Report: Canucks, Blues, Flames working on three-way trade… for AHL affiliates

Are the Canucks, Blues, and Flames, forming some sort of AHL affiliate swingers club? Sort of!

It’s been awhile since we talked about the hockey team in Abbotsford, which makes sense, since they’re a Calgary Flames affiliate and this is a Vancouver Canucks blog. But if the Team 1040′s Tom Mayenknecht is correct, it won’t be a Flames affiliate for much longer. As has been rumoured for ages, the Canucks are in the process of working out a move that would allow them to set up shop in the Lower Mainland’s city in the country.

According to Mayenknecht, as part of a game of musical chairs, the Flames would move the Heat to Utica, leaving Abbotsford for the Canucks, who would then finalize a purchase for the Peoria Rivermen and quickly transform them into the Abbotsford Fraser Rivermen (or, you know, a better name). Meanwhile, the St. Louis Blues would align themselves with the independent Chicago Wolves.

It’s a safe bet that this report isn’t entirely correct. Blues chief operating officer Bruce Affleck offered a weak denial of the rumour that Peoria was on the way out, but he was strong on one point: ”I’ve had no conversations with the Vancouver Canucks,” he told the Peoria Journal Star. “I’ve had no conversations with the Chicago Wolves.”

But he said nothing about the Calgary Flames, who are more than likely the team that will be buying the Peoria Rivermen.

Think about it. What’s the sense in buying and moving two franchises when you could save a lot of time and effort by simply moving one? The Blues, Flames and Canucks do appear to be quietly working on this complicated dance number, but if they are, expect the Canucks to take over the operation that’s already in Abbotsford rather than purchasing and transporting a whole a new one, while the Flames purchase Peoria and move them to Utica or another market.

(I can’t speak to what the Flames might see in New York or how much truth there is to that part of the report. When the Utica rumour hit the Internet a few weeks back, I was told that it was likely based on little more than the offer Utica has been shopping around in hopes of landing an AHL team, not an agreement that’s actually been drawn up between them and the Heat. It’s possible things have progressed since then, but last I heard, the interest was coming primarily from Utica’s end. That’s about all I can tell you about Utica — apart from the fact that they don’t called hamburgers “steamed hams”, which is more of an Albany expression.)

Apart from that, the affiliate juggling Mayenknecht is reporting makes a lot of sense.

It makes sense for the Blues, who are losing money owning the Peoria Rivermen. “(Blues GM) Doug Armstrong and Tom Stillman look at the AHL operation as research and development investment for players,” Affleck said. “You lose money there. Very few teams in the AHL make money.”

It makes sense for the Canucks, who would likely be one of those very few teams making money if they controlled the affiliate in Abbotsford. Attendance for Heat games has pretty much always subpar, but it’s better when the Canucks’ prospects come to town. Thus, if the Canucks’ prospects were always in town, it’s a safe bet that attendance would always be better.

It also makes sense for the Calgary Flames, although you wouldn’t think so at first. Their 10-year deal with the city of Abbotsford is, at least on paper, fantastic. If they fail to reap $5.7 million in any given season, Abbotsford taxpayers, not the club’s owners, pick up the slack. In other words, while the Blues are feeling the ill effects of an unprofitable franchise, the Flames aren’t. Add in the fact that their affiliate is just an hour’s flight away and you can understand why they’d be reluctant to just pack up and go.

Over at the ever-cynical Canucks Army, Thomas Drance used these perfectly reasonable facts to fuel his skepticism about this report. “Why exactly would the Flames willingly move their risk-free AHL affilliate from the Fraser Valley to New York state?” he asked.

It’s a good question, but there are plenty of answers. Here are four that start with the same letter: pride, public relations, pressure, and proximity.

The Heat aren’t working in Abbotsford. Despite four years in the market, their profits are declining annually. Taxpayers have now paid $3.58 million to the club and counting. Furthermore, if attendance numbers were going to increase, it really should have happened with the NHL in a lockout and the Heat coming off their best season ever. Instead, things have gotten worse. That’s embarrassing.

Sure, the Flames could gleefully ignore this and let the wound sit open while Abbotsford bleeds for them, but then they’d find themselves in a situation where they’re effectively shrugging their shoulders as they bleed a small town dry through subsidies. That’s just terrible public relations for an NHL franchise, especially a franchise based in notoriously conservative Alberta. It only gets worse coming on the heels of Daryl Katz and the Oilers’ public money grabs in Edmonton. Do you really want to be compared to that odious situation?

No, the Flames aren’t nearly as comfortable running a lame-duck organization and suckling taxpayer teat like a greedy piglet as you’d think.

Plus, there is pressure from other groups at play here. Even if the Flames could laugh it up and sit back, there are members of the local community that have to continue to operate a franchise in an area growing increasingly frustrated with everyone involved. We already know the city council wants this desperately. When asked if he’d like the Canucks’ affiliate in town, Abbotsford mayor Bruce Banman likened it to winning the lottery.

And outside of Abbotsford, the AHL, who is trying to run a legitimate professional sports league that doesn’t, you know, ruin communities, will take a big P.R. hit the longer this drags on as well.

Don’t count out the AHL’s interests here. They’ve struggled in recent years to establish themselves in the West. The Heat really are out in the middle of nowhere for what essentially amounts to a bus league. But the league is working on it, and if they can work alongside the NHL in their current attempt to realign their divisions and link teams in the same time zone, the American Hockey League might be able to grow a bona fide Western division (as opposed to one that has the Toronto Marlies in it, absurdly). The AHL is in flux right now, as always, and not just with the musical chairs Mayenknecht is reporting. Turning an untenable situation in Abbotsford into a profitable hub in the West is in the best interests of the whole brand, and they’re likely to do what they can to urge this move towards fruition.

But the Heat’s isolation is problematic for the Flames as well. While Abbotsford’s proximity to Calgary may be convenient for the big club, it’s terribly inconvenient for little ones. Consider that, while most of the other AHL teams are bussing from place to place, no longer than 8 hours, and returning to their own beds and significant others most nights, the Heat’s players are travelling about 100 days a year. Their nutrition suffers, their sleep suffers, their relationships suffer (and these are young people, remember), and they don’t get nearly as much practice and improvement time as other clubs. The AHL is a developmental league, and running a franchise on an island is counterintuitive in a lot of ways.

This is a problem the Canucks will be forced to deal with as well, and one I would hope they’ve considered. Unless the AHL really does make some in-roads into growing the league out West — which is difficult to do with the WHL hoarding the best nearby markets like Seattle, Portland, and even Victoria — the Canucks’ kids will feel this isolation too. The upside here, of course, is that the Canucks’ brass are just 45 minutes up the road.

Granted, the Flames may not just generously step aside so Francesco Aquilini can waltz in and make money hand over fist, especially since they aren’t exactly best buds with the Canucks. For that reason, it’s still probably going to take a little grease for Calgary to roll out.

But from the sounds of it, it will be a whole lot easier than you’d think. Nothing is official yet, but if I were a betting man, I’d say that the Canucks’ prospects will be looking for living quarters near Abbotsford’s King Road shortly after their season wraps up.

11 comments

  1. Dave
    March 20, 2013

    “…and greedily suckling from the teat…”

    Any article that sneaks in a Ron Swanson should win a Pulitzer (or the blogger’s equivalent — we need to create such an award)

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  2. Rituro
    March 20, 2013

    No three-way trade is legit without a third-round pick. That’s just science, folks.

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  3. hehughes376
    March 20, 2013

    Even though I would be really sad to see the team that introduced me to the fantastic game of hockey leave the valley, this idea has always made a lot of sense to me.

    On top of that, if it does all come together, we would have the awesomeness that is Eddie Lack live and in person, and not just via twitter. That alone is worth the price of admission, which hopefully won’t increase to much if the nucks farm team does arrive in town this summer/fall.

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  4. Warpstone
    March 20, 2013

    Wow, the Vancouver Giants must hate this idea!

    I can see myself driving out to catch Nicklas Jensen and Eddie Lack in action. It’s just a no-brainer in terms of consumer dollars. Can you imagine how much attendance the Canuck’s farm team would get from Minor hockey related endorsements alone?

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  5. TestingTesting
    March 20, 2013

    OMG, the pihlet teat comment was hilarious.

    Sidenote. The additional travel requirement in the West for an AHL team will be foremost on Canucks managements minds. Let’s not kid ourselves. This is a team who brought in witch doctors, nutritionists, work closely with the NHL every year to mitigate the scheduling. They know what it’s like, you can bet their witch/sleep doctor, nutritionists and other out of the box practitioner will be doing double duty in the Vancouver area with both teams.

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  6. Pukeko
    March 21, 2013

    SKKKKKINNNNER!!!

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  7. John in Marpole
    March 21, 2013

    It would have made way too much sense for the Canucks to have put their affiliate in Victoria to replace the Salmon Kings a couple of years back. An AHL team in Victoria, combined with the Heat in Abbotsford, would have placed 2 AHL teams in the west, and both teams could have split the travel subsidy presently paid by Abbotsford to teams coming out west for games.

    AHL teams could have flown in and played 2 games against the Heat & 2 games in Victoria in 1 trip over the space of a week; there would have been a natural rivalry between Abbotsford & Victoria; Canuck fans on the island would have had easy access to quality professional hockey; and lastly, Canuck fans on the mainland could take an over-priced ferry ride to an AHL game in Victoria and still spend less money than going to a Canuck game.

    Not to mention that having an AHL team in Victoria pick up part of the travel subsidy would have likely had a positive impact on the hit on Abbotsford taxpayers.

    Totally win/win/win/win

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    • Rituro
      March 21, 2013

      Would’ve been interesting to see if an AHL franchise would’ve worked in Victoria. The WHL franchise pulls in roughly 5,000 per game as it is; would that be enough to sustain an AHL team? The ECHL games, if I recall correctly, were not well attended.

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      • Tengeresz
        March 21, 2013

        I’ve been to a lot of Victoria Royals WHL games, and I’ve never seen less than 4,000 in the stands. If there were an AHL team, especially the Canucks farm team, the 7,000 capacity would be sold out in season ticket sales. That could easily start the buzz to fund a new stadium in Nanaimo and bring in another farm team for a Western NHL team, and Voila! the AHL west is on a roll.

        Frankly, I see no reason not to have the AHL Victoria Orcas as the farm team for the Canucks right now. Clearly there is something I don’t understand. The bumpf about “Stadium too small” is not convincing to me. I suspect local politics.

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  8. Dwight Schrute
    March 21, 2013

    We will burn Utica to the ground!

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  9. J21 (@Jyrki21)
    March 21, 2013

    I don’t understand why minor league hockey is not split into smaller regional leagues like it is in baseball. It’s in the interest of *all* the Western teams to have a league farther west so that the teams can all play against one another, not to have like 85% of the teams in upstate New York. There’s no need for eastern and western minor league teams to play against each other ever, except maybe in a cute Memorial Cup-type dealie for each league winner at the end of the season.

    A concern I have about the Canucks’ minor league affiliate being right in the home market, though, is the exposure of the young guys to NHL-style media and fans right away. While Manitoba Moose fans would go to cheer on their AHL team first and foremost (and wax poetic about the days of Mike Eagles and Fredrik Olausson), fans of the Abbotsford Millionaires (or whoever) will be going to watch individual Canuck prospects, meaning they’ll be freaking out HFBoards-style every time a higher-profile Jensen type fails to register 15 goals in a period, booing prospects for not running an NHL-caliber power play, etc. The local media will have a lot more attention on the prospects as well. I don’t know what Toronto’s experience has been like in this respect, perhaps the fans are more reasonable than I’m giving them credit for.

    The other thing I haven’t wrapped my head around (mostly because I haven’t tried) is why full-on franchise purchases and relocations need to happen here. AHL affiliates get passed around NHL teams like crabs. They rotate every couple of years anyway. What’s different this time round that necessitates actual wheeling and dealing between the NHL teams? (Can we get Peoria for Ballard?)

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