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.