Ben Street is new to the Abbotsford Heat, but he’s already got a pretty good handle on what to expect when the Vancouver Canucks’ farm team comes to town.
“I’ve heard it being described as a circus, and a bit over the top,” the 25-year-old centre said with a chuckle following Wednesday’s practice. “Everyone talks about how these games are sold out . . . and how they’re pretty high energy and high tempo just because of the atmosphere.”
That pretty much sums it up. Since the Heat’s arrival in Abbotsford in 2009-10, the Canucks’ AHL affiliate – first the Manitoba Moose, now the Chicago Wolves – has drawn far larger crowds to the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre than any other visiting team.
This weekend’s Friday-Saturday set between the Heat and Wolves (7 p.m. start both nights) doesn’t figure to be any different, as both games are expected to be close to, if not entirely, sold out.
Street, a Coquitlam native who signed a two-way deal with the Calgary Flames in June, understands why the games are so appealing for local fans. He was a Canucks supporter growing up, and used to wear No. 10 in honour of Pavel Bure. (He’s wearing No. 9 this season with the Heat only because Lance Bouma already had No. 10.)
“When the crowd is loud and there’s a lot of people here, it’s exciting,” he noted, looking ahead to the weekend Wolves match-up. “But you’ve got to find a threshold where you don’t get over-excited.
“When you do that, you kind of squeeze the stick, or you over-pursue and over-backcheck. You still need to play smart.”
It’s an odd dynamic when the fans cheer as loudly for the visitors as for the home side, but defenceman Joe Piskula senses local support for the Heat is increasing.
“This is my third year here, and every year I’ve felt that the Heat, as part of the community, has grown,” he said. “I think the community has backed us (against the Canucks affiliate) a little more each year.
“Knowing there are going to be Canucks fans here, that doesn’t bother us. But I think we’ll have our fair share of fans, too. It’s an exciting atmosphere to play in.”
‘ARE YOU MAKING AS MANY SAVES AS THE OTHER GUY?’
Head coach Troy Ward doesn’t anticipate any roster moves prior to the weekend, leaving the Heat’s roster static at 28 players.
The most fascinating of the roster logjams is in the crease, where Danny Taylor, Barry Brust and Leland Irving are jockeying for playing time. Ward tapped Taylor to start both games last weekend, with Brust as backup and Irving a healthy scratch.
The Heat bench boss said he’ll “more than likely” go with Taylor vs. Chicago on Friday, but wouldn’t commit to it entirely.
The whole situation is awkward on the face of it, but Ward said that since the decision-making process is based entirely on merit, it makes things rather straightforward.
“When you get down to merit, you get into ‘Are you making as many saves as the other guy?'” Ward said. “They know.
“We had one guy who was just absolutely terrible on Monday (in practice), absolutely terrible. So then it becomes very easy. The order can shift.”
According to statistics released by the AHL this week, the Heat are the fourth-oldest team in the league.
Abbotsford’s average player age is 25 years and one month, based on the opening-night roster. The oldest team is the Hershey Bears at 26 years, three months, while the Binghamton Senators are the youngest at 23 years, one month. The league average is 24 years, two months.
The Heat’s seasoned group is in marked contrast to the situation just two seasons ago – Abbotsford missed the playoffs with the AHL’s youngest roster in 2010-11.
The age shift can be largely attributed to a change in Calgary Flames management. Former Flames general manager Darryl Sutter was content to let his young prospects carry the load at the AHL level, while Jay Feaster (who took over from Sutter in December 2010) has taken pains to supplement his youngsters with solid vets.
“If you’re going to develop young players, you have to surround them with good pros – guys who have been through the wars and are good teachers and good role models,” Ward explained. “I really believe that.
“If you have a (Sven) Baertschi here, it really behooves you to have a (Ben) Walter. Let’s face it – Baertschi’s got four points, but Walter’s the catalyst there.”
Piksula pointed out that many of the players from the kiddie corps of 2010-11 – Lance Bouma, Carter Bancks, Greg Nemisz, T.J. Brodie – are still with the team.
“That’s the key factor, right there,” he said. “They’re three years more mature. That goes a long way for the chemistry of the team.”
HOME FINALLY SWEET FOR HEAT?
The notion of home ice advantage hasn’t always rung true for the Heat, who have historically been better on the road than at the AESC.
Last season, for instance, Abbotsford’s 24 road wins tied them with the Oklahoma City Barons for most in the Western Conference, but they were a pedestrian 18-15-5 at home.
Though it’s a small sample size, the Heat’s home-ice sweep of the Peoria Rivermen last weekend is a positive sign – especially since they’ll get plenty of home reps early, with 10 of their first 13 games at the AESC.
Piskula pointed out that the Heat started to turn things around at home late last season, and he believes that confidence has extended to the new campaign.
“But that’s not all of it,” he clarified. “I think we’ve got a good group of character guys. We prepared very detailed, and we were just ready.”
It doesn’t appear that forwards Nemisz (lower body) and Paul Byron (upper body) are poised to return to the lineup anytime soon. Both have been out due to injury since training camp, and neither player participated in practice Wednesday.