Non-NHL hockey picking up slack in Lower Mainland
AHL’s Abbotsford Heat have most to gain from labour stoppage
Abbotsford Heat T.J. Brodie (left) and Lance Bouma celebrate Bouma’s goal against the Peoria Riverman during their American Hockey League game in Abbotsford on Oct. 13, 2012.
Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG
METRO VANCOUVER — Seven weeks into the National Hockey League lockout, the Vancouver Giants are up at the box office. So are the Abbotsford Heat. Revenue has increased in the B.C. Junior League. Even the UBC Thunderbirds are reporting more bums in seats.
But is the lockout the sole reason? Does it mean that Vancouver is more than a Canuck town? It depends, it seems, on the markets within the market.
Giants majority owner Ron Toigo went through the lockout experience in 2004-05 and he senses if a big bump is going to come, it will come later in the season when there is more clarity with the NHL situation.
“I think we’ve established our own fan base to a large extent,” said Toigo, whose Giants are now in their 12th year. “We’re up a little bit from last year but I think we were trending that way anyways. The last lockout we really didn’t feel an impact until probably December and then again, after they actually called the year off.
“I think most people are just waiting for the Canucks to start and banking their money with the intention of buying whatever they’re going to buy. ”
Nevertheless, Toigo is hoping to extract some of those parked dollars for the Nov. 14 Subway Super Series game at Pacific Coliseum between a team of WHL all-stars and a touring Russian side that will feature Nail Yakupov, the first overall pick in the 2012 NHL entry draft.
Yakupov was a good bet to crack the Edmonton Oilers lineup so this is a pleasant development for Toigo. West Vancouver boys Griffin Reinhart and Morgan Rielly are on the WHL team and might be in the NHL, too, if games were being played. Financially, the Giants should feel the benefit.
“The Russian game is certainly taking on a better light,” agreed Toigo. “We’re going to have four of the top five overall picks from last year’s NHL draft in the game and they probably wouldn’t be here if the NHL was playing. We’re fortunate to have that event this year and we’re certainly trending ahead of what we expected in ticket sales. We anticipate to be over 10,000 and I wouldn’t be surprised to see us do 12,000-14,000 that night.”
The Giants, despite having a poor team this season, are still averaging 657 fans more per game than a year ago at this stage (6,197 through nine games this year vs. 5,540 through first nine last season), although Toigo indicated that is mostly due to promotional nights put in place long before NHL commissioner Gary Bettman slammed shut the doors on his league.
In Abbotsford, Heat president Ryan Walter anticipates his next big lockout bump will come Nov. 9-10 when the Oklahoma City Barons arrive for a pair of games. The Barons, farm team to the Oilers, aren’t usually a big draw but will be this time with young Oiler guns Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and top free-agent signing Justin Schultz on their roster.
The money-losing Heat were among the AHL bottom feeders in attendance last season and it cost the taxpayers of Abbotsford $1.76 million to fund the shortfall. The average crowd was 3,545 in a 7,046-seat building but the number is up significantly this year thanks to an early visit by the Canucks’ affiliate, the Chicago Wolves. The Wolves played to 98.8 per cent capacity in their two-game set last month and Walter says the Blazers’ upcoming visit is generating similar interest.
“The big news is that we are trending Wolves numbers at this point for the Oke City games,” Walter noted. “We found out there are busloads of people coming down from Edmonton and they are buying tickets. So when you ask if the lockout has affected us from a box office point of view, obviously that would be one we’d probably point to that’s had the most effect.”
It doesn’t hurt, Walter added, that most teams coming into the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre during the lockout will have a number of NHL-calibre players on their rosters.
“It is an advantage to see players like Taylor Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle here for $15 or see them up in Edmonton for $120,” he pointed out. “So I think our momentum is starting to come and it would be coming on the backs of the Wolves and Oke City.”
Walter, in his second season as Heat president, is finding what works in Abbotsford and what doesn’t besides a visit from the Canuck farmhands. Midweek games are not popular. There were only 1,951 on hand for the Toronto Marlies visit Thursday night, bringing the Heat’s average crowd for its first five home games down to 4,424. Weekend dates work better. So do special-events nights.
Walter has former Habs’ star Yvon Cournoyer coming in Nov. 30 to coincide with a visit by the Habs’ farm team, the Hamilton Bulldogs. Former Leafs’ captain Darryl Sittler is lined up for the Marlies next visit in April.
“I think the way you run these AHL teams is very similar to what the junior operators do,” Walter explained. “You sort of focus in on 12 or 13 big events and you don’t spend quite as much energy on the Tuesday-Wednesday games. So those are things we’re doing to try and keep our momentum, with or without a lockout. It takes time to grow a strong brand and I think the lockout is maybe allowing us to accelerate our brand here.”
The B.C. Hockey League has put in place this season a new reporting system for attendance figures so numbers may be skewed for its four franchises in the Canuck orbit. According to commissioner John Grisdale, teams are now required to count only paid tickets rather than including comp or other promotional avenues that let people pass through their turnstiles.
The Langley Rivermen and Surrey Eagles are up over last year’s season averages while the Coquitlam Express and Chilliwack Chiefs are slightly down. But all, emphasized Grisdale, are doing better financially.
“The revenues are up for our teams, which means the paid attendance is up and we’re really pleased about that,” Grisdale said. “Another big thing is a revenue increase in sponsorships. So those are two areas where we’re seeing improvement but whether that’s related to the lockout or not, I can’t say.
“In the last lockout, we saw significant, significant increases in our attendance to the tune, and I’m just going from memory, of 20-30 per cent. So we expect to see an increase again if this lockout continues.”
On the UBC campus, T-Bird coach Milan Dragicevic has noticed a definite lockout boost, much of it due to the exposure the ‘Birds received from the Bieksa Buddies charity game Oct. 17. They played before a full house of 5,000 that night and, two days later, about 1,000 came back to see UBC’s home opener against the Lethbridge Pronghorns.
“Last year, we averaged close to 500 fans a game and this year we’re averaging close to 900 so it’s a pretty big increase and that’s very positive,” Dragicevic noted. “The Bieksa game helped a lot. It opened up people’s eyes to how good CIS hockey is and how good UBC hockey really is. All our guys were stars at the junior level, whether it was in the WHL, BCHL, or AJHL.
“So many people who come watch a game always say they want to come back,” added the UBC coach. “It’s just a matter of getting them to make that initial visit. We’ve definitely noticed we’re getting more exposure because of the Bieska Buddies game and the fact the Canucks are skating with us.”
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