Abbotsford is open for business.
Abbotsford mayor Henry Braun said as much when he was asked about the possibility of moving the Canucks’ farm team to the “City in the Country” this week.
The mayor said he saw talk of moving the AHL’s Utica Comets to his city on social media according to the Abbotsford News, and he’s on board.
As Daily Hive outlined earlier this month, the time is right to return a team to the Fraser Valley, despite Abbotsford’s disastrous five-year AHL experience.
Much has changed since the Abbotsford Heat left town in 2014, as the AHL has moved a number of franchises to cities in California, Arizona, and Colorado. The AHL also now caters to its west coast teams, requiring just 68 games to be played for teams in the Pacific Division, compared to 76 for the rest of the league. Pacific Division teams are also not required to travel to the Eastern Conference during the regular season, limiting travel costs.
This was not the case for the Heat, who by and large weren’t given special treatment as the league’s only team in the Pacific time zone. That didn’t help matters, nor did the fact that the team was owned by the Calgary Flames.
The city lost millions on a deal that saw Abbotsford guarantee the hockey team would break even, up to a maximum annual budget of $5.7 million. Understandably, a lot of people have dismissed the notion of ever dipping their toes into professional hockey again.
But Braun – who will be seeking a second term this fall – says he’s not only in favour of bringing a team to town, he’s actively trying.
“We’ve done everything,” said Braun. “I’ve tried to open that door three or four times in last couple of years and they know we have an arena that’s looking for a major tenant and I will go anywhere to have a meeting with anybody that wants to do something at the centre that doesn’t cost the taxpayers of Abbotsford any money.”
Braun was a counsellor during the Heat’s time in Abbotsford, but didn’t become mayor until six months after the team played its final game in the Fraser Valley.
If Abbotsford can work out a deal with the Canucks that doesn’t put them on the hook for millions of dollars like last time, clearly there’s reason to believe it can work.
The 7,000-seat Abbotsford Centre, which opened in 2009, is still relatively new, and while it was rarely full for Heat games, that wasn’t the case when Vancouver’s farm teams visited. The Abbotsford Centre was sold out on a regular basis with fans cheering mostly for the visitors, when the Manitoba Moose (2009-2011), Chicago Wolves (2011-2013), and Utica Comets (2013-14) came to town.
Fans have never followed their team’s prospects more closely, so having the chance to see them play live would garner increased interest.
From a Canucks perspective, there are many advantages to having a team close to home. While team president Trevor Linden has gone on record to say that Utica provides a great environment for their prospects, and travel to away games is far less demanding, it’s not an easy place to get to from Vancouver.
The closest airport to Utica is an hour away in Syracuse, which doesn’t offer one-way flights to Vancouver. That means short-term call-ups can be difficult.
The Vancouver-Utica partnership is by far the most geographically challenged NHL-AHL affiliation, so a move to Abbotsford – or California, as TSN’s Ray Ferraro suggested this week – makes a lot of sense.
.@rayferrarotsn on Abbotsford as AHL affiliate: Honestly, I don't know how it isn't. You're talking Abbotsford, I'm talking anywhere in the time zone. It makes so much sense. It's taking advantage of what you can control in a cap world #canucks
— TSN Radio Vancouver (@TSN1040) May 22, 2018
If having an affiliate in Abbotsford appeals to Canucks management, then the time to move the Comets is coming soon. The Canucks’ agreement with Utica is set to expire after next season, with an option to renew.
There could also be competition coming from Seattle, which is expected to receive an NHL expansion team to begin play in 2020. They could have designs on having an AHL affiliate play out of the Abbotsford Centre, which is just five kilometres from the US border.