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.Tags: Abbotsford Heat, affiliate, AHL