On Tuesday, the NHL’s worst-kept secret was finally confirmed – the Atlanta Thrashers are moving to Winnipeg.
That shift means the Vancouver Canucks are now officially lacking an American Hockey League affiliate.
The Manitoba Moose had served as the Canucks’ AHL farm team, but with an NHL club setting up shop in Winnipeg, they’ll be displaced.
St. John’s, Nfld. is reportedly the front-runner to land the Moose. The franchise, wherever it ends up, will serve as the farm team for the new Winnipeg NHL club, leaving the Canucks seeking a new AHL partner.
It’s re-ignited hopeful speculation among local Canucks fans that the popular NHL franchise’s prospects could be stationed here.
But such a move would require a will on both the part of the Canucks, and the Calgary Flames – owners of the Abbotsford Heat AHL franchise – to reach a deal.
At this point, both parties are holding their cards close.
“I’m not interested in engaging in speculative discussion,” Flames president Ken King said on Tuesday.
“We have good partners (in Abbotsford), we love the market, and we have a long-term arrangement. We’re not looking for long-term alternatives.”
Canucks general manager Mike Gillis told a Vancouver newspaper that his team is exploring its options.
“We’ve got multiple opportunities,” he said. “We’re reluctant to push anything while this (Stanley Cup final) is going on. We’ll go full bore then.”
The Heat just completed the second season of a 10-year contract to play out of the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. The notion of the Flames and Canucks negotiating a dual affiliation agreement in Abbotsford was bandied about in the Vancouver media on Tuesday.
The Heat’s supply fee agreement with arena operator Global Spectrum guarantees the hockey team a break-even budget of up to $5.7 million annually. The City of Abbotsford covered a shortfall of $450,637 in 2009-10, and the estimated deficit for 2010-11 will be in the $1.2 million range.
Abbotsford averaged 3,807 fans per game last season, 26th out of 30 AHL teams.
An affiliation with the Canucks, given the team’s massive popularity in the region, is potentially a profitable fit.