Tuesday, April 15, 2014

AHL's Heat Leaving Abbotsford Amid Financial Losses, Attendance Issues

(Credit: Clint Trahan/Abbotsford Heat)
In a press conference this morning, the city of Abbotsford, the NHL's Calgary Flames and the Abbotsford Heat announced that the Heat would no longer play in Abbotsford. Following the conclusion of the AHL playoffs this season, the Heat will relocate to a destination still to be determined.

The general consensus is that the destination will be Glens Falls, New York, the current home of the Adirondack Phantoms. The Phantoms will be relocating to Allentown, Pennsylvania, next year, leaving a vacancy at the Glens Falls Civic Center. Officials from the Calgary Flames, the Heat's parent club, had meetings in Glens Falls in the last two weeks. All signs point to the team moving much further east and another definite realignment for the league this summer.

The Heat lasted five years in the league at their far western outpost. They entered the league the same year as the Texas Stars. The main contributing factor to their demise was a badly structured deal with the city. Essentially, the city agreed to keep the team in the black financially, making up any losses that they felt each year. With the Heat in the bottom five of attendance league-wide for four of their five seasons in BC, the city was estimated to have paid CDN $5.24 million (USD $4.77 million) to the team to keep them afloat. The city will pay a buyout fee of CDN $5.5 million, which is half of their estimated CDN $11 million losses for the remaining five years on the contract.

Ryan Pinder, former play-by-play broadcaster for the Heat, also points out that attendance was probably hurt by having the team branded so heavily to match the Flames while placing them inside the geographic fanbase of a traditional rival, the Vancouver Canucks. If the Heat were affiliated with the Canucks, this might have been a different story. Maybe that comes to pass sometime in the future but not this year.

Travel costs certainly did not help the team, whose closest matchup was over a thousand miles away. There was a chance at a reprieve last year as the Peoria Rivermen considered a move to Seattle, but that did not materialize. The arena was deemed to be 'unavailable' for an AHL tenant at the time. They were holding out for a deal that never came in the form of the relocation of the Phoenix Coyotes.

All this puts an interesting spin on a story that continues to bubble to the surface every few months, the possibility of an AHL Pacific or Western Division. At one point, it appeared Abbotsford was a foothold into the start of that strategy. Now it appears those plans will have to wait. Cities in mix could include new markets Seattle, Sacramento, and San Diego, and existing ECHL markets Ontario, Bakersfield and Salt Lake City. The Abbotsford Heat prove that such a move cannot happen piecemeal. In order to do it within the next few years, several teams will have to be uprooted from the East and hauled out West all at once. That's going to be painful.

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