During last year’s AHL playoffs, the Abbotsford Heat swept the Milwaukee Admirals, earning them a berth in the second round against the Toronto Marlies. After winning the first game, the Marlies won the next three, making game five one of the greatest events in hockey: a playoff elimination game.
With the Canucks already eliminated from the playoffs, the Heat were hoping that hockey-hungry fans would flock to the Abbotsford Sports & Entertainment Centre to take in the action. Instead, a paltry 1360 fans showed up for what turned out to be a thrilling overtime game. I was one of the few people in attendance and it was thoroughly depressing to see so many empty seats.
I understand why it happened of course. It was risky to plant the AHL affiliate of the Calgary Flames in the heart of Canucks country and the terrible branding and marketing did little to separate the Heat from the Flames in the minds of most fans. Their more recent slogan “Our Town. Our Team.” that I’ve seen on signs around Abbotsford is far better, but it’s too little, too late for many. Most Canucks fans just can’t wrap their minds around the idea of cheering for the affiliate of one of the Canucks’ biggest rivals, even during an NHL lockout where the Heat are the only professional hockey within driving distance.
Let me help you remove that roadblock: if you cheer for the Heat, you want the Flames to be terrible. Becoming a Heat fan won’t make you into a Flames fan by proxy; instead, it will simply heighten your hate.
To put it simply, the worse that the Calgary Flames get, the better the Abbotsford Heat get. It starts at the NHL draft: the worse the Flames do during the season, the higher their draft picks get. Higher draft picks lead to better prospects, which leads to better players on the Heat.
Even if the Flames manage to pick a can’t-miss prospect with a high first round draft pick, that prospect will likely need to spend a season or two in the AHL adapting to the professional game. Meanwhile, the Flames’ draft picks in later rounds will also be higher, leading to incrementally better players entering their farm system, boosting the talent level on the Heat gradually over time.
That’s just the long-term benefit to the Heat by the Flames being awful. Perhaps you want some instant gratification. If the Flames miss the playoffs, their players on two-way contracts will head back down to the Heat to bolster their ranks heading into the AHL postseason. Cheer for the Heat to make the playoffs while rooting for the Flames to burn out, because that’s the best way for the Heat to make a long run.
You might be worried about growing an attachment to Flames prospects that will carry over to their careers in the NHL. Sure, Sven Baertschi and Roman Horak are pretty great as players for the Abbotsford Heat, but you don’t want to be saying the same thing when they’re wearing the Flaming “C.” As a Heat fan, however, you will want those prospects to become complete busts in the NHL so they can be sent back down to the Heat as soon as possible.
Ideally, every Flames prospect would turn into a Jason Krog, Darren Haydar, or Brett Sterling. They are AHL All-Stars, with an impressive list of accomplishments at the AHL level, but have never managed to stick in the NHL. Krog scored 112 points for the Chicago Wolves in 2007-08. Haydar had a 122 point season for the Wolves in 2006-07. Sterling scored 55 goals as a rookie for the Wolves in that same season.
Of those three, Krog has had the most NHL success, playing a couple seasons for the Ducks back when they were still Mighty. Sterling has played 30 NHL games over his career, while Haydar has only managed 23. So cheer for the Flames’ prospects in Abbotsford. Cheer for them to become incredible AHL players who provide nothing whatsoever for their parent club.
Besides, there are plenty of players on the Heat who will never have any impact with the Flames. Ben Walter is 28 and is essentially a career AHLer at this point. The son of team President (and former Canuck) Ryan Walter is a hard-working, consistent 20-goal scorer, the kind of player fans love to cheer for. The Heat’s starting goaltender, Danny Taylor, isn’t even signed with the Flames. Calgary’s top goaltending prospect, Leland Irving, isn’t even the Heat’s backup goalie: he’s their third-stringer behind Barry Brust, who is quite possibly insane.
Then again, you might be concerned about the fact that the Flames own the Heat directly. You don’t want to see any of your money lining the Flames pockets. Throw that concern away: the city of Abbotsford is already under contract to make up any shortfall of the $5.7 million in guaranteed revenue the Flames are promised. Over the last two years, the city has had to pay the Flames $1.7 million, money that comes straight out of the taxpayer’s pockets.
While you can bemoan the terrible arena deal (and you really should), the upshot is that by attending Heat games and buying Heat merchandise, you’re not really feeding money to the Flames. Instead, you’re keeping money from flowing out of the city’s coffers, ensuring that those funds are used locally.
If you’re missing professional hockey during the lockout, you owe it to yourself to give the Abbotsford Heat a try. At least come out to one of their games against the Toronto Marlies on Thursday or Friday. If there’s anything that Canucks fans might hate more than the Calgary Flames, it’s Toronto, so you just may be able to cheer for the Heat for the very first time. Who knows, it might feel good.Tags: Abbotsford Heat, AHL, the AHL is a good league too