City of Abbotsford terminates controversial deal with AHL Heat

The Abbotsford Heat is moving out of the Fraser Valley at the end of this season, as the city has terminated its contentious supply fee agreement with the American Hockey League franchise and the Calgary Flames amid mounting financial shortfalls.

After previous speculation about the future of the minor league organization, an official announcement was made at a press conference on the concourse of the newly re-branded Abbotsford Centre on Tuesday morning.

"Certainly it's a disappointing day, for myself, personally, for our franchise, for our players and coaches, our staff and certainly our fans," Heat president Ryan Walter said.

The Heat, which began operations at the 7,000-seat capacity arena, formerly known as the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, in 2009, is the minor league affiliate of the Calgary Flames.

One of the biggest criticisms the Heat franchise faced right from its beginning was its attachment to the Flames, an NHL team not fondly looked upon in Abbotsford, which is a roughly one-hour drive from Vancouver and the Canucks.

Abbotsford mayor Bruce Banman said the city has terminated its 10-year supply fee agreement with the Heat and the Flames.

This 2013-14 AHL season marked the fifth year of the agreement, which ensures $5.7 million in guaranteed revenue for the franchise, with the city and its taxpayers responsible for any financial shortfalls.

The franchise had not turned a profit in each of its first four seasons in operation. The city stated in January that the financial shortfall for the 2012-13 season was $1.66 million. The combined shortfall through four seasons was $5.24 million and that number is expected to grow again at the conclusion of this season.

"So far I believe the actual number is $7.2 million," said Banman.

He added the city will be forced to pay out $5.5 million to terminate the contract - $4 million of that the city had already saved up for and the other $1.5 million will come out of this year's budget.

Tuesday's announcement was "bittersweet," said Banman, elected as Abbotsford's mayor in November of 2011.

"There is no absolutely no question in our minds that taking this step with the Heat and the Calgary Flames organization is the best scenario financially for our city and for our ratepayers," he said.

The Heat is sixth in the AHL's Western Conference currently with a 40-25-5-3 record and has locked down a spot in the Calder Cup playoffs.

However, attendance has been a major concern for the franchise right from its beginning, and that has continued this season. The Heat is currently 29th in the AHL in attendance, averaging 3,007 fans per game.

A lack of geographical rivalries and enormous travel - the Heat are right now the only team on the West Coast, and the nearest teams are in the American Midwest - also factored into increased cost.

"We hoped and prayed and worked hard at, but in the end simply could not see a conclusion that was beneficial to all parties involved," said Flames CEO Ken King.

As for the Flames minor league system, Glens Falls, NY., has been speculated as the next destination for Calgary's AHL affiliate.

"We have several options, not the least of which is Glens Falls. We have not made a choice on that selection," said King.

Metro was informed that Heat employees found out Monday evening about Tuesday's press conference and that their final day will be June 30.

There was a small contingent of ardent Heat fans that took in the press conference, watching from the back as the announcement was made that their beloved team would be uprooting.

Dave Duffill was clad in his Heat jersey - with the name 'Famous Dave' on the back - to show his support.

"That's a difficult thing to hear," said Duffill, who drives in from Langley to take his two youngest kids to games.

"This team has meant a lot more than just 38 home games a year. The arena's become more than some place to watch hockey. It's where we get together with our friends.

"My kids spent four years here growing up. It's a tough time. I've got to go home and tell my kids that the team's gone."

Aside from professional hockey, the Abbotsford Centre is also home to concerts and other forms of entertainment.

However, the city, in a press release, stated it is already "actively pursuing new potential anchor tenants for the coming seasons at the Abbotsford Centre."

Banman did not rule out another AHL franchise, adding the Western Hockey League is also an option.

The mayor said the city will no longer further subsidize private enterprise for a new anchor tenant.

Last year, the city was in negotiations with Canucks Sports and Entertainment to potentially bring the Canucks minor league team to Abbotsford.

Those negotiations fell through, and the Canucks farm team is now in Utica, NY., with a six-year agreement.

"Here's what's not going to happen. We're not going to panic and sign a deal unless it's good for our taxpayers," said Banman.

"I think one of the worst things you can do is sign a deal out of desperation."

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