When one thinks of hockey hotbeds or places where the sport is king, Utica, New York probably doesn’t come to mind. That is a mistake. This upstate New York town boasts a long hockey history, has been represented in various minor leagues over the past century, and for the 2013-14 season has returned to the AHL, via a franchise relocation from Peoria, Illinois. This marks the second time that Utica has been a member of the American Hockey League (AHL).
The city welcomed the return of hockey to these parts with great fanfare. Substantial renovations were made to the Utica Memorial Auditorium, more affectionately knows as “The Aud”, with yet more work to come in the future, including the addition of suites and exterior façade enhancements. Lines formed around the block to purchase season tickets and single game tickets, and fan support has been substantial. The Utica Comets offer a superb game day experience with great fan support, and all staged at a perfect old school venue.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Most older arenas don't have the infrastructure and facilities to offer a large and diverse concession menu. And while the Utica Aud presents the basics, there are also a number of items on the concession fare worth checking out.
On the ground floor of the building is a members-only bar and service area for season ticket holders named Kilfoil's, designed in the motif of an authentic Irish bar.
Along the concourse is a nicely appointed team merchandise store, with yet more cool murals and memorabilia adorning the entrance.
The arena opened in 1960, and at first glance looks about as ordinary and nondescript a building such as one would find at the local community hockey rink. Step inside and everything changes. Most of the concession stands are adorned and framed with old photos of Utica streetscapes, the Utica Club beer stand is replete with images of the local brewery, which by the way is a must visit for public tours. Memorabilia is everywhere; the beer stand even is decorated with tchotchkes and old fashioned beer steins. The building exudes a character and soul which reflects a great deal of community pride.
The seating bowl is horseshoe configured, with a stage at one end. The roof supports are pretty unique, with cable suspensions supporting the structure. A small dot matrix scoreboard which hangs off center is augmented with two video boards in the corners on either side of the stage. Much of the seating bowl has been painted in Vancouver Canucks blue, green and white colors to reflect the parent club. There is also a well presented set of banners of hockey greats who played for minor league teams from this area over the past generations, and they ring the stage area. The seating bowl seats 4,000 for hockey. It is intimate, noisy and there is not a bad seat in the house.
Although the Utica Aud sits on the edge of downtown, it is separated by a mish mosh of wide highways, expressway ramps, a railroad bed and does not integrate into a good urban streetscape at all. Like most upstate New York cities, Utica has seen its better days, and the city center is marked with old and some abandoned buildings and little life or vitality. For the architecture and history buffs, there are some splendid things to check out - the historic Stanley Theatre sits right in the middle of downtown, and the Utica Union Station, still in use as an Amtrak rail stop, is an architectural marvel. The Hotel Utica is a magnificently restored structure and you can see the building from the front steps of the arena.
For nearby restaurant choices just a short drive away, try Delmonico's Italian Steakhouse, the Aqua Vino restaurant, or Babe's Macaroni Grill and Bar. A local dish around these parts is "Riggies", rigatoni topped with sliced chicken and a cream or pesto sauce.
For a newly constituted franchise, you see a lot of jersey-wearing fans in the crowd, and here in Utica they know their hockey. A friendly mascot trolls the stands and offers photo opps, while cute ice dancers with their pom poms entertain during each break and stand along the center aisle. The music bumps get the fans into the game but fans don't need much prompting, as the place really jumps in support of their team and the action on the ice. Despite the fact that the Utica Comets are in the first year of existence and the city has had a bit of an absence from pro hockey you wouldn't know it by the fan experience. The place has the feel of a franchise that has been around for decades.
Located on Oriskany Street W, a wide boulevard coming out of the downtown core, getting to the Utica Aud is a snap. There are surface lots adjacent to the arena on each side ($5 for parking). Parking is free along the side streets if you arrive early enough to snag a spot and don't mind the walk. Public transportation options are sparse.
Tickets are assigned in five different price ranges, starting at $15 and going to $28.75 for the seats behind the players' benches. These prices are a bit higher than their peer teams in Rochester and Syracuse, but when you factor in the availability of free street parking, and the very reasonable concession prices, it all comes out as a pretty good entertainment value.
Two extra points for the "Bill Horton Room". Horton was a mainstay of Utica hockey back in the 70s and 80s, bringing an Atlantic Coast Hockey League championship to the city in 1982, and then organizing a new team in that league in 1985, where he would serve as GM and coach. He passed away way too young, at age 41, but here at the Utica Aud they created a really nicely appointed pub in his honor, replete with memorabilia, jerseys on the walls and high tech TV monitor wall. It's one of those spaces you stumble upon and never expect to find in a minor league rink, especially this one. Very, very nicely done.
One point for the Utica Club beer stand, and all the schlock and murals that make this far more than the ordinary concession stand experience.
One point for the Aud's history... they hosted the 1962 NCAA men's hockey Frozen Four, and also, some scenes from the famed movie "Slapshot" were filmed here.
Upstate New York is a minor league hockey traveler's dream, with AHL outposts in Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, and Albany all hugging the I-90 corridor. Utica might be the most easy one to overlook, especially standing next to the longer tenured and storied franchises in Rochester and Syracuse. Yet here the hockey experience is special. The Aud is one of those great old school barns, the local beers are tasty and must have, and it is one of those hockey venues not to be missed.
This is a very interesting arena visually, but while there are a lot of things right about this place, it falls short in several areas. Food selection is limited and bland. Kudos to the fans for showing out in droves for what was supposed to be a "one and done" team. The PA needs to be turned down a little, though. It's so loud it is hard to understand what is being said. Not much in the immediate neighborhood to draw in the fans, it's the type of place you leave right after the game ends. Tickets are a bit pricey for this level as well. But overall, it's a really fun place to catch a game.
The Aud's round shape and layout makes any seat a good seat. The Aud is the world’s first pre-stressed dual cable roof system. John A. Roebling’s Sons Company developed the tensioning method for the project. Lev Zetlin's design used “struts” between the cables. And Zetlin's design was the predecessor to the many modern dome designs that we see today, and this design has influenced many other buildings like Madison Square Garden. Also, the Aud was designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers in recognition of its innovative roof design. Another significant Zetlin project (along with architect Philip Johnson) was the 1964 World’s Fair, New York State Pavilion "Tent of Tomorrow".
The Aud also ranked #8 in "The 10 Coolest Hockey Rinks in the World", by Complex Magazine.
151 N Genesee St
Utica, NY 13502
16 Harbor Lock Rd E
Utica, NY 13502