The Abbotsford Heat’s struggles to fill the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre have been well-documented, but for two electric evenings, the building was the epicentre of pro hockey in Canada.
A pair of games against an Oklahoma City Barons squad loaded with up-and-coming NHL stars drew capacity crowds of 7,046 on both Friday and Saturday, with hockey-starved fans flocking from far and wide to get their fix during the NHL lockout.
“You’re going through withdrawal, right?” explained Earl Petkau, who flew in from Edmonton to watch the Oilers’ AHL affiliate. “All the young guns are here (in Abbotsford), so it was a perfect opportunity.”
Without a doubt, the NHL lockout has been a boon to the Heat.
The weekend games marked the first time in franchise history that they’ve sold out against an opponent other than the Vancouver Canucks’ affiliate (the Manitoba Moose in 2009/10 and 2010/11, and the Chicago Wolves the past two seasons).
It’s also just the second time the Heat have sold out back-to-back games – the AESC was filled to capacity for both nights of a Jan. 12-13, 2010 doubleheader vs. the Moose.
Dave Galarneau and Terry Devries, who drove from Edmonton for the weekend games, used the words “painful” and “terrible” to describe an NHL-less winter.
“The exciting thing about this was, it’s the closest AHL outpost for thousands of miles,” Devries noted. “Abbotsford’s a great town anyway, so this was an easy decision. Win, lose or draw, it was worth it.”
On the social media site Twitter, the team’s hashtag #AHLHeat was trending worldwide during the Heat’s 4-0 win on Friday. Saturday’s game – a 2-1 overtime triumph for the Barons – was televised coast-to-coast on Sportsnet.
“We’ve benefitted a lot,” Heat president Ryan Walter said Saturday, reflecting on the lockout. “It’s given us that momentum, put us over the top with some fans.
“We expose them to our product, and people come back. We’re very thankful about that.”
The City of Abbotsford paid the Heat a total of $3.58 million to cover financial shortfalls during their first three seasons in town – a condition of the 10-year supply fee agreement to play out of the AESC, which guarantees the team an annual break-even budget of $5.7 million.
The Heat were 29th out of 30 AHL teams in attendance last season, drawing 3,545 fans per game according to league stats. They’re currently averaging 5,109, good for 16th overall, though it’s worth noting that four of their eight home games have been high-profile dates with the Wolves and the Barons.
Now, the Heat’s challenge is to fashion the momentum from those outliers into a foundation for long-term health.
“It gives us a chance to build our business,” Walter said.