Is the Utica Comets’ branding too Canuck-centric?

This post is part one of a two-part debate.

Last week, the Canucks unveiled their new AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets, as well as the spiffy new duds that the club would be wearing, and I should say right up front that I love the look of it all. I think I prefer the Comets crest to the birthing whale, and I’ve always been a big fan of Vancouver’s blue and green palette. It’s my favourite colour combination in the world outside of green and yellow (which, sadly, died out with the Minnesota North Stars, and likely no NHL team will employ again until John Deere breaks into the hockey sponsorship game).

On one hand, the Canucks should be commended for doing their research and making a nod to Utica’s hockey history through their branding. According to Canucks.com, the crest ”honours the Comets heritage by incorporating the classic Comets shield, honours the game of hockey by using the puck as a focal point and draws connection to Canucks master brand through colours, lines and shapes.”

That’s all well and good. But, while they did a good job of connecting to Utica’s past, I think they erred in their connection to Utica’s present. It’s all too Canucky, in my opinion. As much as I love seeing the blue and green, my biggest issue is that palette. Those are Canucks colours, and for a team planted on the other side of the continent, I don’t like the blatant and constant visual reminder that they’re not the city of Utica’s team so much as they’re a Vancouver Canucks affiliate.

The Abbotsford Heat’s branding has been a major issue for me for quite some time. It was already going to be a stretch, dropping an affiliate of the hated Flames in Canucks country, but what made it worse, in my opinion, is that they went with such a blatant allusion to the mothership. Allusions to the mothership are great in funk music. In the minor-league hockey market, I think they sever the tie between the local fan — who you sort of need — and the club you want him or her to support. I know a lot of Abbotsford residents that won’t sport Heat gear because it’s really just Flames gear with an “A” on it. That bugs me, because I think the iconography of a city’s sports team should make you think of that city first.

It’s no surprise that the best-attended AHL teams are the teams that do the best job of maintaining an individual, local identity. Seven of the top ten drawing clubs — Hershey, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Lake Erie, San Antonio, Charlotte, and Rochester — all have a unique look that speaks to their community before it speaks to their affiliate. (Two of the other top three — the Providence Bruins and the Toronto Marlies benefit from being within striking distance of their NHL teams. The Marlies and Leafs are both in the Greater Toronto Area, and Providence is just an hour out of Boston.)

Meanwhile, 5 teams in the bottom 10 are branded like affiliates: Worcester, Adirondack, Abbotsford, Binghamton, and Oklahoma City. Those last three are the three worst-attended teams in the AHL. There are other factors at play, to be certain, but I think alienating branding errors play a major role here.

Now, it won’t be as big an issue in Utica as in Abbotsford, where the parent club is hated and they should really have downplayed that as much as possible, like M. Night Shyamalan’s involvement in After Earth, but I think the issue still applies. The Comets’ connection to the Canucks is far too prevalent, in my opinion. If the goal is for this club to succeed long-term in Utica (although, with a lease that conveniently runs out the same time Calgary and Abbotsford are set to part ways, we could argue that it isn’t the goal) I think you need to do more than run their history through The Canuckifier™ and call it a day. The colours should speak more to the city of Utica.

That in mind, I guess I can handle the blue. The old Clinton Comets rocked a very similar blue. The Utica College Pioneers do as well. The local newspapers (Utica Dispatch, Oneida Daily Dispatch) have blue as a lead colour. When the city seal is in colour, it’s a deep blue. But I’d have cut down on the green. The whole thing is a bit too Canucky for my tastes, and it’s a branding decision I can’t get behind.

I also maintain that they should have been called the Utica Erotica. But I digress. Am I nitpicking here or do I have a genuine gripe?

16 comments

  1. JanBan
    June 18, 2013

    As well, apparently the Canucks missed the deadline to submit templates for new jerseys to Reebok when they decided to relocate the Rivermen to Utica. That’s one of the reasons why the jerseys the kids were wearing at the unveiling had an NHL crest on the collar; they’re Canucks prototypes that had a Utica logo put on them. The colour scheme of blue and green (and an identical design to the Canucks) was in part maintained because they couldn’t get Reebok to create new jerseys for the upcoming season.

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  2. J21 (@Jyrki21)
    June 18, 2013

    If the Canucks and Sabres were rivals, rather than friendly expansion partners, it might be an issue. But they’re about as far from rivals as you can get, NHL-wise, geographically and culturally.

    Even though teams like Hershey and Rochester have been around a very long time, most minor league teams have been pretty fleeting, and it has been extremely common for the AHL club (less so in the old IHL) to have mirrored the look and/or name of the parent club, and it happens in baseball a fair bit too. Where there isn’t a direct rivalry, I see this as a good thing — it reminds the hockey-going public in what are usually small, rust-belt cities of their very close connection to the big leagues and I think that feels good. The fact that interest in Utica is apparently quite high is a good sign too — I’m sure the locals have little issue with looking like the Baby Canucks since that is the franchise that returned pro hockey to them, after all.

    And besides, the Canucks have only ever once had a “baby them” minor league team (the very short-lived Hamilton Canucks) while most teams have had their St. John’s Maple Leafs, Fredericton Canadiens, Cincinnati Mighty Ducks or Cornwall Aces (who wore Nordique-like uniforms) at one point or another. Nothing wrong with doing the same thing.

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    • Chris the Curmudgeon
      June 18, 2013

      Was going to type exactly that. Utica is so far removed from the Canucks culturally that I don’t see it as being a big problem. Plus, it’s far from the mothership type of situation that you get with the Abbotsford Heat.

      I also think the “attendance vs branding comparison” might leave out a couple of confounding variables. 7 of the top 10 are uniquely branded vs 5 of the bottom 10 are NHL-affiliate branded is hardly a staggering difference. While Abbotsford is a unique situation owing to their being located in the catchment of a hated rival, the other poorly performing attendance teams have some other excuses. Worcester is a smallish city and is so close to Boston (and to Providence, which incidentally is about 10 times its size) as to likely suffer from territorial issues. Binghamton is one of the league’s smallest markets also. Compare those to the sizes of cities like Chicago, Charlotte and San Antonio. Or, consider the longstanding traditions of AHL hockey in Hershey and Rochester as being likely reasons for strong attendance compared to a larger, but young and hockey-naive market like OKC, or a temporary site like Glens Falls (Phantoms plan to move to Allentown in a year when their stadium is finished). Sure, hostile branding might have a small influence, but I think there are far bigger factors in play for many of these teams.

      I do happen to agree that proximity to an NHL team’s fan territory makes affiliation with it important though not sufficient, for success for an AHL team. Hence the past success of the Philadelphia Phantoms, too, and the good attendance of Grand Rapids as the Red Wings’ affiliate, Charlotte (Hurricanes), Wilkes Barre (Pittsburgh) or Rochester (Buffalo) compared to the poor numbers of the Heat.

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      • Neil B
        June 18, 2013

        I’d say the Canuckiness of the sweaters will only be a problem if the ‘Nucks meet Buffalo in the SCF, a prospect that has 500 degrees of unlikeliness. On the other hand, if the ‘Nucks play the NYR in the Finals, sales might just take off…

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  3. Paul
    June 18, 2013

    I grew up in the Maritimes when it had several AHL teams, and, in most cases, it was pretty easy to figure out the parent NHL teams just from the jerseys. At the time, I think fans liked the obvious connection to the big league teams since, for most people, it was as close as they were ever going to get to watching professional hockey in person.

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  4. Don
    June 18, 2013

    You make some excellent points, especially the one about a minor league team’s need to take on a city’s identity over that of its affiliate in order to be embraced by the locals. Here in Albany the New Jersey Devils moved in after our beloved Albany River Rats left town. Rather than keep the River Rats name (a local favorite for 17 years) they decided to brand the new team in the likeness of the parent club and the Albany Devils were born. Team officials said they were trying to create an NHL-like atmosphere around the club, but the name change left many feeling burned.

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    • J21
      June 19, 2013

      Weren’t the Devils the ones who founded the River Rats after leaving Utica?

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  5. PB
    June 18, 2013

    The obvious connection to the parent team makes sense and I’ve always thought that having farm team uniforms resemble the big league franchises jerseys can make for an easier identification (and might help out those players who might, ahem, have a harder time telling who they are playing for when making the jump). I’d like to know what exactly connects Utica to the skies. I suppose it’s better than nicknaming your team a pejorative for Canadians but I have no idea what makes them Comets other than the fact that some other teams had that name previously. Other minor league affiliates there included the Bulldogs, Blizzard, Devils and Prowlers. None of this seems to tie to any particular local identity from what I can tell. Maybe they should be called The Refugees — that’s the main population that’s been coming into the Mohawk Valley for several years now.

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    • Neil B
      June 18, 2013

      Why Comets? 52 years of teams in Utica playing that name (the Clinton & later the Mohawk Valley Comets), plus having the same first letter of the parent club. I would have thought that it was rather obvious.

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      • PB
        June 18, 2013

        Right, that part I got (the history) — but what is it about Utica that makes Comets at all part of the place? I’m not saying it always has to, but there is a supposed “Devil” in the swamps of NJ, the Lakers originally were connected to Minnesota’s lakes, the Dodgers to the streetcars of Brooklyn, etc. Was there an observatory in Utica? Was it hit by a comet?

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        • Neil B
          June 18, 2013

          Couldn’t find any comets, but 160 Una, an asteroid, was discovered by C H F Peters, an astronomer located in Clinton, NY. Perhaps “Clinton Asteroids” sounded lame?

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  6. SL
    June 18, 2013

    I grew up in Utica. 18 years. Went to many Clinton Comet games. Ian Anderson (look him up) was Tom Sestito’s role model. (and, btw, Tom can cab home to his boyhood home after his AHL home games, which would be a better scenario for all of us than having him playing here). I love Utica. But, as the 80% of my high school class who left long ago will tell you, the right name for the team is, unfortunately, the Utica Armpits, and the team color should be rust brown.

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  7. hawkee
    June 18, 2013

    Grand Rapids have it easy because they play in the same state/market as their parent club. They also rely on Detroit’s colors; the Griffins wear DRW pants with the logo, gloves, and have the winged wheel on the sleeve (but it works because GRG fans are also DRW fans).

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  8. Locky
    June 19, 2013

    Who cares? This needed a whole article?

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    • Daniel Wagner
      June 19, 2013

      Nope, it needed two!

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  9. Karl in Albany
    June 19, 2013

    Harrison … Have you ever been to Utica, I doubt it ? If you had Utica Erotica would never have crossed your mind.

    Utica is sort of the poor downtrodden city close to a more upscale Syracuse. The same comparison as could be said for Providence as compared to Boston.

    At least the comets using Utica’s rink on a short term basis will have a nicer facility than the phantoms have in a short term rental at Glens Falls.

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