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Updated: Canucks AHL affiliate not coming to Abbotsford, Heat staying put

The Vancouver Canucks will not be stationing their AHL affiliate in Abbotsford – at least not in the immediate future.

Abbotsford mayor Bruce Banman told The News on Monday that talks between the city and the NHL club have reached a stalemate, eliminating any possibility of the Canucks bringing their AHL team to the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre (AESC) in time for the 2013-14 season.

"There were time constraints, and at the end of the day, the city is not going to do a deal unless it's in the best interests of the taxpayers," Banman said.

Reports of an imminent game of AHL franchise musical chairs surfaced last month. The speculation held that the Canucks would purchase the Peoria Rivermen from the St. Louis Blues and move them to Abbotsford; the Calgary Flames would move the Abbotsford Heat to Utica, N.Y.; and the Blues would partner with the Chicago Wolves (whose two-year affiliation agreement with the Canucks expires at the end of this season).

When the Canucks confirmed on April 1 that they'd purchased the Rivermen – the first domino to fall, it seemed – the rumour mill shifted into overdrive.

But the city and the Canucks were unable to agree, and Banman said he was "naturally disappointed" a deal didn't come together.

Banman declined to delve into specifics of negotiations with the Canucks, but said they did not request a supply fee agreement similar to the one that the Heat have with the city.

The Heat have completed the fourth year of that 10-year contract, which guarantees the team a $5.7 million break-even budget. Attendance issues have compelled the city to cover shortfalls totalling $3.58 million to date ($450,000 in 2009-10, $1.37 million in 2010-11, and $1.76 million in 2011-12). The final numbers for 2012-13 won't be known until the fall.

Both of the parties which run the Heat – the Flames, who own the team and handle the hockey operations, and Fraser Valley Sports and Entertainment (FVSE), which manages the business side – were willing to step aside and make room for the Canucks.

That's according to FVSE's Lane Sweeting, who said his group gave the City of Abbotsford and the Canucks "the opportunity to make a deal."

"Our goal is to have a successful American Hockey League team in Abbotsford," Sweeting explained. "It doesn't matter whether we own it or whether the Flames own it or the Canucks own it.

"We would like to see the American Hockey League stay here, we would like to see the fans support it, and we would like to see that the city isn't cutting subsidy cheques. That's a long-term business cycle for us, and it probably would have been a shorter business cycle if the Canucks had successfully negotiated a new lease (in Abbotsford)."

The Canucks declined interview requests on the topic, but did issue a general statement.

"The purchase of the Peoria Rivermen franchise allows Canucks Sports & Entertainment to assume full control of their minor league development program. No determination has been made relative to the operation of the franchise for the 2013-14 season and at this time no further details will be disclosed."

In order to facilitate an Abbotsford/Canucks deal, Sweeting said the Heat asked the AHL for extensions on deadlines pertaining to scheduling for the 2013-14 season.

Sweeting expressed surprise that a deal wasn't reached, though he pointed out he wasn't privy to any details of those negotiations.

"From my perspective, I thought it was an easy thing to do, because both parties were interested in having it done," he said. "I think the Canucks were interested in having their development team 65 kilometres away, and I think the city was interested in having a lease without a supply fee. Why or how it didn't get done, I don't know.

"Eventually, they ran out of time, basically. They should have had this done months ago. It was putting pressure on our staff, it was putting pressure on the league."

Asked if he anticipated any negative feedback from taxpayers and hockey fans alike that the city was unable to strike a deal with the Canucks, Banman left the door open for future negotiations.

"If negotiations happened once, they can happen again," he said. "We would leave the door open to anyone who can improve the current position that we have. I think that some of that is our own responsibility, quite frankly, to support the team we have.

"The worst thing the fans can do would be to turn their backs on this team. That will make negotiations down the road even more difficult. If the fans want a great deal, the best thing we can do is show them we're a hockey town regardless of AHL affiliation."

The AESC has been home to the Heat since the 2009-10 season, but the team – affiliated with the Flames, a division rival of the Canucks – has struggled at the box office. The Heat have never averaged more than 4,000 fans per game, and they drew an average crowd of 3,778 this season, which left them 28th out of 30 teams in the AHL.

The Heat's attendance this season represented a 6.6 per cent increase over the 3,545 they drew last year – the first time they've trended in an upward direction after two straight years of decline. While that can be partially attributed to heightened exposure during the NHL lockout, the local team's attendance growth did outpace the league-wide increase of 1.3 per cent.

"I think we built our fan base, but we still have work to do," Sweeting said. "The taxpayers aren't obligated to come to these games – we have to make them want to come to these games. I think we're doing a good job of pricing it and showing that it's an evening's entertainment for a good dollar."

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