VANCOUVER — It had been rumoured for weeks and finally became reality Thursday: the Vancouver Canucks are moving their American Hockey League farm team to Utica in upstate New York.
The franchise, previously operated as the Peoria Rivermen, was purchased from the St. Louis Blues two months ago and the relocation was approved by the AHL in a conference call Thursday morning. The Canucks had been hoping to move the team to a location in B.C., specifically Abbotsford, but a deal could not be struck to have the Calgary Flames vacate their sweetheart agreement in Abbotsford for the Heat, forcing the Canucks to look elsewhere.
Utica, meanwhile was seeking to get back into the AHL after a 20-year absence. The city last had a team, the Utica Devils, from 1987 to 1993. A news conference in Utica has been scheduled for noon Eastern time on Friday, with the mayor and local ownership group slated to attend. Former NHL goalie Robert Esche, now a restauranteur in Utica, is part of the local group.
“The location is a really great hockey area,” said Scott Arniel, who is under contract for two more years to coach the Canucks' minor-league affiliate. “You have Syracuse, Binghamton and Albany close by. You've got Wilkes-Barre not too far away. And Hershey. There are some really good teams in that area and teams that have been in the league for a long time. And you don't have to worry about travel obviously, whereas in Chicago you were maybe flying around.”
It's also vital, from a hockey standpoint, that all the Canucks prospects will remain together on one team. Had the orphaned AHL franchise not found a new home, general manager Mike Gillis would have been required to scatter his farmhands around the AHL, hardly an ideal situation for development.
“It's just going to be beneficial for the growth of the young players,” noted Arniel. “By having their own team, the Canucks will be able to dictate what players go there. They will be able to put all their prospects there and even add some free agents, or whatever. It's having the full say about who plays, who goes, everything.
“You don't want to be scattering your prospects all over the country,” added Arniel. “Now the Canucks have an idea for the next couple of years what they're doing and they have the opportunity to have their own team and get it started.”
The Canucks were affiliated with the Chicago Wolves the last two years but didn't have full roster control as the Wolves were permitted to bring in some of their own players. Prior to that, the Canucks were aligned with the Manitoba Moose for 10 seasons. The Moose and Canucks also operated under a similar agreement in which Moose management could sign its own fan favourites to boost box-office appeal.
The Canucks farmhands will play out of the Utica Memorial Auditorium, an aging 4,000-seat facility built in 1959 that will require significant renovations to accommodate the AHL. As of Thursday, no work had yet begun but there is $2.25 million in state funds earmarked for arena improvements.
There was also speculation Thursday that the Canucks might only be in Utica for a short run and that they will continue to pursue the Abbotsford option, perhaps even swapping locations with the Flames down the road.
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