Could AHL Affiliate Musical Chairs Bring a Canucks Farm Team to the Valley?

On Monday afternoon, veteran Vancouver broadcaster Tom Mayenknecht reported that the Canucks are in active talks to purchase the Peoria Riverman, an AHL club currently owned and affiliated with the St. Louis Blues.

The plan, according to Mayenknecht, would be for the Peoria Rivermen to be purchased by the Aquilini group that owns the Canucks. The Canucks would then move to the Fraser Valley in place of the Flames affiliated Abbotsford Heat who would move on to Utica (as previously and denied by the Flames). To complete this round of musical chairs, the St. Louis Blues would take on Vancouver’s current AHL affiliate, the independent minded Chicago Wolves as their new farm team.

Read past the jump for more.

On first blush Mayenknecht’s report strikes me as significantly more plausible than the speculative drivel we’ve chuckled at in the recent past. First of all, the mechanics make sense. The Canucks don’t own an AHL team currently – they’ve been affiliated with Don Levin for the past two seasons, and were affiliated with the True North ownership group before that – so the Canucks’ ownership group would have to purchase an AHL team if the plan was to move to Abbotsford.

Adding thicker smoke to this possible fire is that Mayenknecht’s report builds on the Utica/Flames report from last month, which the Flames only half-heartedly denied at the time. Meanwhile St. Louis Blue brass didn’t exactly offer the most full voiced repudiation of Mayenknecht’s report to Tom Eminian of the Peoria Junior Star earlier this week either. Blues COO Bruce Affleck told Eminian the following earlier this week:

“Nothing is settled (about Peoria’s future). Nothing is decided. The best answer right now is a bit in limbo. I know the rumors are out there and I can’t completely squash them.”

[Asked whether the Peoria Rivermen are for sale, here was Affleck’s response]: “For sale is too strong a term,” Affleck said. “Have we talked to people? Yes. But not in months. NHL teams talk all the time, and we talk about a number of things. Affiliations are very fluid in the AHL and this is part of the process all the time.

Well that certainly makes it sound like something is afoot, doesn’t it? 

Eminian theorizes that new Blues owner Tom Stillman – who acquired the Rivermen when he purchased the Blues less than a year ago – isn’t particularly eager to continue funding the operations of a Blues owned AHL club. If that’s true, then that certainly makes the Blues an ideal fit as an NHL partner for Don Levin and the Chicago Wolves.

After all, the Chicago Wolves are a pretty unique hockey property for an AHL club. They have their own local television deal and are owned by a businessman in Levin who has designs on owning an NHL club and is reputed for sparing no expense (be it chartering a private jet, or what have you) on his AHL team. So if Stillman’s intentions are as Eminian describes, then this maneuver would certainly make sense for the Blues.

I’m not so sold, however, about the Flames side of the deal. Playing to a chronically empty house in Abbotsford aside, it would superficially appear that the Flames have a pretty good thing going out in the valley. In terms of location, it doesn’t get much more convenient than Abbotsford for an NHL team in the Western Conference. If the Flames ever need an emergency call up, Abbotsford even has its own airport. Hell it might be just as convenient to fly from Abbotsford to Calgary as it is to drive to Abbotsford from, say, the Endowment Lands.

In a league where the Anaheim Ducks have their AHL affiliate located in Virginia (which is closer to Orange County than their old Syracuse-based affiliate was), and the San Jose Sharks’ affiliate is located across the country in Massachusetts – don’t under-rate what an advantage an Abbotsford based AHL affiliate is for the Flames.

Beyond the convenience factor, the Flames have a lease agreement with the City of Abbotsford wherein Abbotsford taxpayers basically compensate the Flames for any "operating deficit" that the team might incur. The Abbotsford Heat have been at or near the bottom of the American Hockey League in attendance throughout their existence, so those losses have been relatively significant. Let’s put it this way, if Stillman had a similar agreement in Peoria to what the Flames have with Abbotsford – he wouldn’t be playing with footsie with Don Levin.

Oh and this lease agreement, signed before the start of the 2009-10 AHL season has six more years remaining on it after this year. Why exactly would the Flames willingly move their risk-free AHL affilliate from the Fraser Valley to New York state?

When you look the structure of Calgary’s agreement with Abbotsford, that the Flames would consent to this round of musical chairs seems farfetched. Harrison Mooney suggested to me on Twitter that pride might be a determinative factor for the Flames here. That the organization hoped to succeed in Abbotsford and following another year of disastrous attendence (despite icing a winning team during the AHL lockout) are close to giving up on their ability to turn things around in that marketplace.

He’d know more than I do about the prevailing attitudes in that organization and I may be being too cynical here, but I find it tough to get around the pretty simple fact that this maneuver would work against Calgary’s rational self-interest. That is unless the Aquilini’s makes it worth their while and the Flames procure a favourable lease agreement from Utica.

As for talks between the Flames and the Canucks, Blues COO Bruce Affleck had this to say to Eminian earlier this week:

“This all stems from the rumors about Calgary’s intentions to move from Abbotsford. That’s generated a lot of (rumor) and there’s been as many as five teams named in it. Our understanding [is] that the Calgary and Vancouver things fell apart.”

So on the one hand Mayenknecht’s report is plausible and may yet come to pass. On the other hand though, we’ve got informed people saying that nothing is set in stone yet and that any deal between the Canucks and the Flames may already have fallen apart. So, I think that’s enough for me to conclude that we should be pretty skeptical about Mayenknecht’s "March 23rd" timeline, even as we perhaps find the other substance of his report to be compelling (more or less). 

I think it’s also worth noting here that the Canucks have mostly declined to comment on Abbotsford Heat related news stories over the past couple of months. In a recent story from the Vancouver Sun about the Wolves getting "antsy" to hear from the Canucks regarding their status as a potential affiliate next season, Canucks Assistant General Manager Laurence Gilman indicated that the Canucks would take their time regarding any AHL affiliation agreements for next season:

"We’ve had a very good relationship with the Wolves, their ownership and their management over the last two years and we are currently in discussion with them about what the future holds. As of this point, I’m not sure how it’s going to unfold. My experience in the American Hockey League, there are times when affiliations don’t get sorted out until the summertime, as was the case last time."

So yeah, what Gilman said and also common sense leads me to think that Mayenknecht’s March 23rd timeline is pretty dubious. There’s very probably just too many moving pieces and too many parties involved (NHL owners, AHL owners and municipal politicians too) for this whole thing to feasibly move so quickly.

With all of that said, it’s pretty clear that a Canucks owned AHL affiliate operating locally would be a boon for the organization from a hockey operations perspective, from a player development perspective, and from a marketing perspective too. Also, with the Canucks’ current two-year pact with Don Levin’s Wolves expiring after this season, the timing makes a lot of sense. But there still appears to be significant hurdles and until "the Flames question" is compellingly answered, I’ll continue to regard reports of this nature with a hearty dose of skepticism.

  • I thought I read on FlamesNation that the Abbotsford deal having the tax payers cover any losses in operating would end after 5 years which I thought was after the 13-14 season. I dunno how true this is though.

  • Do the Abby Heat have a non-compete agreement preventing another AHL franchise locating in the Lower Mainland? If not, I don’t see how the Flames need be involved in this.

    The Canucks could just relocate Peoria to play at Roger’s Arena. The only downside from this is that the Abby taxpayers might lose even more money and the Flames will be embarrassed by the even poorer attendance for the Heat.

    • JCDavies

      I thought there was an an agreement between the AHL and the CHL that prevents teams from relocating to already occupied cities. If I am right, the Giants would prevent such a move from happening.

    • JCDavies

      I don’t see how they would fit a team in Rogers Arena. The AHL schedule plays back to back games (as in, Heat vs Wolves on friday, Heat vs Wolves on saturday). It would be impossible to fit this in an arena with an NHL team (especially if either club intends on practicing there), let alone a building that wants to host concerts or other events. Same with the Pacific Colloseum. The only other venue available in the lower mainland that would work is the AESC or the Langley Event Center. Langley is already host to the Langley Rivermen, Trinity Western Spartans Men’s Hockey and the Langley Thunder Lacrosse. Abbotsford is the only location that is practical to work.

  • Why couldn’t Vancouver place their farm team in Abbotsford whether Calgary is there or not. They could share the building, cut down on travel cost and at least mitigate the city’s losses.

    Langley also has a new 5,500 seat rink with suites.

    Or the Canucks could match Calgary’s questional business ethics and dump their team into Red Deer and put the Sutters out of business.

  • JCDavies

    If there is one source i trust when it comes to sports and the business of it, its Tom Mayenknecht.

    Deadline aside, i would be this is a done deal by next season.