The American newspaper that originally reported that the Abbotsford Heat American Hockey League team is set to pull up stakes and play out of the Utica Memorial Auditorium in upstate New York next season, has removed the website blog that started last weekend’s social media buzz on the rumour.
The sports editor for the Utica Observer Dispatch told The News, “There’s a lot that’s up in the air that just hasn’t been hammered out yet.
“There certainly no decision that’s been made yet,” said Matthew Becker.
The original story appeared as part of a blog by Don Laible, who Becker said is not a reporter for the Utica newspaper.
He also said the blog was taken down from the newspaper’s website.
According to Becker, Utica’s mayor has talked with the Flames, but nothing is “set in stone.”
The Calgary Flames, who own the Heat and run the hockey operations side of the club, responded with a press release on the weekend.
“We have been approached by representatives in Utica concerning an opportunity for the AHL,” the team stated. “We understand they are building a case for the AHL to return there. We are under contract and committed to Abbotsford, and have made no alternate commitments.”
On Sunday, Lane Sweeting, a member of the Fraser Valley Sports and Entertainment (FVSE) group which runs the Heat’s business side and owns the right to operate an AHL franchise in this region, echoed those sentiments.
“We certainly have a contract with the Flames,” Sweeting said, alluding to the 10-year deal signed when the Heat arrived in Abbotsford in 2009. “We have seven years (including the current 2012-13 season) left on that contract, we have not released them from that contract, and to the best of my knowledge, they have not signed anything with anyone in Utica.”
The Abbotsford franchise is the same one that used to play in Utica. The Utica Devils were the New Jersey Devils’ AHL affiliate from 1987 to 1993, at which point they were purchased by the Flames. The franchise made stops in Saint John, N.B. (1993-2003), Omaha, Neb. (2005-07) and Moline, Ill. (2007-09) before arriving in Abbotsford prior to the 2009-10 season.
The Heat have struggled at the box office during their four seasons in Abbotsford. The attendance issues have cost taxpayers, as the Heat have a supply fee agreement with the City of Abbotsford that guarantees the team a break-even budget up to $5.7 million annually. The shortfall was $450,000 in 2009-10, $1.37 million in 2010-11, and $1.76 million in 2011-12.
City hall released a written statement Monday saying, “The City of Abbotsford maintains a strong, ongoing relationship with Fraser Valley Sports and Entertainment and the Calgary Flames. The city will not address speculative reports or discuss possible AHL partnership agreements with other cities.”
Last August, there was speculation that Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini was interested in buying the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre and stationing the Canucks’ AHL affiliate there. The idea of a Canucks affiliate would make sense on a number of levels, given the NHL club’s popularity in the region.
But local stakeholders also downplayed that speculation, and any Canucks-related transaction would be a complex one. Even if Aquilini were able to strike a deal with the City of Abbotsford to buy the arena, he’d have to come to agreements with the Flames and FVSE.
The Canucks do not own an AHL franchise, but their two-year affiliation agreement with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves is set to expire at the end of this season.