Clinton Hockey Club / Comets
On January 1, 1928, four young hockey players from Clinton joined a Utica team for a game in Albany, and the Clinton Hockey Club was born. Since then, little has been heard of the Utica or Albany clubs, but for more than 25 years, the Clinton Hockey Club continued to make history as one of the leading amateur teams in the country.
Of the four who made that trip to Albany, one stayed with the team: Bob Williams, who became the coach of the Clinton Comets. The other three were young Burt Prettyman, a Liberty businessman, Ed Gainey, a Buffalo resident, and Ed Bates of Utica, who was on the staff of Clinton’s Post Office and continued to referee part time.
The Utica and Clinton clubs depended on each other for players for a number of years, and shared fans and supporters as well.
Club hockey grew from a hobby sport with a dozen games a year (at the mercy of the weather), to a full-time business and a 50- to 60-game schedule. Fame followed the club at times over the years, but the early years were far from rosy.
Opposition from skaters not interested in hockey forced the young group to play most of its games on the road, in Speculator, Lake Placid, and elsewhere. For several seasons, there was only one home game a year in Clinton. With little or no income, the $10 fee for use of the community rink loomed large in early hockey plans.
For its first three years, the Clinton Hockey Club was unaffiliated. From 1931 through the 1947-48 season, the club was a member of the Amateur Athletic Union. After that, it held membership in the Amateur Hockey Association.
In 1934, Clinton played in a Syracuse league in the Coliseum on the State Fair Grounds, and for many years Syracuse teams provided keen competition for the suburban club. Night hockey for the budding team was made possible by the addition of lights to the local outdoor rink, a project carried out almost exclusively by the players themselves. College opponents for what would become the future Clinton Comets came from Hamilton, Colgate, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Army, Princeton, Norwich, Victoria, Middlebury, Queen’s, McMaster, St. Patrick’s, Toronto, and Colorado.
Making a Name
Clinton Hockey Club members competed in Olympic tryouts in 1932, 1936, and 1940. The Clinton Hockey Club held the Intermediate Open Title of the Amateur Hockey Association of the U.S., won in tournaments often held in Clinton.
A number of times since its founding in 1928, the Club was in contention for a national title. Attempts were made in New York in 1934, in Lake Placid in 1940, in New Haven in 1941 (placing second), in Boston in 1942, in Providence in 1947, and in Lake Placid in 1948, when they took third place. In 1934, 1947, and 1948, Clinton won district championships. During the war years of 1943-45, the club did not ice a team.
Most players for the Clinton Hockey Club came from the club’s home town. Utica, Rome, and Syracuse have provided their share; Hamilton and Colgate alumni have been included; and the club’s prominence and facilities even attracted Canadians and others who made their homes in Clinton—some permanently, and others on a hockey-season basis.
Without a nickname, in its early days, the local hockey players were called “Clinton Comets”, after local artist Willard Sauter suggested the name in 1949. Team colors, originally royal blue and gold, were changed in 1947 to red, white, and blue.
In 1951, the New York-Ontario League was formed in Lake Placid, with the Clinton Comets as charter members. Ed Stanley made the move in order to have a set schedule, and to create a fan base. While playing in the NYOHL, the Clinton Comets also continued to compete in the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States, winning the AHAUS Intermediate Championship in 1951, ’52, and ’53.
Creating a Legacy
In the early years of the Clinton Comets, most of the players were home grown, and many went on to become the High School coaches and referees, NHL players, and Olympians. The Clinton Comets even produced a “movie star”: “Indian” Joe Nolan (“Slapshot”).
From 1955 to 1973, the Clinton Comets competed in the Eastern Hockey League, and were always a force to be reckoned with, winning the championship five times. Of those five wins, three were consecutive: 1968, 1969, and 1970. The Clinton Comets, whose home was a village of only 2,000 people, competed with teams from Philadelphia, New York City, New Haven, Greensboro, Charlotte, Nashville, Knoxville, Washington, D.C., and Jacksonville.
The legend of the Clinton Comets lives on, with the coveted Lester Patrick Award being given to the former Comet player-coach Pat Kelly last year. After his Comet career (1965 to 1973), Kelly went on to coach the Colorado Rockies NHL team, and was instrumental in forming the East Coast Hockey League in 1988. Pat Kelly will return to Clinton on Saturday afternoon, February 11th, 2018 as a keynote speaker.
Wren Blair was hired as General Manager before the 1957-58 season, so the Clinton Comets could have better contacts in Canada and be more competitive in the Eastern Hockey League. His tenure lasted until 1967, when he became the GM of the expansion Minnesota North Stars. During Blair’s reign, the team amassed a record of 335 wins, 285 losses, and 27 ties. During their 19 years in the EHL, the Clinton Comets won 50 or more games three years. The 1967-68 Comet team record was 57 wins, 5 losses, and 10 ties. To this day, no other team in any hockey league—playing a minimum of 70 games—has lost that few. This accomplishment has earned this team a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Saturday night was hockey night in Clinton. The Eastern League allowed the Clinton Comets to play the majority of their home games on Saturday, because of the size of their market. There were very few Saturday nights that the Clinton Arena was not overflowing, and very few when the fans went home disappointed.
In 1973, the Clinton Comets were sold to a group of Utica businessmen, and games were moved to the Utica Memorial Auditorium on Oriskany Street. This ended the adult hockey team based in Clinton. Since then, local professional hockey has had its ups and downs. Some years there was a team, and some years there was not; teams often started and folded due to financial issues.
Two successes have been the Utica Devils, a farm team of the New Jersey Devils, from 1987-1993, and the more recent Utica Comets, affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, operated by Rob Esche, a Whitesboro native who played professional NHL hockey as a goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers. The Utica Comets play all their home games in Utica, to sell-out crowds in the historic Utica Auditorium.
Clinton’s hockey history can be attributed, in large part, to Ed Stanley. But it was Albert I. Prettyman and his son Burt who brought the sport to Clinton, enabling Clinton hockey fans to hold close the memories they cherish today. Thank You, Albert Prettyman!
Though our timeline includes details of many of those players, coaches, and teams, we still need your stories, accounts, statistics, and photos for much of that history. Please share them with us. We look forward to including your stories from your years as a Clinton hockey player or fan!