17
Photo Credit: Lindsay Mogle

The (Underwhelming) Pros And (Considerable) Cons Of Moving The Utica  Comets To Abbotsford

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 Pros:

Emergency Recalls

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.

Franchise Cohesiveness

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.

The Cons:

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.

  • Good article. Thanks for this. Look at the progress the entire organization is finally making in the area of player development and team culture in less than 5 years of having the team in Utica. The only real benefit would be the call up convenience, and as you correctly state here, that is only applicable 50% of the time. All of the con points you post here are 100% valid. Don’t mess with success. Renew the lease in Utica.

    • What success? What team culture (Petterssen zero push back)!!? This is a no brainer – move the team as close as possible to the parent club and build on a localised culture and localised fanbase. Who cares about saving a few bucks on gas and the dump Utica and their redneck fans in BC ffs!

      The Canucks AHL team can then play division rivals more relevant to their NHL Pacific affiliates like Bakersfield, San Diego, San Jose Barracuda, Stockton and Tucson with no cr@ppy bus rides in the snow/ice and games against irrelevant Easterm farm teams. It’s a complete no brainer for the hockey intelligentsia like myself – get the team west asap.

  • If we relocated the Comets to the Pacific division, the only logical location would be in California for travel reasons. Besides, no hockey player on an AHL salary ($70-100k) could afford to live in the Lower Mainland.

  • you don’t mention the number 1 pro. canuck fans would be able to go watch the prospects and have an alternative to the prohibitively expensive nhl ticket prices. i’d love to go see the prospects.

    • This point can’t be emphasized enough. I’d love to go to comets games … and to take my kid, moreover. Not to mention the fact that it’d be fantastic to go and get to watch our prospects live instead of just reading about them, with all due respect to Cory and the AHL streaming service – I really appreciate Cory’s dedicated reporting on Utica. All the same, I think I lean slightly in favor of keeping the team in Utica for the travel and development reasons outlined in the article and comments.

    • I share your enthusiasm for having the farm team so close but with all due respect the decision of whether to keep the team in Utica should not be based on what is best for you and me.

  • The only downside with Utica is that the building holds less than 4000 people for hockey. Other than that it seems to be the perfect venue. If I owned the team I would leave it in Utica.

  • I drive yearly through the Catskills and most fans don’t realize how close these AHL teams are to one another. Many are just a short bus ride.

    https://www.bing.com/search?q=catskill+mountains+map&FORM=QSRE1

    making for significant reduced time on the road. Time travelling benefits no one and reduces practise time. If Vcr wants a west coast AHL team the lower mainland would not be the best place as frankly it would be moving from buses to planes. Currently Vcr can’t fill Rogers Arena why would we think filling a second rink be any easier. The Giants can’t find traction with the fans neither could the Vcr Nats or the Vcr Blazers. Vcr is a fickle location for sports support, great when they’re winning lousy when they’re loosing. The Lions are suffering poor support and I anticapaate the Whitecaps will be the same next season. Much of it is caused by small disposable income in the lower mainland. Stick to Utica

  • If it makes financial sense, the Canucks should just keep the team in Utica. That city has wholeheartedly embraced their AHL team, and it would frankly be cruel to rip it away from them. Sports teams too often treat their fans like garbage. The Canucks don’t have to be one of them.

    The author also makes a great point about travel. Utica is within 130 miles or less of several other AHL teams, in places like Syracuse, Albany, Rochester and Binghamton. It’s a good, supportive environment for young players. Leave it be.

    • And many more close locations. The rivalry is there, the fans are passionate about their teams and provide great support. There are a lot of good reasons to keep the team in Utica. Regretfully fans tend to think of their own needs before the success of their farm team. How many call ups do the Canucks make in a season 5-10 and for that we’d move the entire organization for fans to take in the odd game at hopefully low prices in Cdn$’s I’m not buying it

  • Completely informative article, Stephan, I hope fans will grasp the pragmatism of leaving the farm team where it is in upstate N.Y. The fans there seem to love and support the Comets so don’t mess with it. As much as I’d like to see the AHL in Abbotsford or the Pacific Coliseum it’s not going to happen for fiscal reasons as outlined in Stephan’s post. Continentally and geographically Vancouver is very far away from everything on this planet ultimately anyways and why put those kids under the microscope and NOT be in the NHL as of yet? Leave it alone.

  • It may be a negotiating tactic for Aquilini. I don’t believe he owns the building so he may be trying to get cheaper rent or wanting more seats (expanded facility?). He would be nuts to turn his back on sellout crowds every game. They love this team and should be rewarded with the same loyalty they display towards the Comets.

  • I have long believed the farm team should be moved to Abbotsford, but I never really asked myself to justify my belief. This article has helped me change my mind.
    I also believed that I would enjoy attending AHL games because of the lower ticket pricing and easy parking. However, I went from my home in East Van to Abbotsford and back recently (by car of course), and I realized that Abbotsford is not as close as it used to be.

  • “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.”
    This is not true. Look at Calgary’s farm team, Stockton as an example. They don’t play the east coast AHL teams. The furthest they travel out of the pacfic timezone is Iowa and Manitoba. When Abbotsford was in the AHL, there were basically no other western teams. Times have changed.
    The Canucks play the majority of the their games in the pacific, mountain, and central timezones. So having their AHL affiliate exclusively playing in the pacific, mountain, and central timezones would be a big advantage over an AHL team that exclusively plays on the east coast. With the current AHL alignment of east/west it certainly does matter where the AHL team is located.