One Way or Another, the Canucks’ AHL Affiliate Situation Will be Resolved This Week


The Canucks are facing a deadline this week. Basically the organization needs to have their ducks in a row regarding a location for their recently purchased AHL team by Wednesday, so that any agreement can be voted on and approved by the AHL’s Board of Governors on Thursday. If the club can’t secure a deal with the "specific city" that they were getting close to a deal with – that "specific city" has been rumoured to be Utica, New York by the way – then the Peoria Rivermen franchise could go dormant for the season. 

If the Canucks shutter their AHL affiliate for the year, the organization’s thin crop of prospect talent will be loaned across the league, which would be a bit of a nightmare scenario for the club. Alternatively, if the Canucks can complete a deal that’s acceptable to the AHL’s Board of Governors this week with the city of Utica, they’ll operate a franchise in the Mohawk Valley. That would be an outcome which, while significantly more attractive than the alternative, would still represent a less than ideal situation.

We’ll summarize the latest AHL-related Canucks gossip after the jump.

Is the Deal Done?

News 1130 Sports, a Vancouver based news outlet, reported last week that the deal with Utica was all but done, and that approval from the AHL’s board of governors was merely a formality:

That report strikes me as probable, I find it hard to believe that the Canucks are going to spend the next forty-eight hours scrambling to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on an agreement with the city of Utica.

On the other hand, the News1130 Sports Twitter account is generally reliable but does occassionally strike me as speculative (like when they reported Eddie Lack was considering returning to Sweden last summer, or when they reported early last week that the Syracuse Crunch were likely to oppose the existence of a rival AHL franchise in Utica). My general rule is that I take their reports with a grain of salt unless a player, agent or team official is directly quoted (that’s a rule I apply for most local media too, actually).

Realistically it’s very tough to tell what’s going on at this point because there’s pretty much zero information flowing out of Utica, New York. A political reporter in Albany tweeted that the deal is done as a side note and there was a local boy makes good puff piece about Tom Sestito over the weekend, but that’s about it.

That’s in direct contrast with developments in Abbotsford, or Peoria, or Chicago, where local reporters like Dave Eminian, Dan Kinvig, Paul LaTour and Jason Shaver have their ears to the ground. There hasn’t been so much as a leak out of Utica since the initial repudiated report last February about the Flames organization kicking the tires on moving their affiliate franchise to the Mohawk Valley.

Here’s what we know then. A Utica based group led by former Flyers goaltender Robert Esche has been chasing an AHL affiliate, and we know that the state of New York has pledged 2.25 million to upgrade the home of a would be AHL club based in Utica. But that’s it. The Canucks haven’t even explicitly confirmed that they’re in talks with the city.

So is the deal all but done? There’s little reason to believe it is, and no reason to believe otherwise. With the cone of silence surrounding any deal, we’re really just left to wait and see.

What will the Deal Look Like?

Again: any public officials or hockey folks involved in working on the rumoured deal in Utica haven’t tipped their hand that negotiations are even taking place. Neither have the Canucks. It’s tough to figure out then, what the parameters of any potential agreement between the city and the Canucks would look like.

But we can look to Peoria, where the Canucks tried and failed to come to an agreement to operate the Rivermen in Illinois, for a hint at what sort of deal the Canucks are looking for. Per Dave Eminian of the Peoria Journal Star:

Vancouver, when it was in talks to keep the AHL in Carver Arena, wanted $1 million in structural upgrades to a Rivermen locker room complex that was built for seven figures just 8 years ago, according to sources.

The Canucks also wanted Bart Rogers and John Butler to operate the AHL farm team. The duo — which manages U.S. Cellular Coliseum in Bloomington — opted to form an ownership group and bring an SPHL team to Peoria instead.

The Canucks want a guaranteed break-even AHL operation — you can count the number of those that exist in the AHL on one hand — and that means someone in Utica might have to cover annual seven-figure operating deficits for the NHL parent.

The Canucks are actively looking to replicate something the Flames have done? Guess that explains the bevy of no-trade clauses the organization has on the books…

Utica honestly doesn’t make a lot of sense as a destination for a Canucks owned AHL affiliate without a significant financial commitment from the city, frankly. The Mohawk Valley is geographically remote from Vancouver, and has an old arena which will have be fixed up to even meet AHL standards. Worse a Utica based AHL affiliate will have to operate in the AHL’s Western Conference, so the club’s potential travel schedule will be extraordinarily arduos. That’s a cocktail that might make it tough for the Canucks to procure quality AHL talent to bolster a Utica-based team’s roster.

If a deal with Utica is approved this week, I’d be very surprised if it weren’t attached to a significant commitment on the part of the municipality. Guess we’re about to find out whether or not Utica’s elected officials share the enthusiasm for spending public funds in the pursuit of professional hockey demonstrated by their counterparts in Glendale, Quebec, Abbotsford and Edmonton.

Travel Headaches

It’s roughly 57 miles, or an hour drive, from the Utica Memorial Auditorium to the closest local airport (Hancock International in Syracuse). There aren’t really direct flights from Hancock International to YVR. To fly from Syracuse to Vancouver you’re looking at a minimum of a seven and a half hour, one connection flight through O’Hare or Pearson(*). That’s without delays, a dicey proposition when you’re flying through either airport in the winter.

(*) Based on a variety of search on

Realistically we’re looking at a nine or ten hour call up time from a Utica based AHL affiliate. So forget same day emergency call ups. The situation would be a far cry from the short commute over the Port Mann that was first envisioned when the Canucks’s new AHL franchise was rumoured to be supplanting the Heat in Abbotsford.

If the Canucks and Utica can agree to terms, and that agreement is approved by the AHL’s Board of Governors this week, then Vancouver’s fringe NHLers and prospects will bear a significant travel burden this coming season…

  • The one thing I always wonder about is the term of that agreement.
    I doubt that the Canucks would be willing to stay in Utica for long, unless they actually make a lot of money there, which I doubt is really possible.

    Would be very interested to know for how long they plan to stay there until they try again with the Flames…

  • I don’t get why Utica would agree to partner with Vancouver and make the upgrades they want and offer them a guaranteed break-even deal when the Canucks are just going to bolt after a season or two. Unless they hope that another team (the Flames) will takeover after that time. I feel like the Canucks should be willing to take a crappy deal to prevent their prospect from being sent around the league.

  • antro

    “So the Canucks are actively looking to replicate something the Flames have done? Guess that explains the bevy of no-trade clauses the organization has on the books…”

    LOL! Nice call.

    There aren’t many teams in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, are they any outside of Abbotsford? So travel schedule was going to be hell in most scenarios (except for recalls).

    But does anyone know of a good reason that no one has tried to set up more teams in the Northwest? WHL country? Wouldn’t Kamploops or Kelowna be a good location?

  • antro

    Ugh, it’s starting to feel like nothing ever goes right for this organization. When is their luck going to improve? Hopefully they can get this farm team deal squared away, a coach signed, draft a couple sweet prospects, trade Luongo, sign Tanev and pick up a 3rd line center and fourth line winger while remaining cap compliant by October.

    This really will be a defining offseason for Gillis won’t it?

    • JCDavies

      It wasn’t too close when the Heat moved in to Abbotsford with the Bruins in Chilliwack. I’m not sure the region is big enough to support two teams, however.

  • antro

    Ugly situation. Aqualini is not liking this location and Gillis knows it. So he’s trying to replicate the guarantee no net loss and renovations and bully Utica to give in just to suffice the greedy real estate developer(Aqualini) and his pocket which must never shrink. Have you ever meet a developer which likes to lose money.

  • antro

    The only reason Utica is getting any attention from the Canucks is because they have the only chair and the music is stopping. There are not a lot of markets looking at the AHL, and even fewer who would want to try to launch a team on such short notice. The Jets were fortunate that St. John’s was available a couple of years ago – it was about the only place I could think of to pull this off. Vancouver does not have that luxury – it is either Utica or bust.