Canucks, Abbotsford may be ideal match, but Flames happy with Heat

Did you hear? The Canucks are in talks to take over the AHL franchise in Abbotsford. At least, that’s been the rumour for the last four years or so.

If it’s true, nobody’s talking. Abbotsford Heat President Ryan Walter says no one has discussed it with him. Same for Abbotsford mayor Bruce Banman.

“As of yet, nobody’s knocking on my door,” Banman said. But he wasn’t shy about admitting that the city would be “fools not to be” interested if the Aquilini Group, owners of the Vancouver Canucks, did come around hoping to take the reigns of the franchise from the Northwest Division rival Calgary Flames. In fact, the rumours excite him like they excite anybody else. ”I’m hoping where there’s smoke there’s fire,” Banman said.

Like all good rumours, the idea that the Canucks are interested in Abbotsford thrives primarily because it’s plausible. The Canucks are the big-ticket item in the Fraser Valley, and Abbotsford is no exception. All one needs to do in order to see the city’s devotion to the NHL club is drive down South Fraser Way after a Canucks’ playoff win, when the city’s main drag is overrun with celebratory fans whooping aloud, honking car horns, and generally carrying on. Safe to say, bringing the Canucks affiliate to Abbotsford would bring down the house.

It would also make it a little easier to fill. The Heat averaged 3,545 in attendance during the 2011-12 season, about 2000 fewer than the league average and 29th out of the league’s 30 teams. Over the Heat’s two rounds of playoff action, that number dropped to a frustrating 2,389.

Some of this has to do with the fact that AHL attendance always drops in the postseason, which shares a spotlight with the NHL playoffs. And the Canucks’ early ouster from the postseason didn’t help. That typically signals the moment many in the Fraser Valley switches into offseason mode for hockey at all levels. (The Heat can only hope that, despite the NHL lockout, these same fans are now clamouring to get out of this mode. The Heat’s season begins October 12th, and the labour stoppage guarantees an influx of young NHL talent and no NHL to compete with. Plus the Chicago Wolves are in town on the weekend of the 19th. It should help drive the box office.)

But Abbotsford’s attendance problem goes much further back. Much of it stems from the circumstances under which the team began.

The city’s partnership with the Flames has been problematic from the outset. While the deal promised that any profits in excess of $5.7 million would be split between the city and the ownership group and early projections indicated the Heat would generate this kind of revenue, the city also agreed to make up the difference if profits didn’t reach that benchmark. Last year, that meant taxpayers paid $1.3 million for the Flames, nearly $900,000 more than the year prior.

“If anything the business plan was overly optimistic,” Banman admitted. He also made sure to mention he wasn’t mayor then.

But more importantly, the Heat were a Flames affiliate and they were branded to look like one. In order for many to support a local franchise, they need to feel as though its theirs, and the Heat made this difficult. Rather than adopting the city of Abbotsford’s colours (blue, white, and green), the Heat took on the red and black of the Flames, and as clever as their nickname was (Heat is an offshoot of Flames. Get it?), it only served to remind people that the team is Calgary’s.

It’s an approach that rarely works. Of the top 10 franchises in the AHL by attendance, only the Providence Bruins and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are branded to align with their NHL affiliates, and both are in the same general area as the big club. The Heat aren’t.

The Heat are doing their best to connect to the community anyway. The players and staff make appearances. (“I’ve never done so many men’s breakfasts in my life,” Walter joked.) They give to local causes. They may charge $10 for game-day parking, but all revenue goes directly to the University of the Fraser Valley next door.

Another issue: nearly half of Abbotsford residents voted against the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, the building in which the Heat play. The decision to allot $85 million in public funds to erect the arena and two other community projects was put to a public referendum and passed by a slim 54.6% margin on November 25, 2006. Many are still begrudged enough to avoid the arena to this day.

Banman cautioned against avoiding the building out of spite.

“The first thing I did [once elected] is I apologized to the citizens of this town. ‘I’m sorry that we are where we are, things did not go as we projected or as planned.’ But for those that dig their heels in, be very careful what you wish for. If we have to turn the lights out on this building, we still have to pay for it.”

All of this is to say, most in the Fraser Valley would agree that bringing the Canucks’ prospects to Abbotsford would make everybody very happy. ”I’d love to win the lotto too,” said Banman, “But that’s not in my control.”

He’s right. It’s not up to anybody in the Fraser Valley. It’s up to the Calgary Flames organization, and they’re happy now.

It’s important to note that the Canucks were offered Abbotsford first. When construction began on the AESC, the city of Abbotsford set their sights on partnering with an NHL franchise to bring a tenant to the building. They called the Canucks first. Unfortunately, the Canucks were in a happy marriage with the Manitoba Moose at the time, and they weren’t looking for a new partner.

The Canucks may be now, with the Moose gone to Newfoundland and the Chicago Wolves proving a little more independent than they’re used to, but they weren’t then.

The Calgary Flames, however, were. Never in their history had they been blessed with an affiliate so close. A flight from Abbotsford to Calgary takes 45 minutes, which means they can call a prospect up the morning of the game — the afternoon, even — and have him in the lineup by puck drop without hassle. They had to take advantage of this benefit numerous times during the 2011-12 season, when a rash of injuries had them calling Abbotsford regularly just to dress enough bodies for their games. One could hardly call last year’s Flames lucky, but they had to be thanking their lucky stars for Abbotsford’s proximity at that point.

Furthermore, the Heat are running a tight ship for the Flames. The coaching staff, led by Troy G. Ward, coaxed a record season out of a roster thin with high-end prospects. Ward prides himself on personal improvement, and the players under his watch have reflected this. The Heat play hard-working, responsible, two-way hockey and it’s led to opportunities for several of his players to take the next step. Players like Akim Aliu and Hugh Jessiman saw their careers resurrected by one year in Abbotsford and wound up signing NHL contracts in the summer. The Flames have to like that.

And finally, even if the ownership group continues to lose money, they know they any shortfalls in revenue below $5.7 million will be met by the city. So why change anything?

As long as the Flames control the affiliate in Abbotsford, the rumours of Vancouver’s interest will persist. There may even be something to them. “I can’t really talk about that too much,” Mike Gillis responded when asked about his franchise’s interest in Abbotsford by play-by-play man Ryan Pinder during a broadcast last spring. But unless the Aquilini Group is willing to pay a lot of money to wriggle a great situation away from Calgary, it won’t go beyond interest.

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11 comments

  1. Dave Robinson (@dcrwrites)
    September 29, 2012

    Flames are not going to give up the Heat unless someone is willing to subsidize their AHL affiliate the way Abbotsford does. The current situation is crap for everyone except the Flames, but it works really well for them so there’s no way they’re going unless someone makes a ridiculous offer.

    It’s just too good for Calgary right now: and sticking it to the ‘Nucks is just a bonus – icing on the cake.

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  2. abbytaxpayer
    September 29, 2012

    …nearly half of Abbotsford residents voted against the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, the building in which the Heat play…

    Well if Abbotsford only had 18000 residents this would be true. That`s how many people actually bothered to exercise their right to vote in the Plan A referendum, and 54.6% of them said yes.

    I have very little sympathy for those Abbotsford tax payers who are complaining now but didn`t bother to vote at the time.

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  3. Mt
    September 29, 2012

    Ug. It would be great for the ‘Nucks to get Abbotsford but mostly that just makes me feel bad for Abbotsfordians. Corporate welfare has to hurt even more if you can’t identify with the team you pay for.

    What’s the deal with “Chicago Wolves proving a little more independent than they’re used to”? Has that been an issue?

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    • Harrison Mooney
      September 29, 2012

      We’ll have something on Baumgartner and the Wolves next week that should clarify that a little, but short answer: yes.

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      • Mt
        September 29, 2012

        Look forward to it. Thanks.

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  4. akidd
    September 29, 2012

    it makes just way too much sense for the canucks to move their affiliate to abbotsford. in every way. unfortunately that means it probably won’t happen. unless aquillini just makes a nice cash offer to the flames. if they got it done right away the building would sell out every night. hey, i might even make the trip out( i wouldn’t care if it rains or freezes…:) just to see how kassian does with more than 7 mins per game. or what kind of damage a connaugton/ tanev pairing might wreak.

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  5. Tengeresz
    September 29, 2012

    Two better ideas: Victoria, or Nanaimo.

    Both available with a quick hop on a Beaver (pun intended), both great hockey towns with good size populations, and neither direct competition for the lower mainland ticket sales.
    WHY NOT???

    Abbotsford would be great, but as clearly explained in this article: hightly unlikely.

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    • Scott
      October 1, 2012

      WHL moved into Victoria out of fear the Canucks would move there. Doubt the Canucks would want to compete against an existing team.

      Nanaimo doesn’t have a building or an international airport.

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  6. Frank N
    October 1, 2012

    And what about the Giants? Wouldn’t it make sense for them to become the affiliate?

    So Abbotsford’s mayor says there is nothing he can do. Surely the contract the city signed must end at some point in the future? And didn’t Abbotsford make sure to put some clause it that they could get out from under the contract midway through? In such a case, the Aquillini group could help Abbotsford to pay any penalty that would probably be part of such a clause.

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    • abbytaxpayer
      October 1, 2012

      you’re right Frank, contract is 10 years and gets reviewed at the mid-point which I think is next year.

      I am a big fan of Abbotsford Heat because they are the team that got me into hockey in the first place, but it would be great to have the Canucks farm-team in Abby (as long as I can still afford a season ticket!)

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  7. Homer
    October 2, 2012

    Canucks don’t want a farm team too close to home. They wants the advantage of calling up a player when they’re on the road. ex if they’re in New York and one of their player get hurt then calling up a player from Affordsford would be too far. The player might not arrived in time for the next game and will be jet-lagged. That’s why they were happy with Manitoba Moose and Chicago Wolves because it’s located near the middle of North America.

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