California teams moving AHL affiliations West; will Canucks be enticed?

Last week, the Calgary Flames made like me in my early twenties and declared that they were done with Abbotsford. After five years in the Fraser Valley, the NHL team announced that they were moving their AHL franchise somewhere else.

On the surface, one might say there were about 4000 problems. That’s the number of empty seats the Abbotsford Enterainment and Sports Centre had on a nightly basis, with the Heat drawing just 3000 fans. But really, the primary issue driving Calgary out had less to do with the people of the city, and more to do with where the city was. As I explained in Friday’s blog post, the Heat were basically on an island. With the closest teams thousands of kilometers away, the Flames prospects found themselves in transit far more often than they found themselves in their bed, or in their home arena, practicing. Turning a kid into a pro takes time, and the lengthy trips took too much of it away.

This is the same issue the Canucks would face if they were to immediately move their prospects to Abbotsford. Sure, the parent club is a bus ride away, but the Comets wouldn’t be playing the parent club. They’d still be playing mostly East Coast teams. It’s so bad that the AHL’s “Western Division” includes three teams from Texas, and one team from North Carolina.

But all that is about to change. According to a report from Mayor’s Manor, the AHL is preparing a landmark shift, with five or six Western teams planning to move their prospects into Western markets:

From what we’ve learned recently, the new division will begin play in October 2015, as part of the AHL’s 2015-16 season.

The Coyotes, Ducks, Kings, and Sharks, are on board. As for the other one or two teams still in the mix, it is believed one of the Western Canadian teams’ interest in the project may have cooled.

This is only speculation, but we would assume that team is the Vancouver Canucks. Their current AHL affiliate is located in Utica, N.Y. and Canucks Sports Entertainment owns the team. Although a move West would seem preferable, they just began play there this year, so perhaps there are some contractual agreements in place for the next few seasons.

From the sounds of it, the Canucks are indeed the Western Canadian team that’s cooled on the project — presumably, their interest dropped off precipitously when they couldn’t get into Abbotsford last year — but it’s not so much about the contractual agreement with Utica. It’s still about geography.

The fact remains that, while having a Western Division in the AHL that somewhat mirrors the NHL’s Pacific Division would be better for the Canucks’ prospects, it’s still hardly ideal. How often do the Canucks complain about their travel? You know they’d change it if they could.

Knowing what they know about their own road woes, and how much time they spend lobbying the NHL for a more favourable schedule, you can understand why the Canucks might still prefer to have their AHL franchise in a more central location, even with teams down the coast. A bus ride to San Jose is still a 24-hour proposition.

Just a hunch, but my guess is the Canucks hold off on truly considering a move until their contract with Utica is up for renewal. By then, the dust will be settled on this pilot project, most of the kinks will be worked out, and the AHL will still likely be interested in having a team in the Pacific Northwest. As I said last week, there’s simply no rush.

Still, this will be something to keep an eye on.

5 comments

  1. HeHughes376
    April 21, 2014

    I agree with your hunch Harrison,

    Canucks won’t move their farm team west until they know the AHL western division is working for the teams involved, and by the time they know that, they’ll only have a couple of years left on the agreement with Utica.

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  2. Chris the Curmudgeon
    April 21, 2014

    Interesting to speculate on some possible markets. The article suggests that the Inland Empire, San Diego, Salt Lake City and Portland are all possibilities. The Bay Area is mentioned as not being ideal, though I can tell you that a part of that was that they were playing at Cow Palace, which is a total dump. I would think Oracle Arena in Oakland would be a far more preferable venue. I wonder if anywhere in Washington could support a team?

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  3. Brian
    April 21, 2014

    I don’t think it works well in the Pacific Northwest; there are just too many WHL teams here. Maybe a team could work in Olympia, Salem or Eugene.

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  4. Tracy
    April 22, 2014

    Brian: Unfortunately, Eugene isn’t an option. The only Rink has just a few hundred seating capacity bench style. Olympia has 2,000 and Salem (dont’ even ask).

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  5. Steve_May
    April 22, 2014

    I think the main thing is the Canucks were very happy with the support they got in Utica from the community and from Robert Esche and the ownership group. And, as opposed to the years with the Wolves – the team did actually work on developing the youngsters – giving Corrado and Jensen significant time (even when Jensen couldn’t score) – as well as lots of ice time for Grenier, Archibald, Friesen, Lain and the Swedes on defence. I’m sure they’d have rather given ice-time to other players than Alex Mallet’s 59GP 1-4-5 line – but they recognize they are developing players. Which is good.

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