Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Esche's hard work pays off with AHL All-Star Game bid

In case you've been wondering what former Flyers goaltender Robert Esche has been doing since the Flyers unceremoniously let him go following the 2006-07 season, on Tuesday morning we received a surprising answer.

He's been successfully lobbying the American Hockey League to host its All-Star festivities in the heart of the Mohawk Valley. 

“We couldn't be more thrilled to have been selected to host the 2015 AHL All-Star Classic,” said Esche, President of the Utica Comets, in a release confirming the news. “It is a great honor to hold the event in the city of Utica, a community that has embraced hockey for years. We look forward to collaborating with the AHL and the Turning Stone Resort Casino to put on a spectacular weekend of events.”

Esche left hockey in 2011, after three seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League that included a one-year stint in the net for Dynamo Minsk. The then-33-year-old returned home to the Utica area to tend to his Italian restaurant on the Erie Canal named "AquaVino" and Esche Family Farms. But his devotion to the sport of hockey didn't waver, and he was instrumental in bringing the AHL back to his hometown, which originally hosted the Utica Devils from 1987-93 in the venerable Memorial Auditorium.

“Oneida County and the City of Utica are honored to host the AHL All-Star Classic,” said Anthony J. Picente, Jr., Oneida County Executive. “What a compliment it is to Rob Esche and what he has done to make Utica and the Comets a member of the AHL family. When the County of Oneida invested millions of dollars into the historic Auditorium over the past two years this is the type of exciting attraction we envisioned taking place. The AHL All-Star Classic is another example of the turnaround we have seen in this region and the positivity that is embracing our future.” 

The Aud had been neglected for years, playing host to regional concerts and Utica College hockey since the Devils vacated the region more than two decades ago. Nonetheless, Esche pulled it all together for the birth of the Comets -- primary affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks -- and for his efforts was honored as a co-recipient of the James C. Hendy Memorial Award, given to the league's outstanding executive on a yearly basis.

Even with an arena whose capacity was one-third of modern buildings in the AHL, Utica sold out 17 of its 38 home games in its first year of operation. The Comets ended the season with a winning record: 35-32-9 under former Islander forward Travis Green, good enough for third place in the North Division but falling short of a playoff berth.

The All-Star nod is an especially unique honor bestowed on the once-booming city. When the Devils patrolled the ice for those six seasons, the AHL did not have any mid-season celebration, choosing to go without from 1960 through 1994 then restoring the practice one year later.

Esche came to Philadelphia in a 2002 trade which saw Brian Boucher shipped out to Phoenix. In parts of four seasons, he put together a 60-39-10 record, 2.65 goals-against average and seven shutouts over 128 regular-season appearances. In his first season with the Flyers (2002-03), along with Roman Cechmanek, Esche shared the William Jennings Trophy with the Devils after giving up the fewest combined goals (166) in the NHL.

He also finished 13-11, 2.73 GAA and one whitewash in 24 postseason appearances. Esche was the starter for the club's memorable 2004 playoff run which ended in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but also took the brunt of criticism for a six-game first-round loss to the Sabres in May of 2006 which ended with a 7-1 loss on home ice.

Esche was born in January of 1978 in Whitesboro, one town immediately to the west of Utica, and was a sixth-round draft choice of the Coyotes in 1996. He made his NHL debut with Phoenix during the 1998-99 season.
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