By: Brayden Fengler / April 28, 2021
It looks like the Canucks AHL affiliate team is on the move again. It was reported just over a week and a half ago that the Utica Comets President Robert Esche has registered a trademark for the “Utica Devils”. For any Utica Comets fan holding their breath that this trademark is simply for an alt-rock band that Esche will be front lining, you may want to sit down, because this trademark covers all the bases around naming rights for the “Utica Devils” as a professional hockey team. It was also reported that the New Jersey Devils’ AHL team, the Binghamton Devils will cease to exist after next season. So at this point, the days are very clearly numbered for the Comets in Utica.
This news is no doubt disheartening for local Utica Comets fans, who have followed the Canucks’ AHL team since 2013. However, for western Canucks fans and ownership, this move has the potential to be very exciting. If this relocation goes through like all signs are pointing to, then gone are the days when a last-minute replacement for the Canucks is out of the question due to the time involved in a cross-continental flight. With an AHL team closer to home, calling up players last minute, or hey even on more of a whim, just to see what they can do for a few games, makes a whole lot more sense. If the AHL team moves closer to home it may allow Canucks fans outside the Greater Vancouver area to watch former, or soon-to-be Canucks roster players in action more easily.
In this article, we’re throwing our wish lists of Canucks AHL team destinations into the ether, in the hopes that one of these locations may come true. All destinations that we show below are very much west coast locations, some in Canada, some in the USA but all of them are a heck of a lot closer than the east coast. Is every location listed here the most sensible, or profitable choice for the Canucks? No definitely not, in fact, some may be downright impractical. However there should be no doubt that if the Comets moved to any one of these cities, local Canucks fans in those areas would welcome them with open arms.
Where They Shouldn’t Go
First thing’s first though, let’s look at some locations that this soon-to-be newly branded AHL team shouldn’t wind up. Namely, they shouldn’t end up in Burnaby, Surrey, or yes, Vancouver. The main reason for this being that these areas are already well served by the Vancouver Canucks from a fan’s perspective. Everyone out west of course wants the team to move closer than Utica, but in doing so, the ability to spread near NHL level hockey to a wider audience than just the Metro Vancouver area shouldn’t be overlooked. Another risk in moving the team too close would be that perhaps there just wouldn’t be enough long-lasting fan demand to sustain the team.
That may sound like a jab at local sports fans, but hear me out. Die-hard Vancouver sports fans would no doubt love the ability to view up-and-coming Canucks prospects in person and before they ever wear the Orca. However the same may not be able to be said about your average potential live sport attendee. For example, what incentive would there be for a casual fan who attends at best a handful of live pro sports each year to choose to see a “Vancouver Comets” game over a Vancouver Canucks game? The obvious answer is price, but when Canucks tickets in the upper bowl can go between $30-50, and with that purchase you know you’re seeing the most skilled hockey in town, the price may not be as competitive of an argument as one might think.
There is also the fact that Vancouver and its surrounding areas are packed full of entertainment options, so the AHL team would not only have to compete against the Canucks, but every other “game in town” so to speak. Whereas if the team moved to a more isolated city, even one with an existing hockey team of any level, then there may still be a better chance of the club pulling in a strong nightly crowd. Especially if the surrounding entertainment options in that city aren’t as vast as they would be in Vancouver.
Abbotsford / Mission
One idea and likely the simplest one would be to put the Vancouver AHL team back where there was once another AHL team. Calgary’s AHL team was in Abbotsford from 2009 to 2014 and in that time it was able to provide near NHL quality hockey to a section of this Province that is close, but not spitting distance close to downtown Vancouver. Rogers Arena is an inconvenient distance away from the Abbotsford/Mission area to make seeing anything but a weekend Canucks game a big hassle. With traffic, trying to get to Rogers Arena from Abbotsford for a weekday puck drop, is an exercise in exhaustion, as the trip could be 1.5 – 2hrs, each way.
There is still a demand for hockey in the province east of Vancouver, and just because Calgary up and left, that doesn’t mean Vancouver’s team wouldn’t find a longer-lasting home. One reason why the Calgary team didn’t work in Abbotsford long term, is that, well, it was Calgary’s team. Why are hockey fans who live within an hour or two of the Canucks’ front door going to cheer for players that belong to one of the Canucks biggest rivals? It just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to some people, for them to consistently spend money and cheer for players who belong to the rival team in Alberta.
This of course would not be an issue with a Vancouver AHL team. If future Canucks players were living and playing in and around the Abbotsford/Mission area, now local fans could feel good about cheering for and financially supporting the team. Regular attendees to Abbotsford AHL games would have a sense of bragging rights about seeing players “first”. Players that may grow to be a star on the main NHL team a few cities over. Abbotsford fans would always be able to say, “Hey I saw that kid’s first game” or “I was there during the game that got him called up”. This would be a great way for the Canucks organization to strengthen the fandom for this team inside the province but beyond the City of Vancouver.
Kelowna and its nearby K-name neighbour, Kamloops both have WHL teams, in the Kelowna Rockets and the Kamloops Blazers respectively. However, Kelowna has a larger population than Kamloops and is also more centrally located in the Okanagan area, when considering proximity to neighbouring municipalities. So if any B.C. city with a hockey presence east of Vancouver could sustain a second team, it would be Kelowna.
Kelowna would have the benefit of keeping Vancouver’s AHL team extremely close to Vancouver. By plane, potential last-minute call-ups could be knocking on the door to Rogers Arena in just over an hour. Kelowna as a location also accomplishes a similar goal that Abbotsford would, that being the idea of more easily introducing fans outside of Vancouver to Canucks players. However with Kelowna, the Canucks would be reaching beyond fans who are just one to two hours from Rogers Arena, they would be reaching a set of fans that are a decent-sized road trip away.
Local Kelowna Canucks fans have only ever had easy access to viewing some of the Canucks roster at a Penticton training camp. Whereas actual Canucks game action has always remained on the other side of a wintertime Coquihalla drive. There’s also no understating that Kelowna is a beautiful city, with nature that rivals Vancouver, which should surely put some points in its column in the eyes of players and staff that would have to live there. Although it may not have the same nightlife as Vancouver. However, the team won’t really have to take that into account should they choose to move their AHL club to Kelowna, now that Jake Virtanen is seemingly beyond his AHL days.
One knock against Kelowna would be that they have the smallest arena out of all the listed options in this article, with Prospera Place able to hold 6.8k people at max capacity. When comparing Kelowna’s best arena option to that of Rogers Arena’s 18.9k capacity limit, it may initially seem like Prospera Place is far too small to be a viable AHL option. However, the current home to the Utica Comets can only hold 5.7k people at max capacity. Additionally, the population of Kelowna and West Kelowna combined is 164k, making it over 100k larger than that of Utica’s 60k population size. With this information, the idea of a Kelowna based AHL team sounds more doable again.
Victoria, like Kelowna, is an extremely short plane ride to Vancouver, players could theoretically go from skating on a Victoria ice surface to skating on a Vancouver ice surface, within the same hour. This of course assuming that they keep their gear on and basically skate on and off the plane… my point is, it’s extremely close.
Victoria almost brings the best of both worlds between, say a Kelowna or an Abbotsford option. Victoria is geographically closer to Vancouver than Kelowna, or any of the American options, with it being located on Vancouver Island. A team in Victoria would also still serve the purpose of bringing professional hockey to a population more removed from Vancouver than say, Abbotsford. Like Kelowna, Victoria is home to a WHL team, with a city-wide population as of 2017 at just over 90k, with the Greater Victoria area housing over 367k residents on the whole. Victoria’s localized city population alone is 30k higher than Utica’s latest reported population numbers of 60k. This makes the answer to the question “Could Victoria play host to an AHL and their existing WHL team?” a likely “Yes, yes they could.”
Every Canucks’ fan living in Victoria or on Vancouver Island has to account for the price of a Ferry ticket and the hassle of travel when looking to attend a Canucks game. If the Canucks housed their young players’ Island side, then perhaps fans Island-wide, that aren’t always sold on making the drive to Victoria for the WHL Royals, may be more inclined to fill Victoria’s arena.
The population of all of Vancouver Island is 870k, now I’m not saying everyone island-wide would be rushing to bust down the doors to Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre to watch Sven Baertschi play, but I think it’s a reasonable assumption that having a nearby team with ties to the mainland Canucks, may drive a few more ticket sales across the whole of Vancouver Island than a typical Victoria Royals game could.
California / Oakland
Now just because Vancouver’s AHL team is likely moving west, that doesn’t mean that they have to be north of the 49th parallel. There is a chance that the team could move south of the border, but still stay within the same Pacifc time zone. Although this wouldn’t keep the team in a near arm’s reach like in the locations listed above, it would still keep the AHL club significantly close, and keep their hour hands pointing to the same number on the clock as their NHL counterparts.
When this Utica Devils news initially broke, recent Botchford Project selectie Lachlan Irvine, tweeted out an article he had written for his blog back in February of 2017. In this piece, Lachlan highlights the idea of Vancouver’s AHL team relocating to Oakland California, a location with a professional-sized stadium, largely unutilized since the NBA’s Golden State Warriors moved to San Francisco in 2019.
A move to Oakland makes sense, as the surrounding area is familiar with the game of hockey. Neighbouring cities host teams such as the San Jose Sharks and their AHL affiliate the Barracuda, as well as the nearby AHL team in the Stockton Heat, Calgary’s team. Yet Oakland, California’s 8th largest city with a population of 433k is without any hockey representation. California is already home to five soon-to-be six, AHL teams with the addition of Seattle’s new Palm Springs affiliate, so the state has a proven track record of being a reliable home for affiliate clubs.
From a Canucks fan perspective, I could envision a few die-hards jumping at the chance to purchase plane tickets for a sunny Californian vacation, and oh hey “while we’re catching some rays, let’s catch up on the Canucks young guns too!” Is that small group of die-hard wacko’s (myself included) enough of a reason for the Canucks to plant roots in Oakland? probably not, but the densely populated area is currently being well underserved when it comes to professional sports. With neighbouring AHL teams within spitting distance, it would also surely make travel within the league easier than if the Canuck’s moved their minor league club north of the border as well.
Portland is another one of the many locations on this list that currently plays home to a WHL team, the Portland Winterhawks. Portland’s population though of course also dwarfs that of the Canadian locations listed above, so the fact that Portland is yet another candidate city with a WHL team is less of a concern. Portland is home to just shy of 650k people, and also has multiple arenas suitable to play host to professional hockey teams. The smaller of the two arenas is Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which is currently the home of the Winterhawks.
Like in Victoria or Kelowna, it’s possible that Vancouver’s AHL team could share a building with the city’s existing WHL team. However, the other obvious choice for an AHL home arena in Portland would be the Moda Center, home to the city’s NBA team the Portland Trail Blazers. The Moda Center also fits a higher capacity of people and is a whole 35 years newer than the Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Portland also has some of the easiest access to a major airport out of any of the locations on this list. As far as quick player call-ups go, having easy access to a major commercial airport wouldn’t really make a difference for Vancouver during the 41 home games in a regular NHL season. However, airport access could be a big selling point for Vancouver’s AHL team during the other 41 road games. Should the Canucks find themselves out east, and needing a quick replacement player, then having an AHL club with easy access to a major airport could be a huge difference-maker.
Portland on the whole, like most other locations on this list, is also just an exciting and beautiful city to be in. Any sports team would be lucky to call Portland Oregon their home. If you’ve never been to Portland, just imagine a world in which Granville Island, spread its chill vibes, niche stores, and nonsensical civil engineering, across the entire city of Vancouver, and that’s basically what Portland is.
Where Do They Go From Here
At this point, the landing zone for Vancouver’s AHL team is up in the air. A sensible location may be Abbotsford or Oakland California, a risky but rewarding one may be Kelowna or Victoria, and my personal favourite Portland may be a match made in rainy hipster city heaven.
One fact that still can’t be overlooked during all the excitement and speculation that comes with the relocation of the Utica Comets, is how much of a loss this is for the city of Utica. Yes, all signs point to the city gaining a new team in the Utica Devils. However, the city of Utica already hosted this team before, from 1987–1993, until New Jersey moved their affiliate team to Albany New York instead.
The last time the Utica Devils left town, it understandably left a sour taste in many fans’ mouths. So it’s not hard to imagine why local Utica hockey fans may have a hard time forgetting about the AHL team in Canucks’ colours that they have been following since 2013. Now being expected to reorient themselves to new players and welcome back an organization that once gave them the coldest of shoulders, is a big ask for the local fan base.
Although the Canucks may be cutting their ties with the city of Utica, there’s no denying the impact that the organization has had on the city and, that the city has had on the organization. The Canucks should only hope that they can find that local passion once again, in their AHL team’s next home.