If Flames can’t stand the Heat, Canucks should stay out of Abbotsford

While the Vancouver Canucks lost a great deal more than they won in 2013-14, they did at least manage to close out their season with two wins over the Calgary Flames.

The first came in their final game of the season, a mean-nothing 5-1 shellacking of their Western Canadian rivals. The second came two days later, when the Flames announced that they would be pulling up the stakes on their AHL franchise, the Abbotsford Heat, in search of greener pastures. (Although one wonders if they’ll ever be able to squeeze more green out of a municipality than they did out of Abbotsford. Add the $5.5 million the city paid to terminate the Heat’s contract to the $7.2 million they paid in shortfall over the past five years, and you have an absurd $12.7 million in taxpayer money going to a pro sports franchise valued at $420 million.)

But while Abbotsford lost, the Canucks achieved yet another moral victory with this announcement. Last summer, Canucks ownership tried their hardest to get the newly-purchased Peoria Rivermen into the Fraser Valley, but the Flames wouldn’t budge without some serious greasing. Knowing Vancouver was poised to make a killing in a market they were just killing, they wanted big money from the Canucks to vacate Abbotsford, and the Canucks weren’t willing to pay it out.

In the end, the Canucks started bluffing that they might go to New York instead. The Flames called their bluff. And the Canucks went. Hello, Utica Comets.

A year later, the Flames are leaving Abbotsford of their own accord with none of the Canucks’ money, and scouting out a new location for their franchise in what’s likely to be an even worse small-town market in the same state. (Utica’s population? 60,000. Meanwhile, Glens Falls, where the Flames are rumoured to be settling, has a population of under 15,000 — almost one-tenth the population of Abbotsford.)

And now the road is clear for the Canucks to move into Abbotsford, who will no doubt embrace them in a way they did not embrace the Calgarians.

But don’t expect them to rush into anything.

The Flames didn’t leave because nobody was coming to their games. Again, they turned a profit of nearly $13 million over five years simply by losing money. They really didn’t care that much of the city hated them, which is likely why the team was branded in the most off-putting way possible. (Fraser Valley hockey fans who likely adore the Canucks: come cheer for a team that looks exactly like the Flames, but not as good!)

What they did care about, however, was the development of their prospects, something that became even more important when Calgary launched into a rebuild shortly after they dropped their AHL team in Abbotsford.

From an AHL perspective, Abbotsford is in the middle of nowhere. The two nearest AHL cities are in Iowa and Oklahoma, about 3,000 kilometres away. While most of the rest of the AHL teams are bunched up in the East, a short midday bus ride away, the Heat were flying all over the country, and away from home 80 nights out of the season. That means entire days lost to travel and lives in limbo, and when you’re trying to turn a young kid into an NHL player, the last thing you want is a tumultuous life with little time for practice.

And this is the same thing the Canucks have to consider now. They’ve got four more years on their contract with the city of Utica, and while it’s a long way away from Vancouver, that might be just fine. The Canucks would likely take kids that can be in Vancouver for the season over kids that can simply get to it in under an hour.

Unless the WHL beats them to it — and truthfully, they might be a better fit, as they already have teams in Kelowna, Victoria, and Vancouver — it’s still quite likely that the Canucks will eventually move their prospects into the Fraser Valley. But if they find some way to wriggle out of their contract with Utica and rush into the Fraser Valley, they’re fools, more concerned with increasing their market share than improving their depth.

Fortunately, it doesn’t look like they’ll be doing that. “There’s nothing there,” Comets president Robert Esche told the Vancouver Sun, and the Canucks backed him up in a statement.

“We are committed to our AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets and enjoy a strong relationship with our partner club,” they said. “A strong base of Utica fans have shown tremendous support throughout the season and the Canucks intend to honour our long-term partnership agreement with the Comets.”

17 comments

  1. HeHughes376
    April 17, 2014

    As a fan of hockey and that an Abbotsford Heat season ticket holder I am sad to see the team leave Abbotsford as they got me hooked on this game and provided a lot of entertainment and some good friendships too. That said I have to agree that the Canucks would be crazy to move the Comets here given how attendance dropped of in the season series this year. Why move from a positive situation to one fraught with challenges and an audience so fickle they won’t come to games because the parent team is struggling.

    There’s rumour a WHL team may move in eventually, but not for a few years. Maybe once that team has cracked the market, and the AHL has developed a truly western division (rather than one that has a team in North Carolina) Abbotsford will see an AHL team here again but even then, the only team this market will accept is the baby nucks so we’ll have to wait and see.

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  2. James W
    April 17, 2014

    There’s been talk of moving some AHL franchises west for reasons xactly like this. If the AHL was committed to that, I’m sure the Canucks would be on board, but it’ll likely take a few years to get everything ready.

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  3. Steveston
    April 17, 2014

    According to http://theahl.com/stats/schedule.php?view=attendance Utica’s attendance is nothing to brag about, coming in at a measly 407 people/game more than Abbotsford (3,414 vs. 3,007). Both are in the bottom five of the league. I guess that’s what qualifies as “a strong base” these days.

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    • Brent
      April 17, 2014

      True enough, but this is the first year for Utica. As the product gets a little better, and the word gets out, they will likely increase attendance. While the Heat were bleeding attendance over the last few years.

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    • Chris the Curmudgeon
      April 17, 2014

      To be fair, Utica is a small city in the middle of the Rust Belt, probably too far to attract casual fans from the larger Syracuse especially to watch a mediocre team. The discerning fan will probably head down the road to see the Albany Devils anyways, at least you can get a decent steamed ham.

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    • Jesse
      April 18, 2014

      Nice of you to completely ignore context.

      Utica is a city with just over 60,000 people with a arena that has a hockey capacity of 4000.

      Abbotsford is a city with over 130,000 people with a arena that has a hockey capacity of 7000.

      So is, having Utica fill 3400 out of 4000 seats versus having Abbotsford fill only 3000 of 7000 seats in a city double the size, is a lot to brag about.

      Utica fills their games. Abbotsford can’t even fill half. So yes, that is considered a strong base,

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    • HeHughes376
      April 18, 2014

      Keep in mind too, that the Utica Memorial Auditorium, where the baby Canucks play, only has a capacity of 3815 (according to the venue website) so the fact is they are close to selling out if they are averaging 3400 people to their games.

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  4. Lemming
    April 17, 2014

    I bet the Comets could get a decent viewership if they had started off better and made the playoffs.

    It’s still early, it was only their first year. They have lots of time to grow.

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  5. Naturalmystic
    April 17, 2014

    AHL is a developmental league, it doesn’t make sense to spend practice time flying coach and staying in Holiday Inns. I read that the Utica team spent 40 fewer days on the road than Abbotsford. The travel is too much to make Abbotsford suitable for an AHL team. As for a WHL team, Chiliwack couldn’t support a team, why would meth loving Abbotsford?

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  6. Max
    April 17, 2014

    Whaaat? Robert Esche is running the comets?! He was awesome in NHL ’05!

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  7. shoes
    April 18, 2014

    the AHL is not suited for the Abbotsford market…..but the WHL junior is and I expect to see a team there in 2 years with a built in rivalry to Spokane, Giants, Rockets, and Portland. Perfect and good hockey which will draw in fans.

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  8. BBoone
    April 19, 2014

    The advantages of spending 40 more nights at home seem compelling. The team gets more practice, is fresher for the games and the younger players have a more settled living situation. The new Canuck management will certainly want a strong AHL development situation and Utica seems just right .

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  9. Moonbear
    April 21, 2014

    You clearly don’t know the details of the contract and where the money was going to. It wasn’t going to the Flames, they didn’t own the team. A group of local investors did. Secondly the reason the Canucks didn’t come last year not because of the Flames being difficult, they came because if difficult negotiations with the city of Abbotsford. You should really get your facts straight before you make a one sided completely biased article to attract hits. I expected better from a local boy of Abbotsford.

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  10. John wouters
    April 21, 2014

    If the canucks farm team,was to relocate here,there would be sell outs for everygame.
    Calgary Who?

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  11. GoComets
    April 21, 2014

    I can’t comment on the workings of AHL franchise movements because crazy things happen but as a resident of The Mohawk Valley and Comets season ticket holder I can say it’s undeniable that the franchise has exceeded support expectations. Well over a 1500 season tickets holders. Almost half the games were sellouts. The Aud is smallest AHL venue with 3,815 max capacity for hockey but our season average per AHL website was 3,435. We were at approximately 90% capacity for the season. If you want to talk about a joke, let’s look at the Devils. The metro Albany area is huge and they averaged 3,360 for a winning team in a venue that holds 15,500 for hockey! Utica had more attendance then Albany, Oklahoma City, Abbotsford and Portland. No doubt a Vancouver affiliate would thrive in Abbotsford and maybe the capacity crowds would be a huge money maker but you still can’t surmount the issue of travel days for their players. Further, a dormant rivalry with the Syracuse Crunch has been rejuvenated with the Thruway Throwdown and the Galaxy Cup. You’ll see a realignment in the east way before the west. Both teams have committed to playing a regular season game next November in the Carrier Dome with most likely will draw 15,000 fans or better. In the immortal words of Reggie Dunlop, “We’re going to cream those Syracuse punks” lol BTW the scene in Slap Shot where the teams fight before the national anthem was filmed in the Utica Aud. Go Comets!

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  12. Clinton Comets
    April 22, 2014

    The AHL has no desire to have a far west coast division. Busses are the way to go. Abbottsford was a failure from the get go. Utica traveled thee 3 times for 2 game ses this year….3000 miles for developmental hockey? Give me Utica, Syracuse, Albany, Binghamton, Glens falls, Hershey, Scranton, Allentown, Springfield providence anyday.

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  13. gfcc
    April 24, 2014

    glens falls-15,000 with 4100 avg atendance=great small town hockey market

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