Vancouver Canucks Affiliate Should Stay Put
With the season inching closer to an actual opening – don’t look behind the curtain – there are details to discuss. Even with an all-Canadian division, the border is an obstacle. Local governments on both sides of the border have their own ever-changing rules. When will the vaccine rollouts allow fans into the stadiums – and how quickly? It’s almost certain that the teams will carry a larger taxi squad, but how will they get paid?
And a big one for the Vancouver Canucks affiliate: should they simply move the team closer to home? And why aren’t they now? We discussed two potential options back in October but will dig in a bit more here.
A Quick Rundown
NHL teams have had working relationships with affiliate teams for decades. It was often a working understanding between teams – we attach our name to your club to sell tickets, you give our prospects ice time. Financial deals varied, but mostly the minor league teams were left to their own devices. Those teams, and even entire leagues, have come and gone over the decades. This could be because of financial instability just the whims of the owners: the Canucks have had 13 “first-tier” affiliates in four different pro leagues and 11 “secondary” ones over their 50-year history.
Affiliates have some straightforward expectations from their parent clubs. They are expected to be financially self-sufficient, if not outright profitable. They’re expected to give prospects prime roles, developing them. They’re expected to coach in the same general way as the big league team does. And they are expected to do their own hires to fill in the rest of the team. Occasionally a minor affiliate will find a diamond in the rough as an added bonus. Alexandre Burrows was signed by an ECHL team and later an AHL one before playing over 900 NHL games, for instance.
Follow the Bouncing Franchises!
That has been changing over the years as NHL teams look for stability for their prospects. Most teams – Vancouver included – have simply bought their affiliates and now exert complete control over them. The Peoria Rivermen were purchased in 2013 with the intention of moving them close by. Originally, the Calgary Flames affiliate was then negotiating with their Abbotsford home and was rumoured to be moving. When they reached a deal there was speculation that Rivermen would move into Rogers Arena, sharing space with the Canucks. That wasn’t allowed because of the AHL’s 50-mile rule and was never a possibility if the Heat stayed. Historical note: the “Abbotsford Heat” isn’t as inappropriate a name as you might think. “Rivermen” makes more sense, sure, but “Heat” still kinda fits.
The next potential site was Seattle’s KeyArena. There was a willing ownership group, a large arena, geographical convenience, and no pro- or semi-pro rival teams about. The NHL stepped in then, forbidding the location because that was a possible relocation site for the Phoenix Coyotes. Yes, even the Vancouver Canucks affiliate location was caught up in that ongoing – and hopefully over – saga. With time running out, the team was considering having no AHL affiliate at all for 2013-14. Eventually, someone noticed that Calgary had threatened to move their farm club to Utica during their negotiations with Abbotsford. A light bulb went off and the Comets were born.
This [#*$&%^!] Year
When the NHL season was halted in March 2020, the AHL followed suit. Unfortunately, there was no way the AHL could finance a playoff series like the NHL did, so they simply cancelled play. This year, as the NHL is gearing up to resume, the AHL is doing likewise. Originally an optimistic plan for a December return was announced, but reality got in the way. That’s since been moved to the far more likely February 5th. The announcement is great, of course, but there’s a bit more to work out than that. Those affiliates who are owned by their NHL teams have different priorities than just being financially solvent.
There are conflicting interests inherent with every farm team. While the AHL accepts they are a “feeder” league, they are still businesses of their own and want to succeed as such. Parent companies want their prospects in a winning system, sure, but they also want them to play. A LOT. But even beyond the prospects, the parent clubs want access to players who will be able to join them as seamlessly as possible at the drop of a hat. Injuries, suspensions, family emergencies, or some unforeseen event could mean calling up a player quickly.
Which is a problem in the 2020-21 season for the Vancouver Canucks affiliate being in Utica. Most emergencies, after all, are resolved one way or the other within 14 days.
“Forward, to the FUTURE!”
There hasn’t been a decision yet about how exactly the NHL is going to resolve this dilemma for their Canadian teams. It’s possible that those teams in the US are moved temporarily to Canada. Maybe they carry far more replacement players. It could be something else. There are pluses and minuses to whichever way they go, and it could be some combination of both of these. That’s going to involve a lot of other considerations that we’re not digging into yet. For now, let’s talk about the advantages and disadvantages of keeping the Vancouver Canucks affiliate in Utica entail.
That the Utica Comets has been a financial success is unquestionable. The team is extremely popular, with a string of over 201 consecutive regular-season sellouts by the time the season was suspended. It is also economically advantageous to play in the Northeastern US. Teams are relatively close together, so travel is quick and can be done by bus as often as not.
Gameplay has worked out well for them, too. The AHL’s Pacific Division play fewer games to compensate for their increased travel time, and getting prospects into game situations is a major benefit to NHL teams. Utica has produced or developed NHL players for the Canucks, including Thatcher Demko, Zack MacEwen, and Adam Gaudette. Even their coach graduated from the minors, Travis Green starting with Utica when the Comets arrived in the 2013-14 season.
The most obvious is the distance. Should the Comets move to Abbotsford (for instance), call-ups could be achieved in an hour. There is no border to cross, so no delay there being called up or sent down. That proximity to the parent club can accommodate in-person meetings with senior staff and management. With the Comets across the continent and the border, emergencies really can be emergencies, with no help coming for 24 hours. The farther a player has to travel, the higher likelihood something will go wrong. And we’re pretty sure Murphy was a travel agent.
Distance applies another disadvantage that may or may not be resolved by a move: fandom. Yes, the Comets have had awesome fans in Utica, and that’s not to be sneered at. However, being able to tie in the parent club with players and prospects in the minors can stimulate even more interest for the AHL team. Seeing the NHL club’s draft picks in the same town as hope to eventually play is a tempting prospect itself.
The proximity between the parent club and the Vancouver Canucks affiliate may be enough to convince the team to move, despite their track record. It is, after all, not just a single team but a part of an entire franchise, and what the owner says, goes. There’s an argument to be made. But it’s worth remembering that the Heat struggled with low attendance and moved in 2013-14. The Canucks tried to have a close-by affiliate with the ECHL’s Victoria Salmon Kings. That team folded rather than face the competition of a junior team, the Victoria Royals. The Canucks are obviously very popular throughout the province, but affiliation doesn’t guarantee success.
Unpredictable conditions have forced the Canucks to change, and for one year that’s what they have to do. But permanently? That’s just messing with something that already works.