The American Hockey League schedule doesn’t arrive until later this week, but the Abbotsford Heat released a few key details on Wednesday that bode well for the local franchise.
The Utica Comets, the Vancouver Canucks’ new AHL affiliate, will visit the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre (AESC) seven times in 2013-14 – once in a preseason game on Sept. 22, and six times during the regular season.
That’s a significant increase – the Heat hosted four regular season games against the previous incarnation of the Canucks’ farm team, the Chicago Wolves, each of the past two seasons.
Additionally, it represents a deviation from the standard AHL schedule format, wherein Western Conference teams typically face divisional opponents most often, and then only eight times total for each team (four home games, four away).
But Heat president Ryan Walter couldn’t be happier with the frequent Comets sightings on the schedule, and for good reason. The Canucks boast immense cachet in this market, and their farm team draws the biggest crowds at the AESC year in and year out.
In 2012-13, for instance, the Heat drew an average crowd of 6,858 for their four home games vs. the Wolves, compared to 3,416 vs. other opponents. The extra games against Utica are a boon for a franchise whose operating deficits are covered by taxpayers.
“It’s big,” Walter acknowledged in an interview with The News. “Certainly, the American Hockey League wants to have healthy teams, and there’s no doubt that when they looked at our schedule, they were very accommodating.
“It may be the best way for us to market to people who are Canucks fans,” he added. “We have found that when people get in our building – whether they come to see Utica or they come to see us – they feel good about the building, they feel good about the guest experience, and they tend to come back. That exposure is very important.
“The other thing that happens for us is, there’s an amount of press or hype that we get with the Canucks’ AHL affiliate here that really helps. You couldn’t buy that type of coverage.”
For Canucks management, having the Comets play more games locally offers a greater opportunity to take the pulse of the farm team in person – general manager Mike Gillis was at the AESC for multiple Wolves games last season.
The Canucks’ interest in locating their AHL affiliate in Abbotsford on a permanent basis is no secret – the NHL club was in talks to move to former Peoria Rivermen franchise here last spring, but were unable to come to an agreement and ended up in Utica.
“I don’t know what the future brings,” Walter said, “but certainly these seven games will be good not only for our situation, but the Canucks getting a chance to be closer to their affiliate.”
• The Sept. 22 game will be the Heat’s first preseason contest vs. an AHL opponent in three years. Abbotsford has not had any such games in either of the past two seasons, owing to their far-flung location relative to the rest of the league.
• To promote the games vs. the Canucks farm team, the Heat are offering a Comets flex pack starting at $81, which features six tickets that can be used for Utica games at the AESC in any combination. Packages purchased by Sept. 22 will also include a free ticket to the preseason game.
• Proceeds from the 50/50 draw and chuck-a-puck contest at the preseason game will be donated to Canuck Place Abbotsford.
Eddie Lack (left) and the Chicago Wolves visited Abbotsford four times last season. The new Vancouver Canucks affiliate, the Utica Comets, will play here seven times in 2013-14. (Clint Trahan / Abbotsford Heat)