Heat need to ‘figure this community out’: Walter

Reflecting on his first year as president of the Abbotsford Heat, Ryan Walter said the job pushes his leadership abilities "to the limit."

Heat president Ryan Walter said the hockey team needs to 'figure this community out' as it works to draw larger crowds.

Heat president Ryan Walter said the hockey team needs to 'figure this community out' as it works to draw larger crowds.

Reflecting on his first year as president of the Abbotsford Heat, Ryan Walter said he’s come to realize the job is going to push his leadership abilities “to the limit.”

“I like to be challenged, and this is a big challenge,” the ever-cheerful Walter said with a smile at the Heat’s end-of-season press conference on Monday. “Off-ice, I don’t think we’ve found our stride yet.

“It’s up to us to figure this community out.”

The Heat’s struggles to draw fans to the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre have been a point of scrutiny since the franchise’s arrival in 2009. That’s because of the hockey team’s supply fee agreement with the city, which guarantees the Heat a break-even budget of $5.7 million. In 2009-10, the city covered a $450,637 deficit; in 2010-11, it was nearly $1.4 million. The city is projecting a $1.1 million shortfall for 2011-12.

The Heat finished 29th out of 30 AHL teams in average attendance this season at 3,545 fans per game, and saw that number fall to 2,389 in the playoffs, capped by a franchise-low crowd of 1,360 for their season finale, Game 5 of the second round vs. the Toronto Marlies.

Asked to analyze what happened in the playoffs attendance-wise, Walter noted that post-season crowds have shrunk league-wide. The AHL’s average playoff crowd is 4,567, down from 5,638 in the regular season. The Chicago Wolves, the Vancouver Canucks’ affiliate, drew just 1,781 fans for one of their first-round playoff games after averaging 7,909 in the regular season.

Walter said he’ll be quizzing other team executives as to the reason for the playoff decrease, but said it’s “not an excuse” for the Heat.

“Those (attendance) numbers are tough,” Walter acknowledged. “That’s really going to be our summer, figuring that out.

“We have a million people in the Valley here, and every one of them should be a Heat fan. That’s the way we need to view this.”

The Heat’s affiliation with the Calgary Flames, combined with Abbotsford’s location in the heart of Canucks country, is an oft-cited attendance impediment. But Walter noted that’s “reality” for the club, and that they have to work to connect to the community.

To that end, Walter said the Heat’s players, coaches, management, street team and mascot have made upwards of 460 appearances in Abbotsford and the surrounding communities since the end of August 2011. The team has also strengthened ties with the Abbotsford Minor Hockey Association, and instituted theme games to draw fans to the rink – Punjabi night, Canadian Forces night, Pink in the Rink night in support of breast cancer research, and a school day game, among others.

“I think the positivity towards our brand has increased,” Walter said. “But – and that’s a big but there – it’s got to continue. We’ve got a long ways to go.”