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WHL interested in Abbotsford, but not for 2014-15 season

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The commissioner of the Western Hockey League says the major junior circuit has interest in Abbotsford as a potential market.

But Ron Robison qualified that statement by noting that the WHL is not open to expansion at this point, and does not have any pending applications for relocation from existing franchises. In any event, the league wouldn't be able to get a franchise into Abbotsford in time for the 2014-15 season.

"Like everyone else, we just became aware that market will be available," Robison told The News, alluding to Tuesday's announcement that the City of Abbotsford would pay $5.5 million to terminate the final five years of its supply fee contract with the Abbotsford Heat of the American Hockey League.

"We are familiar with the building – it's an outstanding facility, and it's a market we have interest in. At this particular stage, we do not have any future plans for expansion, so the only way we would consider Abbotsford would be through the relocation of one of our existing teams.

"But having said that, we always continue to look to explore other options in the event we do have a request for relocation. Certainly we'll put Abbotsford on our list and do some further due diligence as to its potential for a WHL franchise."

Robison said that the WHL's deadline for relocation applications is Jan. 31, and while the league will consider requests to move after that date under "special circumstances," it's too late in the year to get a team into Abbotsford for this fall.

The WHL, which features players age 20 and under, is very familiar with the Fraser Valley market – the Chilliwack Bruins played in the league from 2006 to 2011, before being sold to a group from Victoria and moved to the B.C. capital.

"Having two franchises of similar calibre in the American League and the Western League in close proximity . . . presented some challenges for our Chilliwack franchise," Robison said. "On a stand-alone basis, we believe that Fraser Valley area can support a WHL franchise."

The economics of the WHL in Abbotsford would be far different than the AHL. Travel was a large part of the Heat's $5.7 million annual operating budget, owing to their far-flung location relative to the rest of the league, and the fact they had to cover opposing teams' travel costs to play here.

In the WHL, teams travel by bus rather than by plane, and there are currently six teams in B.C. – the Vancouver Giants, Victoria Royals, Kelowna Rockets, Kamloops Blazers, Prince George Cougars and Kootenay Ice – and four in Washington state.

Robison said Abbotsford would be "a mid-market classification in our league," and estimated that an annual operating budget would be around $3 million.

At Tuesday's press conference, Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman expressed openness to interest from the WHL, and said he hasn't closed the book on having an AHL team in town, providing it was revenue-positive for the city.

AHL commissioner David Andrews wasn't available for comment this week, but it seems highly unlikely that Abbotsford could land another AHL team in time for the coming season. Last year, the City of Abbotsford announced on April 22 that its negotiations to land the Vancouver Canucks' AHL affiliate had stalled, citing "time constraints" among the factors.

As for the Canucks, they ended up moving their top farm team to Utica, N.Y. after talks with Abbotsford broke down. They just completed the first year of a reported six-year agreement, and issued a statement this week affirming their commitment to the Utica market.

"The Vancouver Canucks are committed to our AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets and enjoy a strong relationship with our partner club," the statement read. "A strong base of Utica fans have shown tremendous support throughout the season and the Canucks intend to honour our long-term partnership agreement with the Comets."

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