An all-star season from Chad Billins (left) and an all-rookie campaign from goalie Joni Ortio were among the highlights for the Abbotsford Heat in 2013-14

An all-star season from Chad Billins (left) and an all-rookie campaign from goalie Joni Ortio were among the highlights for the Abbotsford Heat in 2013-14

Heat hold exit meetings, prepare for move to New York

Players and coaches reflected on the franchise's time in Abbotsford.

It was, in effect, the mother of all exit meetings.

On Monday, the Abbotsford Heat players – with the exception of Sven Baertschi (playing for Switzerland at the IIHF World Hockey Championship) and Kane Lafranchise (reassigned to the ECHL’s Alaska Aces) – convened at Abbotsford Centre for their year-end debrief sessions.

Brad Treliving, the Calgary Flames’ freshly hired general manager, and special assistant Craig Conroy met with each player individually, as did Heat head coach Troy Ward.

It was the last official team function before the players disperse for the summer, in the wake of last Friday’s 5-3 loss to the Grand Rapids Griffins which eliminated them from the Calder Cup playoffs.

For the rest of the week, Ward and the Heat’s hockey operations staff will be combing through the facility to determine which equipment belongs to the Flames, which was paid for by the Heat’s local operating group, and which of the latter items the Flames would like to purchase.

Then it’s a matter of packing up the gear for transportation to Glens Falls, N.Y., where the American Hockey League team will play next year, and the locks will be changed.

And thus will end the Heat’s five-year stint in Abbotsford.

“It’s sad, to be honest with you,” said Heat captain Dean Arsene, an Abbotsford product who is retiring after a 13-year pro career. “I count myself very lucky to have played here a year, and the fact that they’re leaving, it’s disappointing.

“Obviously we didn’t have the fan support, and it (the move) makes sense – the city was losing money on it. But it’s too bad that it couldn’t have lasted a little bit longer.”

In many respects, the Heat’s fifth and final season was its best.

The team set a franchise record for regular-season wins with 43, and it was a successful campaign in terms of player development – Paul Byron stuck with the Flames after being recalled in November, Chad Billins and Ben Street played in the AHL all-star game, and revelatory performances by the likes of forwards Markus Granlund, Max Reinhart and Corban Knight, defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon and goalie Joni Ortio indicated they’ll be key pieces in Calgary’s rebuild going forward.

Ward said the 2013-14 edition of the Heat was “by far the most talented group we’ve had,” a notion supported by the fact they shattered the franchise record by scoring 237 goals during the regular season. That’s 3.12 goals per game; the previous best was 2.71 during the inaugural 2009-10 campaign.

The depth and quality of prospects in Abbotsford increased after the Flames traded veteran stars like Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester for youngsters last season, and Ward believes that a greater focus on scouting the U.S. college ranks also played a role.

The Heat were among the top teams in the AHL into mid-February, but a raft of injuries and NHL recalls precipitated an eight-game losing streak. The team righted itself prior to the playoffs, going 8-1-1 down the stretch, but ended up seeded fifth in the Western Conference.

That set up a first-round playoff match-up with the defending Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids Griffins. The Heat dominated Game 1 at home, out-shooting the Griffins 56-41, but fell 2-1 in double-OT. They appeared demoralized the following evening, dropping a 7-2 decision to slide into a 2-0 hole in the best-of-five.

With their backs to the wall, Ward’s charges staged a third-period rally on the road to win 2-1 in Game 3, only to suffer a season-ending defeat in Game 4.

“For almost five complete periods, we had an unbelievable Game 1,” Ward said. “Unfortunately we didn’t get the bounce we wanted, and I thought that was the difference in the series. Had we won Game 1, I don’t know if we’d be sitting here today.”

“I don’t think we can call it a full success, being eliminated in the first round of playoffs, but it was a positive season, for sure,” Ortio asserted. “It was a good regular season, and I think we deserved better than we got in the playoffs.

“I’ve got to give that team (Grand Rapids) credit – it’s a good hockey team, and they played well.”

Ortio said that saying goodbye to teammates – some for the summer, some for good – is difficult.

“The amount of time we spend on the road, we see each other more than we see our wives and girlfriends,” he said. “And it’s the end of the franchise – kind of surreal, seeing these hallways and locker room for the last time.

“We’ve enjoyed our time here, it’s too bad it couldn’t work out with all the financials and stuff. But it’s been a great city to play in. The set-up here is amazing, it’s almost a brand-new rink. It’s been a good place to play hockey.”

Ward termed the Heat’s departure from Abbotsford a “bittersweet exit.”

“Really, if you look at it in terms of winning and losing and developing players . . . this was a home run,” he said. “I thought the town was good to our kids and the kids were good to our town. No one really got into trouble.

“A lot of people grew up here and a lot of people will call this home for their development. A guy like (defenceman) Chris Breen, look at what he’s done here. He’s raised two kids, he’s grown up a lot as a man, and he’s got people in town who support him.

“In our business, that’s special. Maybe to the general reader, what does all that mean? Well, when you move as much as we do and you live where you live, it’s always nice to go back to somewhere you can call home and see old friends.”

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