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By Jason Shaya
In their second season of AHL hockey, the Comets found themselves at home in the Western Conference Finals up three games to two against the Grand Rapid Griffins. The Adirondack Bank Center was jammed with fans. It was loud, boisterous and anxiety levels were high. What made that night even more special was the Comets inherited tradition that dated back to 1987 and made the atmosphere in Utica truly electric: The Whiteout.
Every fan in attendance donned white in support of the Comets during the playoffs. The building, not only intimidating to opponents because it pulsed from the crowds sonorous screaming, but it was also like stepping into sea of white which can quickly drown opponents in fear. The Griffins, that night in 2015, weren’t just playing against the Comets for the Western Conference title. They were battling 4,000 strong who tried to impose their collective will. The result was as you’d expect; the Comets skated away Western Conference Champions and punched their ticket to the Calder Cup Finals.
One way to describe playoff hockey is like leaping from a helicopter while riding a motorcycle trying to stick the landing on a small strip of pavement –except it’s much more nerve wracking. Every bounce of the puck can change the fortune of a franchise. When you’re playing a playoff home game, there are rules of the game that benefit the home team like getting the last line change. But nothing compares to the ultimate advantage, your fans. It’s human nature to be driven by motivation. There is no better motivation for a hockey player than the desire to hear the wall of sound that comes after scoring a game winning goal in a playoff game. Hockey players dream of scoring overtime game winning goals as kids. Now, they can live that dream out in real life surrounded by teammates and enmeshed in a sea of white.
For the players, they will tell you it’s the fans who make the difference. “The playoffs in 2015 was a time in my career that I’ll never forget. I remember finishing out the conference finals at home,” said former Comets forward Mike Zalewski. “It was the loudest building I’ve ever played in. It was such a special run because we really came together as a team and gave everything in those playoffs and the fans recognized that and rallied behind us. It was like we became one big team – the players, the fans, and the city came together as one. Without the support we felt in the arena each night I don’t think we would have made it to the finals and had such a memorable experience.”
That experience is punctuated by the Whiteout tradition. No one believes in tradition more than Comets team president and former NHL goaltender, Robert Esche. He began his NHL career in Phoenix during the 1998-99 season. The Whiteout tradition carried over from the Winnipeg Jets days in the mid 1980’s. When the Jets franchise moved to the desert, so did the whiteout. Robert saw the impact it had on his team and their opponents. He brought that tradition here to Utica. Now, it stands as visualization to the Comets’ opponents that they are playing against a city united in a singular purpose. That purpose to achieve the ultimate prize of the American Hockey League, the Calder Cup. It can be achieved this very season as the Comets, who ruled the North Division and the Eastern Conference all season long, step onto the ice for game one of the North Division semifinals on Tuesday night and again on Saturday at the Aud. With a team and city united in white, the team will attempt to take the first steps towards history. A history draped in white and written with tradition in mind.