In Ryan Walter, the Abbotsford Heat believe they’ve found the ideal frontman to raise the American Hockey League club’s profile in communities across the Fraser Valley.
The Heat introduced Walter as their new team president at a press conference on Tuesday morning.
“He brings us up a level, and we’re really excited about him,” said Lane Sweeting, a member of the Heat’s local ownership group. “He’s an icon in the hockey world, and he’s an icon in the Fraser Valley.”
Walter, a 53-year-old New Westminster native who currently resides in Langley, played 15 NHL seasons with the Washington Capitals, Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks, winning a Stanley Cup in 1986 with Montreal.
He served as a Canucks assistant coach under Alain Vigneault for two seasons (2008 to 2010), and coached the Canadian women’s hockey team to a gold medal at the 2010 Four Nations Cup.
Walter holds a masters degree in leadership from Trinity Western University, and is an author and motivational speaker.
Walter will replace former Heat president Tom Mauthe, who helmed the club through its first two AHL campaigns. Mauthe, a Vancouver resident, announced his resignation on July 18, citing a desire to explore job opportunities closer to home.
Walter said he’s thrilled with his new job because he believes it suits his skill set, and allows him to remain involved in the game he loves.
“This is a beautiful opportunity,” he said. “When you look at the quality of the people, the quality of the building, the quality of the American Hockey League, I get very excited about that.
“I’m excited to get going. I know there’s a lot of work ahead – I can sense that already.”
Indeed, Walter is taking over a team that has some work to do to build its clientele.
The Heat averaged 3,807 fans per game last season, 26th out of 30 AHL teams. That’s down slightly from the 3,897 they drew in their inaugural campaign of 2009-10.
The Heat are two years into a 10-year contract to play out of the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre that guarantees the 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 it’s estimated the deficit for 2010-11 will be in the $1.2 million range.
Walter said one of his chief goals is to deepen the hockey team’s connection to the community.
“We’re not trying to twist arms for people to buy tickets – we want them to love to come here,” Walter said. “Once people come and experience this game, they want to come back. The goal is really to get out into the community and take our message to people, instead of waiting for them to come to us.
“I have a large learning curve, and I will rely very much on our (front office) team. My goal would be to get up to speed real quick, and I love learning.”
Sweeting said the Heat contacted Walter last year about doing some consulting. When Mauthe resigned, those discussions took on a different focus.
“We were very happy that Ryan could adjust things in his life and his career to join us,” Sweeting said.
“I think it’s great to have someone as president who can walk into the dressing room, meet the players, and the players can respect him because he has that Stanley Cup ring. I think that connects the team to the front office, and I think that’s really important.”
Sweeting said the slight attendance dip in the Heat’s sophomore season was not entirely surprising.
“I think a lot of people realized how much hockey 20 back-to-back nights are,” he said. “We had a sophomore year that we anticipated, but I think now that’s the benchmark. Now we’re growing the business . . . and with Ryan, that will really help.”
Walter’s son Ben, a 27-year-old centre, signed a two-way contract with the Calgary Flames, the Heat’s NHL parent club, last month. There’s a solid chance Ben could play in Abbotsford this season, and his father said he’s “thrilled” to be working in the same organization.
Ultimately, the elder Walter believes that selling AHL hockey involves a “simple pitch.”
“In this marketplace, we’re very excited to bring the best game outside of the Canucks,” he said. “It is the No. 2 (hockey) league in the world by far, and over 80 per cent of players that play at the NHL level have spent time in the AHL. So really, from our side, we want people to come out and see the NHL players of the future today, for 20 bucks.”