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.”