On the Topic Of Utica, Vancouver, and Affiliation Distance

When the westward move of the AHL began and many of the Western Conference teams started to move their affiliations, people thought it was a matter of time before the Vancouver Canucks moved their affiliation out of Utica, New York for a closer destination.

Saturday’s announcement put a damper on that idea, at least until the 2020-21 season. That’s because the Canucks and Comets agreed to a new six-year affiliation extension; though it has an option for the Canucks after two seasons to depart upstate New York for somewhere else.

Business wise, Utica is great with president Robert Esche having built a great entertainment outlet. They’re in the midst of a 133-game sellout streak that started in April 2015, while they have been producing plenty of talent of the retooling Canucks– including head coach Travis Green. On the ice, it’s been solid as well with a 193-136-35-16, though the team only has two playoff appearances in the five full seasons the two teams have been affiliated. The Comets haven’t had a season under 35 wins, either.

Obviously, the distance between Utica and Vancouver is something that should be a worry when it comes to call-ups. However, does moving a team closer to the Canucks, namely the Fraser Valley region of British Columbia, make sense when the AHL has tried and failed once before?? Of course, you can say the shortcomings of the Abbotsford Heat was the Calgary Flames being in Canucks territory– but would people actually be enthused to have AHL hockey when the NHL team is maybe an hour away??

Hockey fans can be fickle, so maybe seeing the future of the team may not be as good as seeing the team itself. Plus, when you’re the Canucks and own the Comets (leasing it to Esche and Utica), the fact that money and loyalty keeps rolling in up in Utica, you don’t want to kill that golden goose when it’s making profit. Plus, maybe keeping the young players away from the cutthroat media and possible extreme expectations that would come with being closer to the Canucks may be best for development of some players to be able to learn the system first before having it dissected by everyone in the Vancouver area.

It’s always a struggle when it comes to situations like this. You don’t want to move an affiliation when it’s working so well on the business and hockey side of things, but you also don’t want to have your prospects so far away in a place that’s not a major airline hub that it cuts into the roster of the NHL team. The Canucks have a delicate balancing act they’re doing, but as of right now– they seem to be winning out thus far with the marriage they have in Utica.

Are the Admirals Going Down With the Ship in Norfolk??

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It’s never good when a NHL team terminates an affiliation with an ECHL franchise. It’s even worse and weirder when it happens two months into the season. However, that’s what the Nashville Predators did when they terminated their affiliation with the Norfolk Admirals on Tuesday only six months into their affiliation.

This move is in a long line of troubling happenings for the Admirals– first was firing their long-time broadcaster because they didn’t want to have a radio feed for their games. The second happened two weeks ago when they fired their president, Mike Santos, who was reportedly the only person in the management position with any kind of hockey executive experience (it’s also a rumored reason why the affiliation was terminated). Also, the Admirals have drawn nothing in terms attendance this season, with one game reportedly having only 545 in attendance while, as a whole– they have only filled 22.8% capacity of The Scope this season.

While the owners of the team say that the team is not going to move and will finish out the ECHL season– should the team fold up, they would be the first team since the 2013-14 San Francisco Bulls to disband mid-season– as the Bulls had to fold up shop 40 games into the season.

It’s hard to believe that the team is spinning this as a good decision and one in the right direction. Since the team has been bought, they have been terrible and you can pin most of that on the ownership group– who is not in the vicinity of Norfolk. They ownership also went so far as suing the previous ownership saying they were misled when buying the team. Hard to feel sorry for a group who failed to do due diligence or doesn’t know how to run a sports organization overall.

The sad part of this is that Norfolk and the Hampton Roads area has always been a staple of minor league hockey. The Admirals were a founding member of the ECHL and were a force to be reckoned with in winning three Kelly Cups in 1991, 1992, and 1998. They moved up to the AHL when the Chicago Blackhawks saw value in their area as being good for development and solid placement for them.

Yet, things made a turn later on when the Blackhawks moved their affiliate closer to them in Rockford– Norfolk would then affiliate with the Tampa Bay Lightning– which brought them the Calder Cup in 2012, then to the Anaheim Ducks for a few season before the Ducks bought the team in 2015. That move was only to leverage it a move to San Diego for the Ducks and Edmonton turning Norfolk into the ECHL affiliate again. The fans there probably took this as a slap in the face and would rather have nothing at all than to watch the ECHL– which is understandable. Couple that with ownership issues and lack of talent brought into the team; people are revolting at a rapid pace.

Power Play 1, which is a part of Chesnut Holdings, which bought the team from the Edmonton Oilers is now responsible for the whole ordeal and really making it a shell of its former self. While they lauded former owner Ken Young, they also seemed to blame him for trying to have one staff work with two teams— which may or may not have led to the demise of the team or the team being overlooked. That said, at least the owner was familiar with the market and not someone who is coming from the outside trying to do something in New York that may not work in Norfolk.

The move to bring in the Predators seemed to have things moving in the right direction and it seemed that the ownership may have turned a corner in gaining trust. Boy, was that wrong.¬†While the fans deserve better– them not showing up or supporting the team isn’t going to help them stay or move up in the ranks. Of course, it’s hard to support a team that is making you feel like you’re wasting money going out to see them. It’s quite the dilemma that they have in Norfolk and one you hope doesn’t lead to a team disbanding– but seems to be going in that direction overall.

One has to wonder if or when the ECHL will step in to work this out. While the fans may not like being moved down, the fact the ECHL is a better brand than when the original Admirals started in 1989 seemed to be missed around those parts. If people gave it a chance and not worried too much about labels of the league– the market could be better off. That, or get some owners or executives in there that actually know the market they are putting a team at.

EDIT: As noted by the comments, the Admirals in the ECHL at the start wasn’t original and they won two Riley Cups and one Kelly Cup.