Canucks Zeroing in on Location for AHL Affiliate, Possibly Utica

Thomas Drance
May 24 2013 08:27AM


Will Vancouver park their newly purchased AHL franchise at this arena next season?
Photograph by: Manuel Palomino Arjona, via eventseeker.com

We've tracked the scuttlebutt about the Canucks's American Hockey League affiliate kerfuffle extensively over the past year - from the Abbotsford rumours, through to their somewhat messy divorce with the Wolves, to the club's purchase of the Peoria Rivermen franchise. When we last checked in on this developing story, the hottest gossip was that Vancouver may let their newly purchased AHL franchise go dormant for a year and scatter their prospects across a variety of north american minor leagues. 

Well, thankfully, it now appears that the Canucks are zeroing in on a deal with "a specific city that hasn’t been concluded yet." So that's good news. We should hear more about the deal soon too according to Mike Gillis - who addressed the situation in an apperance on the Team1040 on Thursday - and told Matt Sekeres and Blake Price that, "Hopefully we’ll be ready to announce something by the middle of next week."

Read past the jump.

Here are Mike Gillis' comments from his Team 1040 appearance yesterday (you can listen to the General Manager's radio hit here, the below transcription is my own):

“We’re working on an arrangement with a specific city that hasn’t been concluded yet. We have a couple of other opportunities that have been put on hold because we want to pursue this one. Hopefully we’ll be ready to announce something by the middle of next week.

There’s been a lot of discussion about AHL expansion in the West which we’ve been part of. But it’s a little premature at this point. We’re looking at an opportunity we really like for development purposes, and travel purposes, so hopefully that’ll work out and we’ll have something to say next week.”

[On the prospect of shuttering the Rivermen franchise for a year]

“I don’t believe so but there’s always a chance that things can fall apart. But I don’t believe that will be the case, and it wouldn’t be our first choice by far.”

Unpacking Gillis' comments, it seems as if the Canucks are closing in on a deal with a specific unnamed city, but the deal isn't concluded yet and the organization is proceeding cautiously. The best news is that it doesn't sound as if Vancouver's newly acquired AHL team will "go dormant" this upcoming season after all, though of course "things can fall apart."

Reading between the lines a little bit further, I might suggest to you that Mike Gillis's comments can be read to imply that the organization's AHL affiliate will be placed on the East coast (if it's placed at all) at least for the short-term. After all, Gillis did describe AHL expansion in the West as "a little premature at this point."

Which brings us to the rumours about the Mohawk valley and Utica, New York. Is Utica - a city that has been "in" on pretty much every AHL affiliate rumour over the past two months - the unnamed "specific city" that the Canucks are close to cutting a deal with? We don't know for sure, but there's an increasing amount of smoke.

It started with a Ben Kuzma report a week ago, which we didn't pivot off at the time because it only quoted Scott Arniel on the record. Relying on unnamed sources, Kuzma reported that Utica was a "front runner" to land the Canucks's displaced Peoria franchise.

This week, the News1130 Twitter account (which admittedly has a bit of a mixed record on these sorts of things) passed along something similar:

It's interesting, however, that the News 1130 report landed on Wednesday afternoon, because on Tuesday of this week the state government of New York approved two million dollars in funding to restore the Utica Memorial Auditorium (which locals apparently refer to as "the Aud"). That money will be in the 2013-14 state budget and presumably represents the sort of commitment that would make Utica a more attractive destination for the Canucks.

Actually it's not just a commitment that would make Utica a more attractive destination, it's a necessary commitment for the city to make if they want to attract AHL hockey. The Aud currently only seats 4000, so it's a small arena by AHL standards - even if the Abbotsford Heat couldn't fill it regularly - and falls short of some other minimum standards the league has for its buildings. Utica has a long and storied history of unsuccessful hockey franchises and an outdated arena in need of significant investment, but hell, it's better than going dormant (probably)...

Admittedly we don't know for sure that Utica is the "specific city" Mike Gillis was referring too. But it's worth noting that two Vancouver news outlets (the Province and News 1130) are reporting the city as a front runner, the mayor is certainly on board, and the city recently procured two million dollars in state funds to upgrade their hockey facility...

So professional hockey may return to the Mohawk Valley this fall, and it'll be interesting to see if it can actually succeed there.

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Thomas Drance lives in Toronto, eats spicy food and writes about hockey. He is an NHL News Editor at theScore, the ex-managing editor of CanucksArmy.com and an opinionated blowhard to boot. You can follow him on twitter @thomasdrance.
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#1 Cam Charron
May 24 2013, 08:38AM
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Oh, never in Utica!

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#2 Sonia
May 24 2013, 09:42AM
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I thought the whole point of moving our AHL Team was to get them closer to us, not to move them on the other side of North America. Anyways, isn't Utica the place where everyone thought Calgary would move thus freeing up Abbotsford for us? Funny how things work out ...

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#3 KleptoKlown
May 24 2013, 11:11AM
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@Sonia

The point of relocating the farm team was so the Canucks would have more control over the development of their prospects. The Canucks don't own the Chicago Wolves, so they had limited input on how the team was run.

Having the farm team so far away isn't an ideal situation, but it is 1000% better than having the team go dormant for the year.

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#4 Josh
May 24 2013, 11:43AM
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I am curious, if the Canucks can't move their farm team to somewhere close, what was wrong with staying in Peoria?

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#5 VBS6935
May 24 2013, 11:58AM
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Yawn.

MG saying there might be news by the middle of next week is like his saying that David Booth would be ready for the first round of the playoffs.

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#6 elvis15
May 24 2013, 05:46PM
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@Josh

That was what I thought might have been their best option once Abby fell through for this year. The flip side is a deal with Utica - if Calgary does indeed want to move their AHL team there - would allow us to take care of the setup stuff, and then swap with Calgary to get the Abbotsford location later.

The Flames were rumoured to want a lot of $$$ to give the Canucks Abbotsford (since both the local Heat management and city were for the idea) but it was too much to get the deal done. Having a ready made setup in Utica might be the leverage they need to convince the Flames to swap.

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#7 Larry
May 26 2013, 09:34PM
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I'm a Canucks fan that lives in Utica. I would love to see this team come here. However, us Uticans have a long history of unsuccessful sports teams, many of them being professional and semi pro hockey teams. The area has so much potential, and is really a great place for any sports team, if the people will get behind it. From many of the people I talk to, they already have money set aside for season tickets, which is very promising. Here's to hoping this deal does get done!

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