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Heat weren't 'the right fit' in Abbotsford: AHL prez

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The president of the American Hockey League expressed disappointment that his league failed to take root in Abbotsford.

But speaking with The News on Tuesday, one week after the City of Abbotsford announced it would pay the Calgary Flames $5.5 million to terminate the final five years of a 10-year supply fee agreement to have its AHL affiliate play locally, David Andrews suggested that it's highly unlikely the AHL will be back.

Unless, of course, the Vancouver Canucks make it a priority to move their top farm team – currently located in Utica, N.Y. – closer to home.

"I can't imagine any other AHL club, other than the Canucks (affiliate), relocating to Abbotsford," Andrews said. "Hopefully you learn from history."

Given the Heat's attendance struggles and the unpopularity of their link to the Flames, the Canucks seem to be the only AHL affiliation that would have a shot at succeeding locally. But after failing to come to an agreement with Abbotsford last spring, they just completed the first year of a reported six-year contract in Utica, and released a statement last week touting their commitment to the upstate New York city.

Andrews said that when the AHL approved the Flames' farm team's move from Moline, Ill. to Abbotsford in 2009, the league "believed . . . that we had a chance to be successful.

"There were a number of factors that made it difficult," he analyzed. "Long before we were there, there were some challenges in terms of support for the facility. I think the fact that the team was a Calgary Flames AHL team in a Vancouver Canucks NHL market was probably not very helpful.

"Other than that, I don't know that there's much else to point to. I think the local ownership group certainly were good people and well-intended and did their best, and certainly over the last little while, I think (Heat president) Ryan Walter has given it the best effort he could possibly give.

"It's just not the right fit."

Abbotsford's exit from the AHL comes at a time when the league's desire to form a West Coast division seems to be heating up. Recent reports indicate that the Phoenix Coyotes, L.A. Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, along with the Canucks, Flames and Edmonton Oilers, have interest in moving their farm teams closer to home, possibly as soon as the 2015-16 season.

Lane Sweeting, a member of the Fraser Valley Sports and Entertainment group which operates the Heat, told The News last week that a Pacific division could have brought a measure of financial relief to Abbotsford by lessening travel costs.

Andrews acknowledged that the AHL has been examining the feasibility of an expanded West Coast presence for the past two years, but said there's still a long way to go before anything comes to fruition. It doesn't seem that Abbotsford's departure will impact those plans either way.

"We're still involved in the process, and it's a process that could end up in a West Coast presence for the American Hockey League, or it could not," he said. "A lot of the rumoured reports have been pretty detailed, and much of that detail is not yet accurate."

Andrews said he's not sure at this point where the Heat will end up next season, and wished Abbotsford well in its search for another anchor tenant for the 7,000-seat Abbotsford Centre.

"It's a beautiful arena, it's a great area of the country in Canada, and clearly, there's lots of hockey fans," he said.

"I feel badly for those that did become real fans of our league and of the Abbotsford Heat, that the team is relocating, and obviously for the employees there. There's a lot of people impacted any time a team isn't able to continue operation.

"It's not something we feel very good about, when a team has to leave a city like this. But I understand it from the city's point of view and from the Calgary Flames' point of view. It just hasn't been working, and I don't think that the trend was going in the right direction."

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