Even though the Utica Comets regularly get contributions from everyone up and down the lineup, there are some players that are truly unsung heroes for the team.
“Unsung hero” is defined as a person who has achieved great things, yet is not celebrated or recognized. Many on the Utica Comets roster have certainly achieved great things this season, and the exploits of players such as Nico Daws, Akira Schmid, Reilly Walsh, Fabian Zetterlund, Alexander Holtz, Chase DeLeo, and Kevin Bahl are well known – Bahl even has his own chant and group of fans known as “Bahl’s Army”.
Still, other Comets may not be at the top of the scoring lists, but mention their names, and fans of Mohawk Valley hockey will tell you what they bring to the team. Captain Ryan Schmelzer and Joe Gambardella are well-known for their grit and leadership skills. Tyler Wotherspoon is so highly thought of that he was on the Canadian Olympic Team for the 2022 Winter Games, and Robbie Russo is one most recognizable players on the team. Nolan Foote and Graeme Clarke have missed time at various points this season, but their presence is certainly known.
Originally AJ Greer was a player I had thought of as an “unsung hero” type of player, but his stellar play has made him as well known as any of the Comets – heck, fans even made a shirt in his honor!
So with all that said, who are the players that don’t get enough recognition for their contributions – the “unsung heroes” if you will. In no particular order, here are the players this writer believes qualify as unsung heroes for the Utica Comets.
Nate Schnarr. Even though he isn’t as high-profile as his fellow Comets forwards, Schnarr is having a breakout season. Last season with the Binghamton Devils, he posted six goals and nine assists in thirty-three games. This season, he has thirteen goals and twelve assists in thirty-seven games and is sixth overall on the Utica scoring list.
Schnarr brings grit and physicality to go with a scoring touch and 200-foot game (he is +13 this season, which is the fifth-best on the team). Standing at six-feet three inches and weighing 185 pounds, the twenty-three-year-old uses his size to dig pucks out along the boards and establish a presence in the “dirty areas” in front of the opponent’s net. Schnarr’s style of play is a perfect fit for Comets coach Kevin Dinneen’s system which has led to the team’s extraordinary success so far this season – even if Nate isn’t always recognized for it.
Nikita Okhotiuk. Playing in his second professional season, defenseman Nikita Okhotiuk doesn’t have a big impact on the scoresheet as he has only two goals and six assists in forty-four games played this season. The twenty-one-year-old 2019 second-round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils does however make an impact everywhere else on the ice for the Comets.
Okhotiuk has been very strong in his own end this season as he has a solid +11. He is developing into a “shutdown” type of defenseman and imposes physicality in front of his own net and wherever else necessary. With fifty PIM this season, and as we see below, is not shy about dropping the gloves.
Aarne Talvitie. Aarne Talvitie has quietly developed into the type of effective defensive-minded center that is so important to every team. Even though the name of his game is defense, he has still put up eight goals and nine assists in forty-five games played (he had three points in eighteen games last season for Binghamton in his first professional season). To go with his offensive production, Talvitie’s defensive skills are illustrated by the +10 he carries so this season.
With his defensive abilities, Talvitie has been a stalwart on the Comet’s penalty-killing unit. He has one of Utica’s seven shorthanded goals this season.
Mareks Mitens. Mareks Mitens hasn’t played a lot lately, but he deserves to be on this list.
When Nico Daws went down due to injury and Akira Schmid was recalled to the Devils within two days of each other in early December, it was Mitens who stepped in to fill the void in the Utica net during their absence. He played admirably, starting eight games in a row which kept the Comets from having to start a rotation of PTO backup goaltenders in any of those games. He went 4-4 during that stretch, and three of his defeats were by just one goal. His record overall with the Comets this season is 5-5-1 with a 3.66 GAA and .874 save percentage.
Daws and Schmid have been rotating between New Jersey with whoever is in Utica getting the lion’s share of the starts. Regardless, Mitens stepped in and helped stabilize the team’s goaltending situation when it needed him the most.