It is nearly impossible for Dave Armstrong to reach his seat in time for the start of a Utica Comets game at The AUD. Being a part of the 1967-68 Clinton Comets Walker Cup championship team has much to do with his tardiness.
Armstrong understands and accepts the attention shown to him and his other Clinton teammates who regularly attend Comets games. And just like hockey fans in the Mohawk Valley who supported his career for eight seasons more than a half century ago, Armstrong stays on top of the current version of Comets hockey.
"It was probably one of their better games all year," says Armstrong of a recent Friday victory at The AUD by the Comets against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. "Both teams competed well and the goaltending was great."
Having hung up his shakes after the Comet’s 1971-72 season, Armstrong, like former Clinton teammates Jake Kane, Borden Smith, and Pierre Prevost, decided to establish roots in the community after his playing days. Although having collected the last of his career 552 points long ago, Armstrong isn't one to proclaim that players of his era were superior to today's product.
"The game has changed so drastically. The puck and everybody is moving so much faster than when I was at left wing. It [hockey] has become a transition game. The athletes are bigger and stronger today," explains Armstrong, who turns 73-years-old in May.
Eight seasons with the Comets at the Clinton Arena, beginning with the 1964-65 season during Benny Woit's last season behind the bench, Armstrong's strong community ties continue to make him a popular target for a new generation of Comets fans. There's no complaining of unplanned conversations, where handshakes and introductions begin going down hockey's memory lane, most of the time with complete strangers.
"Every night, there's always somebody that starts talking about the '60's and '70's,” Armstrong explains. “They begin with something like, ‘Remember that series with Greensboro....’”
With all the success of the current Comets during their past four seasons in the AHL, Armstrong takes pride in having played a part of the team's history. Having averaged 68 points per season (with 83 points during the 1967-68 season), Armstrong doesn't hesitate when telling others that what he and his Clinton teammates built is what laid the groundwork for today's Comets product.
"Comets hockey has brought our community together. It did when I played, and it does now," Armstrong said. "I know people from Big Moose (NY) who come down to the games now. Robert (Comets president) and his people, along with the politicians, have done a terrific job in refurbishing The AUD."
With all the upgrades and additions to the current Comets home in the city of Utica, the romance local hockey fans have with the Clinton version of 50 years back continues to gain traction.
"I still remember that team (1967-68) as if I just looked at it," tells Armstrong. "I look back and think we should have won those five games.” Armstrong recalls some of those losses vividly. One or two of the Comet’s losses in 1967-68 to the Syracuse (Blazers) shouldn't have happened, as Armstrong remembers. "They [losses] came against weaker teams."
When the Eastern Hockey League dissolved in 1973, Armstrong was already one year into retirement. "I got away from hockey, from the time that the league (EHL) stopped, almost until the Devils came in (to Utica). I was doing other things, like skiing. When I was playing hockey, I couldn't ski. You didn't want to chance getting injured."
Loyalty to a Clinton heritage that saw him participate in three Walker Cup celebrations and grow the roots gained in the community, Armstrong chose retirement. There were options, however. Don Perry, a longtime Comets rival as a coach and player for years with the New Haven Blades and Long Island Ducks, made an offer for Armstrong to prolong his career.
"Don invited me to go to Saginaw (Michigan) with him," says Armstrong. "My wife Anne is from Whitesboro. My in-laws were in business (Sunset Dairy and B&F Dairy). I didn't want to leave."
Memories of a satisfying hockey career can keep any Armstrong conversation busy. Being part of the Boston Bruins organization and going to their NHL training camp for five years is always a good starting point; however, it's his humble beginnings in Collingwood, Ontario where Armstrong feels even more comfortable to speak of.
"It's [Collingwood] 75 miles north of Toronto - the Blue Mountains," explains Armstrong. “Collingwood is like Old Forge. There are 21,000 people there now, and 8,000 people when I was home."
When it comes to Armstrong and his former teammates’ representation at The AUD today, Armstrong remains amazed at what he sees. Framed Clinton jerseys are on display in the Horton Room, located behind section 218. Grand banners depicting he and other Clinton Comets on display inside The AUD are captivating. There exists so much post-career attention that Armstrong couldn't have imagined after retiring in 1972.
As Armstrong recalls memories of his days thrilling hockey fans in a Clinton Comets jersey, seemingly at the snap of a finger, same goes for Armstrong when looking back to Robert Esche as a teenager.
"We owned the dairy and during the summer, he [Esche] would visit our milk plant," recalls Armstrong. "Robert was getting ready to play juniors. I told him to never forget where he came from and other words of advice. I remember as plain as day, Robert riding his bike to the dairy."
Through the decades, hockey fans in the Mohawk Valley have reciprocated that same respect to Dave Armstrong – the same respect he passed along to a future NHL goalie from Whitesboro. What goes around, comes around – and remains, a half century later, at The AUD.
Written by Don Laible