It's 4 a.m., and Robert Esche is writing thank-you letters. Like many, he isn't getting much sleep. The president of the Utica Comets uses these early hours to acknowledge hundreds of strangers for their generosity since the American Hockey League suspended its season on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
He's thanking them for helping the Comets to "Puck The Virus."
That's the slogan emblazoned on Utica's briskly selling T-shirt, which has become one of sports' quirkiest fundraisers for workers impacted by the leaguewide shutdowns. "I can't tell you how many times I've misspelled my own name," the former NHL goaltender told ESPN with a laugh. "It's turned into a great story during a time when we're all kind of battling."
The Comets, a New York-based Vancouver Canucks affiliate, are in the smallest media market in the AHL, according to Esche. They had 20% of their home schedule -- seven games -- remaining when the NHL and AHL paused their seasons. COVID-19 left many professional sports teams scrambling to address payroll and staffing concerns, which in some cases meant reducing both. The Comets didn't want to add to that trend.
"My hope is that we get through this without any employees going anywhere," said Esche, who added that Utica hadn't made any staffing cuts as of Friday. "I think we'll be much stronger coming out of it, like the whole country will. But we have some work to do."
The work began two weeks ago, when the Comets began selling the "Puck The Virus" shirts on their website for $25 each. The proceeds went into a fund to pay the team's staffers during the shutdown. Whether it was due to the defiant message resonating with equally disenfranchised hockey fans or the charitable aim, the Comets report that they've sold about 2,000 shirts locally, nationally and internationally.
"Our goal is to keep everybody whole, on a regular paycheck cycle," Esche said, noting that the weekly expense for a team such as the Comets is around $65,000, which includes payroll, health care and workers' comp.
Esche, who played eight seasons in the NHL with the then-Phoenix Coyotes and Philadelphia Flyers, said his company, Mohawk Valley Garden, is a third-party contractor between the Canucks and the Comets. The company operates the business side of the team, as well as Adirondack Bank Center at the Utica Memorial Auditorium and its concessions. That has given the Comets some advantages in weathering the coronavirus shutdown in that all of those arms of the operation fall under one company, which has about 50 staffers. There are cash reserves in place to pay the front office and payroll staff. The fund created through the T-shirt and other fundraising efforts will help compensate hourly employees and part-time employees, from game-night concession workers to Zamboni drivers.
"This is a crisis the magnitude that we've never seen before," Esche said. "I vividly remember playing in Phoenix during 9/11. I remember how quick it was to get back. That was more of a light switch. That was more of 'it's important we don't succumb to terrorists and we get back playing and give people a comfort level.' I remember those conversations with the NHLPA and the NHL, and it was the right thing to do. Sports came back in a massively successful way. This is very much different. You're fighting against something that's not only a health crisis but an economic crisis."
When Utica heard that the AHL was pausing its season, Esche and his staff gathered together to plan next steps. His message was clear: The team would do everything it could to preserve its staffing levels. "We're with you, no matter what," Esche recalled saying.
He also asked if there were any ideas the team could implement to "help keep this thing afloat" during the difficult times ahead. On top of no revenue being generated from home games, the team knew it was going to have trouble reaching out for season-ticket renewals or corporate or sponsorship inquiries.
The team's vice president of marketing came up with the T-shirt idea. Esche appreciated the concept but knew they needed something extraordinary to break through and generate revenue. A subsequent brainstorming session with staff produced such an idea when the team's play-by-play voice, Joe Roberts, blurted out "Puck The Virus" as a suggestion, and the entire room burst into laughter.
The good kind.
"I'm a sucker for a good pun," Roberts recalled. "We were sitting in a meeting, and the idea for the shirt was pitched. In the middle of a conversation, I jumped in and said, 'What about Puck The Virus?' It's kind of cool. It sounds like a swear word, so people will think it's hilarious. And it's also not overwhelmingly our brand, which would turn off people from buying it."
The team's graphic designer created a "Puck The Virus" illustration that used the team's third logo, which is a stylized "U," and it was well-received. The shirts were revealed to the public on the night of March 14, at puck drop of what would have been the Comets' next game on the schedule.
And then they went ... viral. The shirts sold locally. They sold nationally, with California being a surprisingly robust market. They sold internationally, as Vancouver Canucks fans supporting their minor league affiliate spiked sales in British Columbia.
The following day, Esche worked with his staff to create a fund from the revenue generated by the shirts and other efforts.
"Clearly, it's not for profiting or for front-office jobs. It's only simply to keep as many people employed as possible," Esche said. "Every small business is going through this right now. We're the smallest [media] market in the AHL. All we're trying to do is stay afloat. The coolest thing about it is that during such a bleak time, it's reenergized our staff to something I've never seen the likes of, which is very impressive in the face of all of this."
The Utica staff learned quickly how to fulfill orders, getting a crash course on packaging and shipping. New York State regulations meant that only 50% of staffers could be in the building at the start, then it was 25%, and now businesses are prohibited from operating unless they're deemed essential. The Comets' operation moved remotely, with social media used to keep the effort going. For his part, Esche promised to write a comment card for every T-shirt sold.
"He's a community servant through sports entertainment. I know that can sound confusing. But he knows where he's from and knows this area has potential to grow through sports entertainment. Utica has a lot going on," Roberts said of Esche, who grew up in New York's Oneida County.
"It's a hockey town, and they love their hockey team. They've gone through a lot with them: losing teams, having them come back, now having a season suspended. There are a lot of truly, truly passionate people working for the organization."
Given how the "Puck The Virus" shirts have moved, it's clear that many others have appreciated their efforts.