It’s not only players and coaches who work tirelessly at the AHL level to earn a call up. Sometimes it’s those who are deep behind the scenes doing whatever it takes to get their way up to the big club.
For longtime Comets’ strength and conditioning coach, Ken Hetzel, it took five seasons in Utica before he was able to move across the continent to Vancouver after a promotion. While most of Hetzel’s work goes unnoticed to the untrained eye, he is one of the critical cogs of the hockey team’s machine.
While Hetzel, originally of Queens, played competitive hockey growing up, he realized that it wasn’t his on-ice ability that would get him to achieve his goals of being in the NHL.
“I played hockey when I was younger and wasn’t quite good enough to play past school,” he said. “But I realized I had a good ability in this (strength and conditioning) and I’d rather be in the NHL doing this.”
Parts of his summers were usually spent out west in Vancouver, but he made the full-time move a few weeks ago. While he’s familiar with the area from past experiences, he’s now a resident and is experiencing all the city has to offer.
“Vancouver is a gorgeous city with all of the mountains and inlets and waterways,” he mentioned. “When I grew up in New York I had the beach which was awesome, but you didn’t have whale watching and hiking and the mountains. There’s the urban setting but you also have scenic nature all around you.”
Cutting his teeth in Utica for five seasons exposed Hetzel to many amazing experiences around town and inside the Adirondack Bank Center. While there were many he recalled, there was one that stood out above the rest.
“The Game 7 against Oklahoma City was pretty unbelievable,” Hetzel said. “But when we won against Grand Rapids to go to the Calder Cup Finals that was so amazing. All of the white and all of the chanting and yelling from the crowd. I just remember the chanting after we beat Grand Rapids to go to the finals.”
There’s a few adjustments Hetzel has to make to be fully acclimated to his new surroundings. One of them is the cuisine. His New York diet is quickly getting swapped out with one that has a little more Pacific flair.
“I’m gonna miss some of the Italian food in Utica. I was a big fan,” he said. “But there is so much salmon served everywhere and it’s amazing. I absolutely crush sushi here. You find two sushi restaurants on every street here.”
Utica has a knack of carving out special place in one’s heart, and Hetzel is no different in that regard. While he’s thrilled to be working every day in Vancouver, there is one x-factor that he believes sets Utica apart from every other hockey market in the world.
“The small-town hockey culture is unbelievable,” he said. “Everywhere you go, people are wearing Comets gear and they want to talk about the team. I’ve been a part of a few different teams and I have always been blown away by Utica and the team’s fan base.”
Hetzel still has a few things to pack up in Utica, so he plans on returning next week to get his final items in order and to bid one last farewell to the Mohawk Valley.
Maybe by then he’ll be tired of sushi and want to stay here.