver in the first round since they drafted Cam Neely ninth in 1983.
While obviously excited at the opportunity to one day don the blue and green of the Canucks, the impression Virtanen has made in the Utica version of the colors has been impressive.
"I like his attitude, I like how he's approached things. He hasn't come in here expecting that certain things are going to be given to him," Comets coach Travis Green said. "He's got a real good understanding of what he needs to do, and I can tell that he's humble and respectful in a new situation with a bunch of players that have been here all season battling together."
In three-plus junior seasons with the Hitmen, Virtanen has 161 points in 192 games, including his standout 2013-14 season that saw him score 45 goals and 71 points in 71 games. He won gold twice and bronze once internationally for Canada, tying for the team lead in scoring during the 2014 U-18 tournament in Finland.
Though he has participated in four WHL playoffs with the Hitmen, the run he's been able to jump into with the Comets is a completely different animal. But it's one he's taken in stride.
"Being here for the first week, it's a little change in the game pace; it took me a couple days," Virtanen said. "I wasn't going to just jump in right away. But as soon as I got [to Utica], I felt really comfortable. Each and every game, I feel way better out there."
The Comets have completed a 180-degree turnaround since their inaugural season in 2013-14, one that saw them start the year with 10 straight losses. In 2014-15, they finished the regular season with the best record in the Western Conference and have gotten through three playoff rounds to make the city's first-ever Calder Cup Finals appearance.
After losing Games 1 and 2 to the high-powered Manchester Monarchs, Utica won Game 3 at home Wednesday and await a chance to even up the series Friday when the puck drops at the Aud for Game 4 (7 p.m. ET; AHLLive.com, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio).
Green spent two seasons behind the bench of the WHL's Portland Winterhawks, catching a glimpse of Virtanen before each moved on to the Vancouver organization. Despite a short stay with the Comets, Virtanen's play has already continued to make an impression on Green.
"He brings a physical game, he's a fast skater, [and] he's got a really good shot. He plays hard too, which is why we've liked him in the playoffs," Green said. "When he's playing his game, he's a real physical force. You can see that he's up for the challenge, and he's not going to back down from players."
Virtanen's time in the AHL, however brief, has shown the young wing what it takes to play pro hockey and the commitment put in each day as players work to earn their chance in the NHL.
"Not many guys get this opportunity to be in the Calder Cup Playoffs, and guys have been in the AHL their whole lives and never got it, so we're here and we're ready," he said. "That's what's good about this experience in Utica, to get this experience as a pro and what it takes to win a championship.
"I know every guy's bought in on our team. Being able to be up here is just going to give me more confidence."
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