A couple of weeks ago, Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini gave an interview to Sportsnet 650 that was mostly notable for his misconstrued comments on the Sam Gagner demotion. Obscured by that non-controversy, however, was a statement that was probably worthy of more attention by the Canucks faithful—a suggestion that the Canucks ownership group were once again considering moving the franchise’s AHL club to Abbotsford or some other location on the Lower Mainland.
To be entirely fair, Aquilini’s comments were non-committal at best and a response to a direct question on the subject, as he said, “That’s something that we’re looking at all the time, different markets. The Pacific Coliseum is an option, Abbotsford is an option. Right now, we’re still in the contract … Our guys are still evaluating that … and seeing what makes the most sense.”
That being said, that Aquilini is willing to freely talk about the possibility of the Abbotsford Comets is significant, especially given that franchise’s lease in Utica ends after this season. The Canucks have an option to extend their stay in Utica for three-to-six more years, but they must decide by January 1, 2019. If Aquilini is floating the idea of moving the team to Abbotsford to the local media this close to that deadline, it means there’s probably a real chance of it happening
As Aquilini noted in the interview, “There’s a lot of pros and cons” when it comes to Abbotsford, and he’s absolutely right. Unfortunately—as exciting as the prospect of an AHL club in the Fraser Valley might be—there are a lot more entries in the con column, and the pros aren’t all that enticing.
The most obvious and direct benefit to moving the Utica Comets to Abbotsford is proximity. When injuries hit the parent club, replacement callups would be quicker and easier with the farm team just an hour or two down the road. If the Canucks wanted to send a waiver-exempt prospect down for a weekend of action with the Comets while the big team is idle, it would be as simple as calling them a cab. Emergency goaltenders would be a thing of the past.
Of course, all of these proximity-related perks only apply when both the Canucks and their farm team are both at home. If either team is on the road—which would be the case a large portion of the time—it doesn’t really matter where the AHL clubhouse is located.
Placing the farm team in the Lower Mainland would allow the Canucks to develop the sort of franchise cohesiveness that is normally limited to clubs on the east coast. Whether a player was on the NHL or AHL roster, they would feel more like a part of one big happy Vancouver family sharing practice facilities and access to off-ice staff. Prospects would receive more face-time with the coaches and the developmental staff. Those on the bubble of the Canucks’ roster would be motivated by the constant presence of up-and-comers nipping at their heels.
A Taste Of The Fishbowl
At some point, every Canucks prospect is going to have to get used to playing in the fishbowl that is Vancouver—if they want to succeed, that is. It could be argued that playing in the minors next day would grant young players a lower-stakes taste of hockey life in Van City. An internship in being the center of attention, if you will. Such a set-up might make for an easier transition to the eventual pressures of the NHL, and prevent some of the culture shock that many rookies experience when they join the Canucks.
Leaving Utica Behind
Simply put, the Vancouver Canucks have a great situation in Utica, and it’s one that should be difficult to walk away from. Modern developmental science generally speaks to the power of a positive learning environment, and the fans in Utica are about as supportive as they come. In fact, the patrons of Rogers Arena could take some serious pointers from the Comets faithful.
Utica recently set an AHL record with their 121st consecutive sellout, so it’s not like ticket sales can improve on the Lower Mainland. The Comets supporters always pack and rock the house, and the playoff atmosphere inside the Adirondack Bank Center has to be experienced to be believed. There has to be a tangible benefit to having prospects play for a team that is beloved by locals—as opposed to a prospective Abbotsford club, which would forever play the second fiddle.
Time Spent On The Road Is Time Not Spent Practicing
As Francesco Aquilini noted in his interview, “In Abbotsford, there were a lot of complaints because of the travel. The costs were higher, and ticket prices were not very high, so there are financial reasons.”
While it makes sense for an owner to be concerned about the financial cost of all that extra travel, the Canucks should really be concerned about the developmental cost. The fact of the matter is that any team located in Abbotsford—or elsewhere on the Lower Mainland—would have to spend a lot more time on the road than the average AHL club, and that means less time available for practice.
Currently, many of the Comets’ intradivisional rivals are located within a bus ride of Utica, and that allows them plenty of downtime at home to sharpen their skills. A team in Abbostford would exchange that time spent at the practice facility for time spent at the airport, and that’s not ideal for development.
Separation Allows For A Focus On Development
For a high-end NHL prospect, the AHL is ideally nothing more than a brief sojourn before a lengthy career in the bigs. However, it’s not always beneficial for a player to think about their time in the minors in such transient terms. If a prospect feels like the AHL is nothing more than a temporary holding pen before they released into the NHL—a feeling that would undoubtedly be enhanced by having the parent club located just a few kilometers down the Trans-Canada Highway—they probably won’t focus on their own development as much as they need to. There are many valuable lessons that a prospect can learn at the minor pro level, but it’s easy to miss them if one’s vision is obscured by the overwhelming presence of the big league.
There Can Be Such A Thing As Too Much Pressure
When a player is sent down to the minors, the pressure on them is supposed to be lessened for a while, which is usually beneficial for their continued development. However, that wouldn’t be the case if the Canucks moved their AHL club to Abbotsford. Instead, any demoted individual would face the initial media spotlight and crushing disappointment of being sent down, and then remain in the spotlight indefinitely. It’s easy to imagine how such a situation could spiral into stalled development.
If a promising young player disappoints, is sent down to Abbotsford, and then continues to struggle, they’ll be the subject of intense fan and media scrutiny throughout the entirety. Some might never work their way out of such a pit of despair. Right now, prospects can escape the insane pressures of the Vancouver market with a stint in Utica, but a Abbotsford relocation removes that possibility—and there can be such a thing as too much pressure when it comes to the development of hockey players.
(Fans Of) Parent (Clubs) Just Don’t Understand (Life In The AHL)
As Cory Hergott recently highlighted in an article, fans of NHL parents clubs often just don’t understand how life in the AHL works. Each and every year, legitimate prospects are benched in favour of minor pro veterans, and each and every year it arouses controversy. Players like Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich sitting in the press box is always going to raise the ire of Canuck fans, but imagine how much more intense the complaining would be if that press box were located in Abbotsford. By moving their farm team to the Lower Mainland, the Canucks organization would be inviting yearly controversy—which is a major benefit to those of us in the media, but an overall detriment to the franchise and the mental health of its fanbase.