Over the past week several dominoes in the American Hockey League have fallen, which potentially opens up the opportunity for the Abbotsford Centre to once again host a team.
Saturday saw reports from Binghamton, N.Y. that the New Jersey Devils told representatives of the AHL club in that city that they will be relocating in the fall.
Combine that with news out of Utica, N.Y. that management of the Comets, who are affiliated with the Vancouver Canucks, registered “Utica Devils” as a trademark with the U.S. government’s Trademark and Patent Office earlier this month and it seems some sort of change is imminent.
The changes could signal the end of the Canucks in Utica and leave them tasked with finding a new affiliate location for the 2021-22 season. The Canucks and Comets current deal does feature an opt-out clause after this season.
Local speculation began heating up over the weekend, with Hockey Night in Canada’s Chris Johnston stating that he had heard that Canucks management were looking to move an affiliate closer to Vancouver. The Province also posted articles discussing the potential of the Canucks new home, listing Abbotsford as one of the possibilities.
Nothing official but Canucks considering bringing AHL team home to B.C. next season. Lots of reports from Utica about business-ops president Robert Esche trademarking "Utica Devils." Canucks-Utica agreement runs until 2025 but VAN has an out-option after this season.
— Iain MacIntyre (@imacSportsnet) April 17, 2021
Vancouver can just swap affiliates with the Devils and move their AHL team to Bingo, but my sense tells me that they will look for a Canadian option. Abbotsford is the obvious option. Not too many cities in the west that could hold around 10,000 fans without a WHL team already.
— Andrew Zadarnowski (@AZadarski) April 17, 2021
Wouldn't surprise me if #Canucks AHL affiliate didn't end up right here in Vancouver. No reason not to put them here, and slide them into the Coliseum. Makes total sense, and should happen for a number of reasons. Just my opinion, but could see it happening as early as next year.
— Rob Fai (@RobFai) April 16, 2021
The Abbotsford Centre previously hosted the Abbotsford Heat, the Calgary Flames AHL club, for five seasons. The club departed Abbotsford after the 2013-14 season. The AHL now has a Pacific Division with four teams in California and teams in Colorado, Nevada and Arizona. The Abbotsford International Airport does offer direct flights to both San Diego and Las Vegas, both of which host teams nearby.
Rick Comeau, the general manager of the Abbotsford Centre, said he believes the building is AHL-ready. Several upgrades had to be made to the boards and glass of the facility prior to the Canucks exhibition game at the building back on Sept. 23, 2019.
“That was one of the things we did most recently to get up to NHL standards,” he said. “The venue was ultimately built for an AHL team, so as far as dressing rooms and those kind of amenities we are pretty much ready to go with that. Any sort of additional renovations we might have to do would be on a minor scale.”
Online chatter has seen the Pacific Coliseum brought up as one potential landing spot for a Canucks AHL team, but Comeau noted the Abbotsford Centre appears to be more ready.
“It would probably need millions of dollars in renovations and I think they might need a new scoreboard,” he said. “Our scoreboard was top of the line when it was put in 10 years ago and I’m sure it’s still fine for an AHL team. I’m not sure we would need any of those kinds of renovations that might be necessary with other buildings.”
Comeau added that the arena’s refrigeration plant is also in great condition and is built for a high-quality ice surface. The Abbotsford Centre hosts adult, women’s and minor hockey and is also the home of the Fraser Valley Thunderbirds U18, U16 and U15 AAA teams.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still looming large in B.C., the schedule ahead for the Abbotsford Centre is still uncertain, but Comeau said it’s likely that the building would have the flexibility to host an AHL team this fall.
However, he said that securing a major tenant for the building isn’t urgent. Comeau noted the Abbotsford Centre was extremely busy and successful in 2019 thanks to concerts and other events. Having a reliable tenant would provide some stability, but the market for events when the pandemic cools down could be ravenous.
“The facility has been doing very well the last five years without an AHL team because we can book in so many concerts and other types of events,” he said. “The economic impact we’re providing for the community has been huge. Having a tenant we may lose a few concerts, which may provide us more general revenue than one hockey game.”
Comeau said he’d like to see a professional team land in Abbotsford, but it has to make sense.
“There’s a bit of a misconception out there that the facility is not successful because it doesn’t have some type of tenant hockey team,” he said. “But we’ve been very successful. I think the city is in a great position right now to look at the opportunities presented to them and to know that if we don’t have a team — we’re fine. With the growing population base in the Fraser Valley we have more and more people demanding entertainment. I’m a hockey fan but it has to be the right team and the right deal. I think the city knows they don’t have to jump into any deal just to get a team here.”
Franchise relocations in the AHL require approval from the league’s board of governors, which have met in May in years past.