ABBOTSFORD - Those following the ongoing NHL lockout and in need of their professional hockey fix scored in Abbotsford Friday night.
The Abbotsford Heat, American Hockey League affiliate of the Calgary Flames, opened the 2012-03 regular season with a 4-1 victory over the Peoria Rivermen before an opening crowd of 3,840 at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre on a rainy October evening.
Ben Walter opened the scoring for Abbotsford in the first period, and the Heat popped three more behind Rivermen goalie Jake Allen in the second to take a commanding lead.
"I thought the main thing was we got off to a good start," said head coach Troy Ward, adding the Heat's kill of a 1:17 five-on-three Peoria power play early in the first period helped give his team momentum.
"Having not played (an exhibition game), I thought we ... had an initial push out of the gate."
More importantly, the Heat gave their fans a reason to cheer.
The Heat are now into their fourth season in Abbotsford. The team’s affiliation with the Flames and dwindling attendance have been controversial topics since the team officially hit the ice in October of 2009.
The city is also locked into a 10-year supply fee agreement with the local ownership group that guarantees the owners $5.7 million in revenue, and that the city must compensate for any financial shortfalls.
The Heat have averaged 3,749 fans per game through three regular seasons - in a building that holds almost 7,100 fans for hockey - and have incurred a total shortfall of almost $1.8 million combined in its first two years.
Financial numbers for last season have not yet been released.
Heat president Ryan Walter, a former assistant coach and player with the Vancouver Canucks, is hoping the minor league franchise can benefit in terms of attendance from the lockout.
“We’re all hockey fans. We all want the NHL back. I mean, it’s the best league in the world,” said Walter Friday, prior to puck drop between the Heat and Rivermen.
“But, if they’re going to be out, it’s a time when we really need to make hay. The (Vancouver) Giants were really able to lift their franchise in the last lockout. And if you think about it, it’s an opportunity for us. In a small way, we’re seeing a nice movement.”
Walter added that on Friday, a small number of Canucks’ season ticket holders have now purchased Heat season tickets.
However, Walter conceded the “movement” might not be as noticeable in the first weekend of the season, as the Heat will again host the Rivermen Saturday night (7 p.m. PDT) at the AESC.
“It hasn’t really hit home yet that there isn’t (NHL) hockey. I think it’s going to take a little time,” he said.
The Heat could be the beneficiaries of a generous schedule to begin the season. Ten of Abbotsford’s first 13 games are on home ice, and the Heat will host the Chicago Wolves, farm team of the Canucks, for a pair of games next weekend. The Saturday finale of that series also airs on Sportsnet ONE.
Since the 2009-10 season, the Canucks’ affiliate – it was the Manitoba Moose through the first two seasons – has brought an average crowd of 6,042 fans in 12 visits to Abbotsford.
In less than a month, the Heat will welcome the Oklahoma City Barons, AHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers, and up-and-coming stars as Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are expected to be in the Barons’ lineup on Nov. 9 and 10.
“The schedule maker was kind to us,” said Walter.
The Heat, thanks to the lockout, also boast a group of young, talented players, making that future match-up even more intriguing.
Sven Baertschi, the highly touted 20-year-old Flames prospect, scored his first of the season with a silky smooth deke to the forehand to put Abbotsford up 4-0 late in the second period. Prior to that, Baertschi set up Coquitlam’s Ben Street for his first of the season with a beautiful cross-ice backdoor pass.
"I was a little nervous in the start but I thought that was normal," said Baertschi. "After the first period, I got really used to it, got some time on the power play, get a little feel for the puck and after that I thought it went well."
Roman Horak collected the winning goal, while Walter and Quintin Laing each finished the night with two points each.
Heat goalie Danny Taylor was named starter over Barry Brust and healthy scratch Leland Irving, and stopped 24 of 25 shots for the win.
He was sensational early on, making several reaction saves, particularly when the Heat were forced to kill off that two-man Peoria advantage.
The Heat were a perfect three for three on the penalty kill, and scored once in four power play chances.
"I thought we did a great job on the kill," said Taylor.
"Our penalty kill at home was not as good last year as it was on the road, so I think was one of the things our coaches wanted us to work on."
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