Heat to Leave Abbotsford for Utica?



An odd rumor (news?) this morning. The Uitca Observer Dispatch is reporting the Flames will be moving their AHL affiliate team to the Utica New York for the 2014-15 season, abandoning the Abbotsford experiment after just five years. 

Here’s what we do know, according to a reliable source. A 10-year deal has been struck with the Flames. There had been discussion in previous months that an AHL affiliate could be relocated to Utica, but not until the 2014-’15 season, due to scheduling issues. As far as any opt-out clause in the deal, I don’t know for sure if or when one has been added. However, you would think an escape route, for both parties ( local operators and the Flames ) would/should want one. 10 years is infinity and beyond in any relationship. 

A lobbying firm in Albany is involved with those locally who will be managing the franchise. Two sources have informed us that public money is being pursed in conjunction with the return of professional hockey to Utica. There are a few phases of upgrades to the Aud planned. Skyboxes are in the plans to be added to the 54-year old arena, however it isn’t clear at this time during what planning phase work will get under way.

That from the Utica OB blog today.

On the one hand, it makes sense for the Flames to be looking elsewhere. Abbotsford has consistently finished at the bottom of the league in terms of attendance. The only time the team gets any interest from the locals is when the Chicago Wolves (Vancouver’s afiiliate) visits.

On the other hand, the Flames had themsevles a very cozy relationship with the city of Abbotsford. Calgary was indemnified for any losses by the tax payers, meaning they were guaranteed to at least break even every year, no matter how poorly the club actually did financially. If Utica has convinced Calgary to move on, they must be offering something similarly enticing (beyond, perhaps, a potentially more robust AHL market). 

The Flames AHL affiliate has become a bit of a nomad since the team purchased their own club in 2005. Since then, there have been stop-overs in Omaha (2005 – 2007), Quad Cities (2007-2009), Abbotsford (2009-2014) and now, potentially, Utica (2014-?).

No official word or confirmation from the Flames, so we’ll treat this as a high-level rumor for now.

  • A couple things, here:

    1) Abbotsford, being so much closer, makes it easier to call players up for last-minute injury subs.

    2) The attractiveness of an AHL affiliate can make a difference when it comes to signing free agents who are not in the NHL, like undrafted NCAA players or European players. Brian Burke said once or twice that a big drawing card for him to play was that the Marlies are right in Toronto, which is a far more desirable city to live in than… well, most AHL cities. I’m not sure which would be more appealing between Utica and Abbotsford, but it’s something to think about.

  • Utica being my hometown, I have to say honestly it’s a coinflip that they can support an AHL team these days. Have travel costs ever been discussed? They’ll be within a 5-6 hour bus ride of their North division foes being located in Utica.

  • Have to think it’d be a sweetheart deal to entice the Flames into giving up current financial guarantees and geographic convenience to move the Heat to a 3,800 seat building clear across the continent.

    Regarding the Wolves to Abbotsford rumour, correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t the Wolves owned by interests in Chicago, and haven’t they been pretty successful there? What’s the incentive of their ownership to uproot from a market where they’ve been for 20 years?

  • SmellOfVictory

    Makes more sense there than Abbotsford.

    As for the travel concerns on call-up, they should be far outweighed by the benefit of reduced travel through the season. Players may be fresher as the season go on, and just have to deal with bad travel when called up. Just my opinion

  • Flames statement, courtesy Vicki Hall, Randy Sportak and Pat Steinberg on Twitter:

    “We have been approached by representatives in Utica concerning an opportunity for the AHL. We understand they are building a case for the AHL to return there. We are under contract and committed to Abbotsford, and have made no alternate commitments.”

  • Colin.S

    I could imagine the rest of the teams in the AHL would want this as well. Probably a bit of a difficulty in trying to schedule game for the one team that plays two time zones different from the rest.

    I wonder if there also is an out clause with the city of Abbotsford, that if they lose X amount of dollars the contract can be changed. With the amount of dollars they have to pay out to cover things like “Travel Neutral”(because of Abby’s location relative to the rest of the AHL, they have to make it travel neautral, compartively to other travel from what I understand), I could imagine that the city of Abby is looking into removing the Heat as well. I believe that the building itself doesn’t need the Heat to be a profitable building, so losing almost 2 million a year isn’t an attractive option.

  • Utica or not, we need to acknowledge that Calgary’s farm team won’t be in Abbotsford long term.

    I think Vancouver really does have designs on Abbotsford, and it makes more sense for them to have their affiliate in Abby than anyone.

  • MC Hockey

    Fun discussions guys! So a couple ideas:
    1) Lethbridge is a nice city but need to buy and fold or remove the junior WHL Hurricanes. Another reason Flames landed in Abby was their lack of WHL team plus all incentives of course! Similar story for Regina (have WHL team but maybe less nice city) but larger population by 110,000 over Lethbridge which has about 80,000.
    2) Utica would be MUCH easier AHL travel by prospects of Flames, etc but hard to get them to Calgary or anywhere in West on short notice for quick call-ups. Airports in/around Utica do not fly direct to Calgary but a 4 hour drive to Hamilton or 5 hours to Toronto to get direct flight to Calgary.
    3) My best suggestions if Flames planned to leave a sweetheart deal in Abby include Chicago (central, easier travel) so trade places with Canucks essentially. But how about hochey-loving place like Grand Forks North Dakota? Population is small but zero to minimal competition outside of university sports like UND hockey and football.

    • schevvy

      Living in Lethbridge I can safely say an AHL team is not coming. Not a big population, rink (which was just renovated) holds only about 6000 (absolute max). Plus we got the Canes down here who have “average” attendance (if that). Unless the Canes are really good they never get 5000 people in there.

      I’d support it and it’d be a great location for the Flames! But other than that it makes no sense

      • While I understand your sentiment re: Lethbridge, I disagree.

        Lethbridge isn’t THAT far from Calgary and I would think that if our farm team was there, attendance would be boosted by surrounding cities (including Calgary). Having the ability to see our talent pool that will directly contribute to the Flames (at least in a shorter period of time) with only a 2 hour drive would be a boon.

        Who knows though. Just don’t put them in Red Deer, or else Edmonton will want a team! Har har har.

        • MC Hockey

          Hi Schevvy and Fire On Ice,

          It’s hard to know but 6,000 fans in a Lethbridge arena is a small maximum attendance number. But…if you take the Winnipeg Jets perspective and say “well, less seats always full leads to high demand”, then it may work. In the case of the Jets, they have higher prices than several other NHL markets even 3-4 in Canada…I am not saying that happens in Lethbridge for sure…but it might!

  • All the talk here in Utica about another chance at AHL hockey has the whole city taking sides. The true, die hard fans who crave ANY hockey, against the “realist”, who ask “can we support this team?” Its been 20 years since the Devils left us for Albany (NY). I became a die hard Devils fan because of the Devils being here. I got to see Marty Brodeur in person, in Utica, as a true rookie. Now, I want the same for my kids.The Devils made our taxpayers put a bunch of money into our building for upgrades. A year later, they were gone. That left a sour taste in our mouth. Our “team” now is the Div. 3 Utica College Pioneers who lead the NATION in D3 hockey attendance. Our building can hold 4000 max and you cant get a ticket for these home games. Its a great, AFFORDABLE family event. Im not saying we will sell out every AHL game but just to have another chance is great. We won’t lead the AHL in attendace but we will put people in those seats. If selected, Utica is within 150 miles of 7 AHL teams. And within 100 miles of 4 of them. Syracuse is only 45 miles away and I can just see that rivalry now. Its these fans that will come to see their teams play in Utica that will help attendace. Most of our hockey fans travel to Syracuse or Albany (90 miles away) to catch games now. To have a team here again will give our fans a chance to show that we are a die hard hockey area. We love our hockey in upstate NY. The best deal from this is the fact that there are not many Flames fans in NY.(sorry..no offence) None of us have to worry about rooting for “a foe” franchise. Boy…to think of the Rangers or Bruins coming here…(I’m a Devils fan)…dont even want to think of that scenerio. LOL
    I hate to see any city lose a team, I’ve seen it first hand. I am just keeping my fingers crossed that ANY AHL team would call Utica home again.