COLUMN: Running hot and cold rumours

The Heat are moving! Social media was running hot with that rumour last Sunday ...

The Heat are moving!

Social media was running hot with that rumour last Sunday, thanks to a blog post on the website of the Utica Observer Dispatch, a newspaper in upstate New York.

Their blogger suggested that a 10-year deal had been done with the Calgary Flames to relocate their American Hockey League affiliate – the Heat – to the Utica Memorial Auditorium.

Curiously enough, it’s where the Abbotsford franchise used to be. The Utica Devils were the New Jersey Devils’ AHL farm club from 1987 to ’93, when they were bought by the Flames.

By Monday morning, however, the Heat news was starting to cool.

The Flames threw water on the fire (although didn’t quench it entirely) by saying they had been approached by representatives in Utica concerning “an opportunity for the AHL,” but stressing, “we are under contract and committed to Abbotsford, and have made no alternate commitments.”

Lane Sweeting, a member of the Fraser Valley Sports and Entertainment group that runs the Heat business operation locally, also unplugged the buzz, maintaining that to the best of his knowledge, the Heat have  “not signed anything with anyone in Utica.”

The City of Abbotsford also jumped on the not-so bandwagon.

And by Monday afternoon, after some difficulty substantiating the claims in the original blog, the Utica Observer Dispatch pulled it off their website. (Therein lies the difference between blogging and journalism.)

So, for now, the official word is that the Heat are staying put. At this stage of any deal, it would be extremely unlikely that the official word would be anything else.

However, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing to this.

The Heat’s struggle with filling seats is no secret. Neither are their flagging financial fortunes, which Abbotsford taxpayers are subsidizing, to the tune of $450,00 in year one, $1.37 million in 2010-11, and $1.76 million last season.

All concerned have acknowledged this is definitely not what was envisioned when the AHL team was brought here.

The city had to find an anchor tenant for its shiny new Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre (AESC), and realized the original concept of an ECHL team wasn’t going to put 5,000 bums in seats every game. Nor was it likely the facility could be filled only with entertainment events and be made profitable.

City officials approached a group of local businessmen to help lure in an AHL squad. They got one, by guaranteeing a $5.7-million break-even budget for 10 years – drawn from civic tax dollars. Such a jaw-dropping sweetheart deal probably hadn’t been seen before in professional hockey, and isn’t likely to be again.

Abbotsford councillors have paid in political credibility for that decision, as well as for the red-ink arena, although the AESC is showing a steady financial improving trend.

For many taxpayers, the prospect of seeing the Heat voluntarily leave town is OK, heralding an early end to the contract, possibly without expensive legal wrangling or massive compensation payouts.

But then what? Abbotsford is still left with a big arena to fill – hopefully, for taxpayers, at a profit. As we’ve seen, that’s a tall order, especially in this economy.

Rewind then to an earlier hot hockey rumour: Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini is going to buy the AESC and install the Canucks’ AHL affiliate here.

Bingo. Abbotsford taxpayers are off the hook for both liabilities

Too far-fetched to be true?

Aquilini’s domestic woes aside, he’s no doubt got the capital. The Canucks’ farm team is obviously popular out here. The Heat are being wooed in New York.

And the Canucks’ two-year affiliation agreement with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves will expire at the end of this season.

If you wish to believe … the planets are lining up!