The Utica Comets have a new teammate.
This one takes a few more naps, licks his teammate’s faces and has four legs. He also seems to have good retrieval skills.
His name is Comet, and he’s a yellow Labrador who is about 12 weeks old. While he’s not actually suiting up for the American Hockey League team, Comet is training to be a working guide dog for a visually impaired or blind person. The Comets partnered with Cassville-based Freedom Guide Dogs to help raise and train Comet.
Comet has been at a few recent Utica home games – the plan is to have him at all of the team’s home games – and various other events during the season. During his first two appearances at games over the last week, Comet was pretty popular as fans pet him and took pictures. On Wednesday morning, Comet got to meet the players during practice.
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“The benefits (of the partnership) are you get the word out to the public,” said Joe Luker, who along with wife, Denise, are Comet’s main handlers. “The dog certainly gets more access to the public. We try to socialize the dog as much as possible. Being associated with the Utica Comets is perfect because there are thousands of people (at games) and they all get to see the dog, and they get to hopefully find out what the program is all about.”
Freedom Guide Dogs, which was founded in the Mohawk Valley in 1992, is a nonprofit organization that breeds, trains and places guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired through its program.
Dogs in the program like Comet are raised by volunteers like the Lukers for between 15 and 18 months. After that, Comet will go into formal training before meeting a recipient they will be paired with. There is no cost to the recipient, according to the organization.
Comet has to learn a lot of basic commands and obedience. There’s a lot of socialization involved so he’s ready for different situations as a guide dog, Joe Luker said.
“Some people use the bus or live in a big city,” Denise Luker said. “Everybody deals with things differently. It is a lot easier for them to learn where they live so they don’t have any surprises.”
In recent years, other sports teams have partnered with groups to have team dogs. In 2020, there were nine NHL teams that had “team dogs,” most of which are training to assist veterans, emergency responders or people with disabilities.
At the AHL level, the Charlotte Checkers had a dog named Calder – after the AHL’s championship trophy – that was a fixture for about two years before being placed with a person in need.
So, the Comets are the latest hockey team to help champion an organization’s cause. If all goes well, he’ll also be part of the Comets through next season as well.
“Comet came into the office (recently) and everybody was just like ‘oh my goodness, this is the cutest thing in the world,'” Comets radio broadcaster and digital content manager Michael Lehr said. “(Comets Vice President of Corporate Partnerships) Alicia (DeSarro) said he’s going to be at every game and he can be part of the team. We were so excited.”
The team has posted video clips of Comet on social media, which has drawn much interest. The team also created an Instagram account for him (user name: Uticacometspup_comet). He already has more than 600 followers on the social media app.
“He’s going to come to games and people are going to meet him. I think that’s the number one draw,” said Lehr, who noted goaltender Nico Daws asked about Comet days before he got to meet the team. “The guys were really excited. We’re really excited to make him part of the team. …
“Everyone loves a dog. People are fans for so many different reasons. There’s Comets fans that are young, old and ones that love hockey or just following this year (because of the new affiliation with New Jersey). But, pretty much everyone loves a dog.”
Comet gettin’ in a pre-game snooze pic.twitter.com/xlfA1zYbKf
— Ben Birnell (@OD_Birnell) November 19, 2021
Ben Birnell is a sports reporter for the Observer-Dispatch. Email Ben Birnell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Observer-Dispatch: Utica Comets partnership helps Comet prepare for guide dog role