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Updated: Pizzuto, Sweeting downplay rumours of Canucks farm team in Abbotsford

Vancouver Canucks fans gathered to watch Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. A Vancouver newspaper report indicated that Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini is interested in buying the AESC and stationing the Canucks
Vancouver Canucks fans gathered to watch Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. A Vancouver newspaper report indicated that Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini is interested in buying the AESC and stationing the Canucks' farm team there, but Abbotsford city manager Frank Pizzuto said there have been no talks between the two groups.
— image credit: Abbotsford News file photo

by Kevin Mills and Dan Kinvig, Abbotsford News

Local stakeholders downplayed a Vancouver newspaper report that Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini is interested in buying the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre and stationing the Canucks' AHL affiliate there.

Abbotsford city manager Frank Pizzuto said he is not aware of any dealings between Aquilini and the city.

He noted the rumour has come up before, but said no talks have taken place.

"It's not on the market," he said, referring to the AESC. "I don't know where that comes from."

Lane Sweeting, a member of the local group which operates the AHL's Abbotsford Heat, echoed Pizzuto's statement.

"The first I heard about it is when I read the report," Sweeting said. "If they are sniffing around, I guess they would go to the city first."

The Canucks responded to queries from The News by issuing a statement via email.

"Canucks Sports & Entertainment maintains a strong, ongoing relationship with their AHL affiliate the Chicago Wolves," the statement read. "The club will not address speculative reports or discuss the partnerships of other NHL teams."

Flames president Ken King, also responding in a brief emailed statement, didn't shed much more light on the subject. King noted he'll be attending a regularly scheduled board meeting to "discuss all matters pertaining to Abbotsford. As always reviewing all aspects of operations."

Fueling the Aquilini speculation is the notion that a Canucks farm team in Abbotsford would make sense on a number of levels.

A local AHL affiliate would further strengthen the Canucks' already-strong brand, while facilitating greater convenience for the team in terms of player recalls and prospect development.

The rumoured transaction could benefit the city, too.

The Heat are affiliated with the Calgary Flames, one of Vancouver's division rivals, and have struggled at the box office over their three-year history. Attendance has dropped each year, from 3,897 to 3,807 to 3,545 last season. But a team linked to the Canucks would be a better draw.

The attendance issues have cost taxpayers, as the Heat have a supply fee agreement with the City of Abbotsford that guarantees the team a break-even budget up to $5.7 million annually. The shortfall was $450,000 in 2009-10, and rose to $1.37 million in 2010-11.

Selling the AESC could also allow the city to lower the debt load on the facility while also eliminating the annual operating deficit.

The AESC's projected deficit for 2011 is $2.83 million, which includes $1.7 million for building expenses and $1.1 million earmarked to cover the hockey team's financial shortfall for 2011-12. The team's fiscal year ended in June, and the final numbers are expected next month.

But any Canucks-related transaction would be a complex one. Even if Aquilini were able to strike a deal with the city to buy the arena, he'd have to come to agreements with the Flames and the local operating group, Fraser Valley Sports and Entertainment.

The Flames own the franchise, while Sweeting's FVSE group holds the AHL board of governors' approval to operate a team in the region.

It's worth noting that the Canucks do not own an AHL franchise, and are heading into the second year of a two-year affiliation agreement with the Chicago Wolves.

"We have a contract with Calgary, and discussions would have to take place between Vancouver and them," Pizzuto noted.

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