UTICA, N.Y. – With his first training camp and preseason in his new city behind him, Andy Zilch, the radio voice of the American Hockey League’s Utica Comets, has much to look forward to when his team opens the 2016-17 regular season this weekend against the Toronto Marlies in Toronto, ON, Canada.
Zilch was hired by the Comets in August to take over for Brendan Burke, the team’s former broadcaster who landed a television gig as the new play-by-play announcer for the New York Islanders. For those involved in the interview process, Zilch was a standout candidate from the beginning.
“We loved his experience in the AHL and his professional approach to everything he does,” said Mark Caswell, Jr., Vice President of Communications for the Comets. “We believed he would be just the guy to fill some pretty big shoes. He really fits well into the culture we’ve built here, both in the locker room and in the office.”
After previous broadcasting stints with the Greenville Road Warriors and Springfield Falcons, his first impressions of Utica’s hockey community already have him feeling right at home with the Comets, the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks.
“I think the way this organization is, it’s very easy to walk in the locker room and feel right in it,” Zilch said. “The way the players are in this team, it’s built with a lot of veterans, so they’ve been around the block, they know the game, and they’re very courteous. They are true professionals here. That’s what I like about this team.”
As for the passion of the fans, Zilch has never seen anything like it.
“The biggest thing that really has struck me is the fan base and how large it is,” said Zilch, who is entering his fourth professional season as a broadcaster. “I knew what to expect, but you can’t really grasp what it is until you get here and see for yourself how dedicated these fans are and how much they show up at functions.”
In addition to hosting the second of a two-game preseason series against the Syracuse Crunch last Sunday, the Comets also held a Fan Fest that afternoon and organized an exclusive event for season ticket holders to meet the team a few days later.
“It’s just game in and game out how dedicated the fans are. It’s amazing, and it’s hard to find that in many cities in the American Hockey League,” continued Zilch. “Everybody knows of Hershey’s fans, and I think it’s very Hershey-esque as far as the following we have here in Utica.”
As Zilch prepares for his first regular season broadcast this weekend when the Comets play back-to-back games against the Marlies, he definitely will be watching out for “some of the new guys that we have,” especially on the blue line.
“For example, Chad Billins is going to be a quarterback on the power play. He is going to be, in my opinion, the team point leader as far as defensemen are concerned,” said Zilch. “That speaks volumes to him because everybody knows Jordan Subban, a very gifted offensive guy, and I think Billins is right there with him.”
The Voice of the Comets also anticipates solid contributions from other acquisitions Vancouver made over the summer, including forwards Jayson Megna from the Hartford Wolf Pack/New York Rangers and Michael Chaput, a 2015-16 Calder Cup Champion with the Lake Erie Monsters/Columbus Blue Jackets.
“Those are two guys who are going to come right in and be top line guys,” added Zilch.
For Comets fans, the start of the 2016-17 season couldn’t have arrived sooner. The fall of the Comets to their division rivals, the Albany Devils, during the first round of the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs was a tough pill for the faithful at the Utica Memorial Auditorium to swallow, but Zilch can ensure that the team has left last season’s heartbreaking end in the past.
“There are a lot of guys who are trying to crack a lineup. From what I’ve seen, I’m actually seeing guys compete for their job, and that’s the way it should be,” said Zilch. “I’m not even talking just your fourth line or PTO guys. Guys on the first line are trying to get those top minutes. Nothing is spoken for right now. Everybody’s fighting for something.”
After facing the Marlies on Saturday, October 15 at 1:00 PM and again on Sunday, October 16 at 5:00 PM, the Comets will make stops in Syracuse and Albany next week before returning back to Utica for their home opener against the Binghamton Senators on Wednesday, October 26.
“The thing I’m looking forward to the most is a full house every game. That’s something that I haven’t had yet in my pro career,” Zilch explained. “I haven’t had a team that had as much noise day in and day out as the Comets, so that’s what I’m looking forward to, is every day, whether it be a Wednesday, a Tuesday, or even a Friday or Saturday, it’s a packed house, and the energy is always top notch.”