by Dan KINVIG and Eric WELSH
The Western Hockey League’s Bruins are out of Chilliwack and on their way to Victoria, and former Bruins managing partner Darryl Porter is pointing the finger of blame at the Abbotsford Heat.
In 2008-09, the season before the Calgary Flames’ American Hockey League affiliate arrived in Abbotsford, the Bruins drew 4,041 fans per game to Prospera Centre. The WHL club saw its attendance plummet the past two seasons with the Heat just down the highway, averaging just 3,260 in 2009-10 and 3,357 in 2010-11.
“We lost 800 season ticket holders that summer (the Heat arrived),” Porter told the Chilliwack Progress on Wednesday, after the long-rumoured sale of the Bruins to Graham Lee of Victoria’s RG Properties was finally announced.
“I know through database analysis where those fans came from. We went from 1200 fans per game from outside of Chilliwack to 300, overnight. That’s also why they were struggling as well. The fan base was split.”
Responding to Porter’s comments on Thursday, Heat president Tom Mauthe said the AHL club never wished ill on the Bruins.
“We want our hockey peers to do well,” he said. “We feel this market of over 900,000 people (south of the Fraser River) can support more than one hockey team.
“That’s really our position on all of that. All along, we’ve made efforts, the offer was always there, to work together (with the Bruins). Should a new team arrive in Chilliwack in the future, that offer would still stand.”
No such co-operation between the two franchises ever materialized, though Mauthe said the Heat, “out of respect” for the Bruins, did not advertise or otherwise market the AHL team in Chilliwack.
“We wanted them to be successful,” he said.
Over their first two seasons of operation, the Heat have drawn an average of 3,852 fans per game to the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, which seats 7,046 fans for hockey.
The Heat have a supply fee agreement with Global Spectrum, which operates the AESC on behalf of the city, guaranteeing the hockey team a break-even budget up to a maximum of $5.7 million. Last season, a revenue shortfall of $450,637 was covered by the city.
Mauthe said it’s hard to predict whether the Bruins’ exit will have a major impact on his team’s bottom line. There have been rumblings that another WHL team could move to Chilliwack, and the B.C. Hockey League (junior A) is also a possibility.
“It’s really difficult to measure,” Mauthe said. “We know that Chilliwack is a fantastic hockey market, and we don’t know what the future holds for a team there.
“We know building a sports franchise is a lot of hard work. For us, our philosophy is to build over time. It’s a proactive sales and marketing effort. In our case, it’s about educating the marketplace on the American Hockey League and the Abbotsford Heat, and the fantastic building we play in.”
As for the Bruins, the lease at Prospera Centre was another point of contention that led to the team leaving Chilliwack. Porter and NHL general managers Burke (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Glen Sather (New York Rangers) owned a combined 75 per cent of the franchise, and they had tried to renegotiate the lease with minority owners Moray Keith and Jim Bond, who also operate Prospera Centre under the banner of the Chiefs Development Group.
“People ask us why we signed the lease in the first place,” Porter said. “When we came here and we were the Chilliwack Bruins, the Fraser Valley’s home team, we were drawing 4,000-plus a game. Everything was OK. But now, it’s not a good deal.”
Keith maintained the team made money through the first four years before suffering a slight loss (approximately $18,000) this year.
Porter shook his head.
“I’m not going to get into the finances in the newspapers, but on a cash basis we’ve been going backwards for the last two and a half years,” he said. “We’ve been operating our business on a line of credit for the last 32 months.”
On the eve of the Bruins’ move, it was revealed by the City of Chilliwack that the Bruins had approached the city in December, asking for ongoing financial support in the range of $175,000 per year.
In a statement, Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz said the city rejected the request because using taxpayer funds to support a private business was not allowed under the Community Charter (provincial legislation).
“As well,” said Gaetz, “council did not believe that taxpayers should be subsidizing private hockey club owners. This was strictly a financial issue between two business groups – the team owners and the arena owners.”