6 potential close-to-home landing spots for the Canucks' AHL team

Apr 22 2021, 11:55 am

The Vancouver Canucks appear likely to move their farm team out of Utica next season.

Utica Comets president Robert Esche has registered “Utica Devils” as a trademark, so that’s our first clue. The New Jersey Devils have reportedly informed the folks in Binghamton, where their AHL team is currently located, that they will be moving out after this season.

“The Canucks and Comets have been in partnership since 2013-14 and continue to enjoy a great working relationship,” the Canucks said in a statement shared with Daily Hive. “While a formal decision on the future of the affiliation has not been reached, Vancouver and Utica will exercise due diligence and explore all options on the future of their partnership.”

The Canucks have an out-clause in their agreement with the Comets after this season, and there are numerous options for where they could end up next.

Utica has been the home of the Canucks’ AHL affiliate since 2013. The Chicago Wolves served as the Canucks’ farm team for two years prior to that, following a 10-year run with the Manitoba Moose that ended when Winnipeg got an NHL team back.

The time appears right for the Canucks to finally move their farm team west, maybe even to the Lower Mainland.

There are eight Pacific Division franchises currently in the AHL, with a ninth slated to join next season, as the Seattle Kraken will have their affiliate playing out of Palm Springs, California. Six of the teams are California-based, with single franchises also based in Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada.

AHL Pacific Division teams (NHL affiliates in parentheses):

  • Bakersfield, CA (Edmonton Oilers)
  • Ontario, CA (Los Angeles Kings)
  • San Diego, CA (Anaheim Ducks)
  • San Jose, CA (San Jose Sharks)
  • Palm Springs, CA (Seattle Kraken)
  • Stockton, CA (Calgary Flames)
  • Tuscon, AZ (Arizona Coyotes)
  • Loveland, CO (Colorado Avalanche)
  • Henderson, NV (Vegas Golden Knights)

So where will the Canucks’ AHL team end up? Here are six options, beginning with some local spots.

1. Abbotsford Centre

The Abbotsford Heat were an unmitigated disaster, but there’s reason to believe a Canucks-affiliated team would work in the Fraser Valley now.

The Heat lasted just five years in the Fraser Valley, moving out in 2014.

One obvious challenge the franchise faced was the fact it was affiliated with the Calgary Flames, right in the heart of Canucks country. The other was a horrendous travel schedule.

During the Heat’s final season in Abbotsford, their divisional opponents were located in Texas, Oklahoma, and North Carolina. The closest teams to them geographically were in Iowa, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Not only do those teams require a lengthy flight and often not a non-stop flight, but they’re all at least two time zones away.

So off the ice, the team didn’t make money because fans didn’t want to support a Flames affiliate. Development-wise, the team suffered as well, as players spent too much time travelling, leaving less time to rest and practice.

Those issues, for the most part, have been solved in recent years given that so many AHL teams are now located in the west.

Pros:

  • Close to home, but far enough away to avoid cannibalizing their market
  • Draw more fans from the Fraser Valley, as well as Greater Vancouver
  • Built in 2009, the Abbotsford Centre is still relatively new, with modern amenities like private suites, and can be expanded to a capacity of 8,500.

Cons:

  • Road trips would be much more manageable for a new team than what the Abbotsford Heat had to endure, but they would still need to fly to play their nearest opponents in California.

2. Pacific Coliseum

How about a return to the former home of the Canucks? Barring a sweetheart deal with the PNE, it’s probably unlikely, but it would allow the Canucks more opportunity to differentiate its AHL product.

Pros:

  • Nostalgia factor for fans
  • Quicker to get to by car than Rogers Arena for fans that drive to games from the suburbs
  • With 15,713 permanent seats, you could sell more tickets than the Abbotsford Centre, while remaining smaller than Rogers Arena.

Cons:

  • Drawing on the same geographical area as the Canucks
  • Having opened in 1968, the arena is getting old and doesn’t have many private suites.
  • Canucks don’t own the arena

3. Rogers Arena

Forget playing close to home, how about playing at home?

Pros:

  • Canucks own the building and would stand to make all the money from concessions
  • Quick access for Canucks front office for management to watch players
  • Convenient for sales/marketing staff, could take advantage of economies of scale

Cons:

  • Drawing on same geographical area as NHL team
  • Less chance to differentiate their product
  • Arena might be a little too big, could be poor for atmosphere, though they have the ability to curtain off the upper bowl

4. Fresno, CA

Located near the geographic centre of California, Fresno is ideally situated to play in the AHL’s Pacific Division.

Pros:

  • Within about a four-hour drive from four other current AHL teams
  • Fresno has the seventh-highest population (654,000) among urban areas in California
  • Selland Arena was renovated in 2006 and holds over 7,000 fans for hockey

Cons:

  • No direct flights to Vancouver, though the Bay Area is only about a three-hour drive
  • Is there enough interest locally in hockey? Their ECHL team lost money, forcing them to fold mid-season in 2008.

5. Salt Lake City, UT

An option mentioned recently by CHEK’s Rick Dhaliwal, Salt Lake City has hosted NHL preseason games in recent years, drawing over 10,000 fans for a game between the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings in 2019.

Pros:

  • Salt Lake City has a metro population of 1.2 million
  • Could share Vivint Arena with the Utah Jazz
  • Central location, with direct flights available to Vancouver and many other places in North America

Cons:

  • While closer to every AHL team than Vancouver, they would still be required to fly to play their nearest opponent

6. Prescott Valley, AZ

A less obvious option, Dhaliwal also mentioned Prescott Valley as a possible landing spot for the Canucks’ farm team.

With a population of over 240,000, Prescott Valley has the third-highest metropolitan population in Arizona, located about 150 kilometres north of Phoenix.

Pros:

  • There are three AHL teams within about a 3-5 hour drive, so it’s in a good spot geographically.
  • Airport in Phoenix is less than a two-hour drive away
  • Relatively-new arena, the Findlay Toyota Center, opened in 2006.
  • Arena has a number of modern amenities, including 22 “luxury suites” and two “party suites.”

Cons:

  • Arena holds approximately 5,100 fans for hockey, so it’s on the small side.
  • Their Central Hockey League team, which played in the the Findlay Toyota Center, shut down operations in 2014. The team owner said it wasn’t “economically sustainable” at the time.
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