Image via Canucks.nhl.com
Last week the Canucks finalized an agreement with Utica, New York to place an American Hockey League team in the Mohawk Valley. On Friday the deal and the team’s logo and jersey was officially unveiled at a Press Conference in Utica.
Geographically speaking, Utica is far from an ideal spot for Vancouver’s top farm team. But in agreeing to a deal with Utica the Canucks come out net winners on balance. First of all, the club avoided having their AHL affiliate franchise go dormant and dodged a player development nightmare in doing so. Secondly, the club will be in a better position next year – even in Utica – then they were this past season when they reportedly clashed with their Chicago Wolves affiliate over a variety of issues.
Still as more details about the deal emerge, we’re interested in looking forward. What does the affiliation deal between Utica, New York and the Vancouver Canucks tell us about the teams future plans and the future of professional hockey in the Mohawk Valley? We’ll get into it after the jump.
On Friday, the parameters of the deal between Utica, Mohawk Valley Gardens (MVG), and the Canucks remained murky and in truth that’s still the case.
We know that it’s a six year agreement, the length of which – surprise, surprise – precisely mirrors the time remaining on the deal between the Calgary Flames, Fraser Valley Sports and Entertainment (FVSE), and the city of Abbotsford. MVG President, former National Hockey League puckstopper Robert Esche, confirmed to the Utica Observer Dispatch that the agreement has "an escape clause," though he vaguely added that the clause "is heavily weighted in MVG’s favor and something the Canucks would be very reluctant to exercise." Meanwhile Elliott Pap fleshed out this topic further, passing along that "According to [Canucks Assistant General Manager Laurence Gilman, there are mutual outs for both parties at various points throughout the term" of the deal.
In that same Vancouver Sun piece, Laurence Gilman was explicit about Vancouver’s long-term vision for their AHL franchise:
“When we began this endeavour, our original intent was to have our farm team play in B.C. as an extension of our brand,” Gilman said from Utica. “When that wasn’t available, we began to explore other options and we went through an exhaustive search looking at potential locations."
In addition to the above Laurence Gilman quote, it surfaced this weekend that the Canucks had previously pursued the possibility of locating their AHL affiliate club in Seattle before settling on Utica. Interestingly their need to find a suitable location for their AHL affiliate franchise was overruled by the NHL’s long overdue Phoenix Coyotes backup plan.
Taken together, I think we can safely conclude that cumbersome out-clauses aside, it’s clear the Canucks will eventually look Westward with their AHL affiliate. If the length of their agreement withthe MVG and the city of Utica implies what I think it does, Abbotsford very probably remains the organization’s first choice.
There’s one more part about the deal that we don’t quite understand yet and that’s how much of the financial risk the Canucks will bear. In advance of the deal’s announcement, it was speculated that the Canucks were looking for a generous package from potential AHL destinations, and it was reported that the club sought one million from Peoria.
It’s not uncommon for American Hockey League teams to run at a loss, though Comets season ticket sales in Utica got off to a strong start this weekend. Still, it’s not clear at the time of this writing whether or not the Canucks worked out some sort of deal whereby any losses sustained by the Comets would be covered by either some layer of government or a third party organization.
Laurence Gilman, for example, noted to the Vancouver Sun that, "the Canucks won’t “bear the risk” financially if the Comets don’t generate enough revenue to meet obligations." Elsewhere Gilman is paraphrased by the Utica Observer-Dispatch that "there is no clause in the deal that would call for the city of Utica to make up financially for any operating losses." While it superficially sounds like Gilman is contradicting himself, the fact is, those statements are in no way incompatible. It seems possible that the Canucks won’t "bear the risk" in this agreement and also that the city of Utica isn’t responsible to cover a possible operating deficit.
I have no theory on what’s actually going on with this, beyond a sense that if public funds were being committed in this manner, we’d almost certainly have more information about such an agreement. For example, we know that New York State is committing five million dollars in funding to upgrade the Utica Memorial Auditorium ("The Aud"). According to New York Governor Cuomo’s office, upgrades will include:
Infrastructure improvements include enhancing the arena’s façade, HVAC updates, and electrical system upgrades. Additionally, the resources will be used to construct new locker rooms—both home and away, a work out facility, medical facility, players’ lounge, upgrades to food service areas, a new video scoreboard and hospitality club boxes.
Nowhere in the release from the Governor’s Press Office does it touch on the state guaranteeing to cover any losses. As such, I’d suspect that if the Canucks are in fact protected from covering any deficit in the club’s operating budget, that it would be done through a private agreement with some type of third party. But that’s just a suspicion based on the reasoning I’ve laid out. I suppose we’ll have to keep our ears to the ground for more details.
What are your thoughts on the Utica Comets agreement? Are you excited to see how the Canucks manage an AHL affiliate team, now that they’re in full control of the hockey operations?