On Aquilini and the Abbotsford Heat

Thomas Drance
August 20 2012 03:42PM

Over the weekend, Greg Douglas of the Vancouver Sun dropped a report, which suggested that Canucks owner - real estate magnate Francesco Aquilini - is planning on taking a run at the financial and marketing catastrophe known as the Abbotsford Entertainment & Sports Centre, and their primary tenant the Abbotsford Heat.

From Douglas' report:

The buzz continues to escalate throughout the Fraser Valley real estate community that Francesco Aquilini has his sights set on buying the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre and the land it occupies. By extension, Aquilini would cut a deal with the Calgary Flames that would result in the Vancouver Canucks No. 1 farm team, the Chicago Wolves, moving to Abbotsford.

Calgary's American Hockey League affiliate - the Abbotsford Heat - are locked into a 10-year supply fee agreement with the City of Abbotsford and after three years, it's been a disaster. The Heat played four post-season games this season in their home building that can accommodate 7,046 fans for hockey and drew an average of 2,389.

There is a hockey board meeting scheduled for Sept. 7 at 2 p.m. in Abbotsford. Ken King, president of the Calgary Flames, will be there. Lane Sweeting, chairman of Fraser Valley Sports and Entertainment as well as Abbotsford Heat Hockey Ltd., says that while he has not been told anything by the city about a potential Aquilini takeover, it would not surprise him. Aquilini did not respond to messages left for him Friday.

So, there's a few things to sift through here. First of all the report is based on "buzz" that is "escalating" through the "Fraser Valley real estate community." The only person quoted is Lane Sweeting, who says that he hasn't heard anything about a potential takeover, and Aquilini declined to comment on the report. In summary, I read this report as a lot of smoke in the absence of fire.

The report goes on to speculate that the Canucks "No. 1 farm team" - whatever that means -  would move to Abbotsford in place of the Heat. There are a couple of issues with this, the first being that the Canucks' AHL affiliate (or "No. 1 farm team") are the Chicago Wolves who aren't owned by the Aquilini Group (they're owned by Don Levin). Secondly, the Chicago Wolves do pretty well for themselves in Chicago: they were second in the AHL in average attendance last season, they're the primary tenants at the All State Arena (where they've played since 1994), and they remain one of the only AHL clubs with their own TV deal. What's Levin's incentive to re-locate to the lower mainland?

Maybe if Don Levin - who has been involved in talks with the city of Bellevue, Washington about the construction of an NHL arena in the Seattle area -  was awarded an NHL club he'd consider selling or moving the Wolves (though even that's a stretch). But at the current juncture, the notion of moving the Wolves to British Columbia just doesn't make a lot of sense. 

So it's no surprise that on Saturday evening, there was a second report from Kevin Mills and Dan Kinvig of the Abbotsford News that quoted Abbotsford City Manager Frank Pizzuto saying that the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre is "not on the market." 

To summarize the information we have available to us, the agreement between the Flames and Abbotsford has been an unmitigated financial disaster for the municipality, and it's getting worse every year as attendance drops and the short-fall increases. If Aquilini could step in, buy the arena, and bring an AHL club to Abbotsford, or acquire the Heat out-right (which, seems significantly more likely than relocating the Wolves) it would surely be a boon to Abbotsford tax-payers.

It would also be advantageous for the Canucks. After 10 happy years of marriage with the Manitoba Moose and True North Sports and Entertainment, the Canucks and the Chicago Wolves appear to have had some "chemistry issues" in their first affiliated season. An Aquilini owned club would allow the Canucks to micro-manage their affiliate's hockey operations (yey extreme zone-start deployments), and the "farm hand recall time" from Abbotsford to Vancouver would be negligible. Also, Abbotsford is geographically isolated from the majority of AHL clubs, so Canucks prospects would have the opportunity to get used to the grueling air-travel schedule endured by Western Conference teams in the NHL...

The issues here remain manifold, however and this isn't the first time we've been down this speculative "Canucks to move AHL affiliate into Abbotsford" road. The reason it keeps popping up is that it makes so much sense for the Canucks, and for the city of Abbotsford. Sadly, the city is locked into a 10 year agreement with the Calgary Flames, and they've committed to offset any losses the club endures with tax-payer money. It's almost ironic, isn't it? The Flames benefitting from a no-movement clause!

The Abbotsford agreement is a sweet deal for the Flames, so where's the incentive for them to agree to relocate their AHL affiliate? The Flames acrue all of the benefits (an affiliate club just a short flight from Calgary) and none of the risk. Presumably it would require a significant sum of cash from Aquilini to lubricate this particular transaction, and you can trust the Flames to exact a price that would make Lord Walder Frey blush...

While the reports over the weekend got hockey fans in the lower mainland excited (again), we didn't really learn anything new. Abbotsford's agreement with the Flames remains another example of the endless enthusiasm Canadian citizens seem to have for flushing public money down the toilet for the sake of hockey, while the Canucks in Abbotsford could actually work and be a profitable venture. That was true last week, and it's still true today. As such, this type of speculation will persist indefinitely while revealing nothing new about Aquilini's actual intentions.

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Thomas Drance lives in Toronto, eats spicy food and writes about hockey. He is an NHL News Editor at theScore, the ex-managing editor of CanucksArmy.com and an opinionated blowhard to boot. You can follow him on twitter @thomasdrance.
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#1 Kent Wilson
August 20 2012, 04:59PM
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The deal is indeed a bad one for the town of Abbotsford. It's hard to determine whether AHL hockey would sell there at all given the near league low attendance numbers the team has put up since it arrived though.

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#2 al
August 20 2012, 05:15PM
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The Canucks are into the second year of a 2 year deal with the Wolves... that means that later this year they have to either re-up with a club where they've had "chemistry problems", or find a new affiliate. Maybe I'm misunderstanding the way this deal would work, but I think that gives at least a little credence to this story. If I were Aquilini (and my bank balance is proof that I am clearly not), I'd at least start looking into what it might take to bring the farm closer to home... especially if I thought it could add to the overall business. The Heat are losing a boat-load of money every year. The deal with Abbotsford means the Flames don't lose money, but they're not making any on this team either. It's possible that the parent club could come to the realization they should have come to years ago... the farm team of a hated-rival will never win the hearts of hockey fans in the Canucks' backyard. They might be willing to back out on the Heat now, rather than wait until they actually do start losing money on their No. 1 minor league affiliate. I wouldn't dismiss this story until the Canucks have a new agreement with the Wolves.

Also, the Wolves are the #1 farm team compared to Kalamazoo (ECHL).

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#3 .
August 20 2012, 05:18PM
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Sounds like this was just written poorly by the reporter as you pointed out Thom... I'd hope that what he meant by moving the farm team is that the Heat would become the Canucks farm team and the Wolves would switch their affiliation with whomever. It'd honestly make me sick to my stomach if they forced a storied AHL franchise to move all for the Aquilinis attempt at a lower mainland sports monopoly.

Being in Winnipeg when the Moose were there I know how nice it is to have that luxury of seeing the farm team regularly... But no way in hell should it come at the expense of the Wolves. I'd surely hope there's a way for the Flames to be bought off because it's pretty obvious how much of a joke that agreement is.

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#4 Kent Wilson
August 20 2012, 05:24PM
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@.

It's not a joke for the Flames. They get to operate an expense free affiliate for the next whatever amount of years. It's an ideal situation for a team who wants to worry primarily about development issues for their players and not business issues in a league that is a tough sell at the best of times.

It's a poor deal for the tax payers of Abbotsford, to be sure, but then that's what happens when you build stadiums with public funds and then go begging for teams to fill them.

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#5 Tommynotsohuge
August 20 2012, 05:26PM
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I would love for that to happen. Get the Canuks farm team in Abby, the Flames can purchase another AHL team and move them to Red Deer, and that other team can relocate to Chicago.

I would love to see one in Red Deer. Nearing 100,000 hockey loving people. An hour and a half (legal limit ;) away would be Even better than Abby. They have an AHLish sized arena. Perfect

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#6 RossCreekNation
August 20 2012, 05:27PM
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Not sure how you take that as "the Wolves will move to Abbotsford". Obviously, the Wolves will stay put, but the plan would include the Nucks AHL players being relocated to Abby (and perhaps the Flames taking up the Wolves affiliation?).

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#7 KleptoKlown
August 20 2012, 05:41PM
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Sure sounds like the Abbotsford city council screwed the pooch on this one.

I am sure the Canucks organization and fans would love to have the farm team only a short drive away, but why would Calgary give up a long term free meal ticket?

Only other areans that I am aware of near the GVA is the Pacific Coliseum and the Save on Foods center in Victoria.

The Aquilini family has proven they are willing to spend money, add the fact that the mini Canucks haven't worked out in Chicago...common sense dictates that the Canucks will have a new AHL affiliate this time next year.

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#8 Scott McKenzie
August 20 2012, 05:59PM
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I never understand why Langley isn't brought into the equation.

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#9 Nat
August 20 2012, 07:56PM
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I thought it was reported that the Wolves did not want to continue their affiliation with the Canucks beyond this season? Can't remember where I read that now...but if so, the team is in a bit of a bind.

Having the farm team in Abby would be profitable. Never underestimate the obsessiveness of hockey fans.

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#10 RexLibris
August 20 2012, 07:56PM
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@Scott McKenzie

"I never understand why Langley isn't brought into the equation."

I don't think the CIA can do much about a bad AHL deal. They are more into making uncooperative heads of state go missing. Although perhaps they could be consulted on that Stajan deal. Who knows.

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#11 Patrick Johnston
August 21 2012, 12:55AM
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@Nat

for whatever implementation issues the Canucks and Wolves have had, on the whole, the Wolves are very happy with the Canucks as the parent club. They spent years under the thumb of the Thrashers, a team seemed to have no real clue on what a farm team was for or for what in-house abilities the Wolves already had.

It may not be perfect, but anyone close to the Wolves will tell you it could be a whole lot worse.

Of course, that's not to say that they wouldn't be opposed to a new affiliation, but they are pretty happy with the current set up.

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#12 z1mmer
August 21 2012, 06:31AM
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good read.

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#13 PASTASTEVE
August 21 2012, 08:47AM
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As a 20+ year resident of Abby, I totally agree with the proposal. I hate paying for a losing cause. When I attended HEAT games - when they played the Moose, there was just as much applause for the Moose as there was for the heat. Abby loves the Canucks; some reside there. But, how does this work? How can the Wolves move to Abby when they're owned by someone other than Aquilini? WHat about the resident Canuck draft picks? How can Aquilini purchase a Calgary-owned team stocked with their draft picks? The Moose' Mayflower move made sense - team and equiopment. This one however has me stumped(???).

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#14 Mantastic
August 21 2012, 09:41AM
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@PASTASTEVE

wow, you're so clueless about what an AHL affiliate is...

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#15 al
August 21 2012, 10:56AM
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@Mantastic

That's not helpful.

@PastaSteve

The players go where the Canucks tells them. The Wolves franchise would would stay in Chicago, but the team (players and coaches who get paid by the Canucks) would move to Abby.

@Kent Wilson

Based on the latest stuff I've read on this story, the idea is that Aquilini would buy the arena and negotiate a deal with the Flames to have the Heat become the Canucks affiliate. Aquilini would get the arena's share of the revenue and the Flames would actually start to make a profit on the Heat... albeit, they'd have to find a new place for their farm.

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#16 Reidja
August 21 2012, 12:08PM
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It's a rare case when rumours make this much sense:

Benefits to Abbotsford: Having the Canucks affiliate, potentially less tax-payer money required to fulfill agreement

Benefits to Canucks: Close affiliate, increased interest from regional market

Benefits to Flames: Actually make some money off Heat by selling sweet-heart deal to Aquilini, move to an established AHL market with potential to generate a profit

Benefit to Chicago: Gain Flames farm team which has some decent American prospects

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#17 MC Hockey
August 22 2012, 12:45PM
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KleptoKlown wrote:

Sure sounds like the Abbotsford city council screwed the pooch on this one.

I am sure the Canucks organization and fans would love to have the farm team only a short drive away, but why would Calgary give up a long term free meal ticket?

Only other areans that I am aware of near the GVA is the Pacific Coliseum and the Save on Foods center in Victoria.

The Aquilini family has proven they are willing to spend money, add the fact that the mini Canucks haven't worked out in Chicago...common sense dictates that the Canucks will have a new AHL affiliate this time next year.

Yup the Abby taxpayers are not the lucky ones here. And why would the Flames give up this deal to help a rival NHL team? Answer: They would not unless they had another way to gain support for the Flame organization overall....so see below.

On that note, I do like the idea of the Flames farm team in Red Deer however to gain wider support from across Alberta...and Calgary Airport is not far from RD for teams visiting to get there relatively easily by bus (1.2 hours). But there is the WHL Rebels there so do you buy out Brent Sutter or offer him a piece of the Flames to give up the junior team? Or do you just convert the Rebels into an NHL team? Or maybe Regina or Saskatoon works better for the Flames to get more fans cheering for the entire franchise...maybe! But given my flying experience to Regina and Saskatoon, I say it's not an ideal location since visiting teams always must come through Calgary, Edmonton, or Winnipeg to get to those places.

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#18 Kevin R
August 22 2012, 02:13PM
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MC Hockey wrote:

Yup the Abby taxpayers are not the lucky ones here. And why would the Flames give up this deal to help a rival NHL team? Answer: They would not unless they had another way to gain support for the Flame organization overall....so see below.

On that note, I do like the idea of the Flames farm team in Red Deer however to gain wider support from across Alberta...and Calgary Airport is not far from RD for teams visiting to get there relatively easily by bus (1.2 hours). But there is the WHL Rebels there so do you buy out Brent Sutter or offer him a piece of the Flames to give up the junior team? Or do you just convert the Rebels into an NHL team? Or maybe Regina or Saskatoon works better for the Flames to get more fans cheering for the entire franchise...maybe! But given my flying experience to Regina and Saskatoon, I say it's not an ideal location since visiting teams always must come through Calgary, Edmonton, or Winnipeg to get to those places.

Well, relocate the Rebels WHL team & give Brent a piece of the Red Deer Heat & I think the City of Red Deer would love to embrace an AHL team. I see the Oilers not being too happy & would like to have their affiliate in Red Deer as well. So I do see opposition to the Flames trying to seed in Red Deer. Chicago wouldnt be bad because of the increased number of US players Flames are drafting and have coming up their farm system. Either way, Vancouver is going to have to make it worth Calgary's while. Perhaps Redford could use to negotiate a pipeline through BC :)

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