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An exclusive interview with Ryan Walter: President and CEO of the Abbotsford Heat

“We have great young players, and I think the thing that we’re trying to always say to Abbotsford and footprint is that this is not Calgary’s team, this is the Heat’s team. This is your team.”

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By Sean Evans (The Cascade) – Email

Date Posted: September 22, 2011
Print Edition: September 21, 2011

I thought we could start out by talking a bit about your history with hockey in the Lower Mainland and maybe some personal highlights.

It started at about five-years-old in Burnaby, British Columbia. My mom and dad put me in the game of hockey…I’m sure glad they did. My dad didn’t play professionally, but just pick up. My dad coached me, my two brothers, and my sister all the way through. So I had a great experience around minor hockey. At 15-years-old I left home—not far, just Burnaby to Langley, and I had a wonderful experience in junior hockey in Langley playing for the old Langley Lords. I went up to the Kamloops Chiefs in the Western Hockey League, then our team moved to Seattle, and then I was drafted to Washington. That’s really the time that I moved away to the East coast, like Washington and then Montreal. I was there about 14 years, and then I was so fortunate to come back and play with the Canucks. I’m very thankful. Then I obviously coached for the Canucks and had a blast there. Then I had this opportunity here [with the Abbotsford Heat]. We’ve lived in the Valley, in Langley a long time, so it was great to be asked to be part of the Abbotsford Heat and their organization as president and CEO, which has also given me a new learning curve and I love that part.

So, what does your role as President and CEO look like? Is it more hockey or more business?

Yeah, great question. More business! And it’s fun. I really enjoy that part. We’re one team, but there’s really two teams here in Abbotsford with the Heat. There’s the on-ice team and the off-ice team, and our off-ice team is really the group that I work with most. I love the on-ice, and many of those players though are brought to us by Calgary. Its part of our affiliation agreement. So we have great young players, and I think the thing that we’re trying to always say to Abbotsford and footprint is that this is not Calgary’s team, this is the Heat’s team. This is your team. They’re Calgary’s players, but they could easily have been Minnesota’s players. That’s just the way the American Hockey League (AHL) goes. So, we’re focused on the off-ice management of the team with a strong connection to coaching, to the rest of the group.

Now with coaching, you’ve got a whole new staff right? Like Troy Ward and Luke Strand and Cale Maclean. So, as far as style of play, is that going to change?

Great question! I think it is! Though we’ll take some direction from Troy, it will be mainly Luke and Kale as assistant coaches because they have been head coaches before. And so even though, we have a new staff, we have a very veteran staff. Troy ward is going to open up the gates. His team is going to go. And I love that. Just like the Canucks…create more offense, be in the offensive zone, rather than wait for people to come back into your zone. So I think it will change, and I think people are going to like it!

With UFV being your neighbor, there is a pretty big market there. About 16,000 students at UFV across three campuses. How are you guys going to capitalize on that market?

Well thanks for that question. You know one of the things we want to do, and I need to connect there strongly, is go in and talk to some of the management there [at UFV] in the next little bit. I know some of our people have already talked to them. I’ve got a couple of connections like Rodger Friesen, a prof in sports psych. He and I see things exactly the same—it’s so great. The other place we can connect on is this: I feel bad about it, but it’s awesome. It’s our Looney Toonie Dog and Brew night. So every Friday night—and we have 13 Friday night games this year—is loonie toonie dog and brew. So for a dollar you get a beer, for two dollars you get a hot dog. So, if I’m a college student, I’m thinking, that might be a Friday night that I might spend. Last year we did it intermittently, and people really didn’t know when it was. This year it’s every Friday night. So I think that creates that strong connection to that demographic. Certainly, it will always be a family ‘style’, for us, but we will focus on family a LOT on Saturday and Sunday too.

You’ve talked about placing an emphasis on team involvement in the community. How’s that going?

Here’s a little piece of vision for me…Abbotsford and footprint are the most generous community in Canada by two. So, [that’s] two times Toronto. The average person writes more cheques to charity and church here than anywhere else in Canada. That really hit me and that solidified our vision: to integrate into society, we need to give.

So we’re going to give two things. We’re going to give a championship team to Abbotsford. We don’t play to lose. We’re going to play to be the best we can be. We want to win a championship. That’s our goal. I don’t think you get into this business without that being a major focus.

Number two. We’re going to give Abbotsford and community a brand they can be proud of…Our actions are informed by that. We’re going to make our community proud of that brand. It really helps me to understand what we have to do. We need to get out…We’re going to do a lot of high school and middle school stuff. So our goal is to get out because we need to show Abbotsford and our community…that we want to be part of their team. It’s not that we demand that they buy tickets. We want to be a brand they can be proud of and that’ll help fill the building.

How do you deal with the challenge of being farm team to the Calgary Flames (ie. getting fans)?

Internally we talk about the word ‘education’. Externally we don’t use that word. But really we need to do a better job of educating [Abbotsford,] because if you get past the Calgary thing…It could have easily been Vancouver, Edmonton, Minnesota…[we] could have been anyone’s farm team. It’s the way the AHL is set up. For example go ask Chicago that question. You know Chicago hates the Canucks. So, how do the Chicago Wolves justify having the Canucks players in Chicago now? It’s just the nature of the beast. People don’t understand that. They say ‘well you should be the Canucks’ farm team.’ Well that would be fine, but they’re not here right now. So I think that the key component for us is education…Number one, it’s some amazing stats. About 86 per cent of all NHL players [have] played in at least one game in the AHL. If you want to see tomorrow’s Ryan Kesler or tomorrow’s Alexander Burrows, you see them right here. Right? Number two for us…The local kids; there are over 70 BC boys that play in the AHL…which you can come see here in Abbotsford in a brand new arena. And it’s really the best game you can see in town! It’s the best game in the Valley, by far. It’s professional hockey. You don’t have to drive downtown. So I think we have many benefits and it’s just a matter of creating an emotional attachment and not taking that away from people. We need to do a better job of getting our message out.

Any thoughts on the Young Stars tournament you were playing in last week?

The thing I’m excited about is Calgary being really committed to having a strong farm team. And that’s a good heartbeat for us. In the past, and I say this carefully, there wasn’t the commitment to the AHL that Abbotsford was hoping for. That commitment is really important because from that commitment comes great young players…and also some veteran players that they have to pay hard for. And they have. They’ve stepped up. You know, our son Ben is one of them. I hope he makes Calgary and I think he’s got a real good chance to, but if he doesn’t, he’s a veteran that’s been top ten scorer in the AHL for a couple years now. I think they’re really committed to making us better team and I think people are going to love it.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Derek

    September 23, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Correction Loonie Toonie Dog’n Brew is $1 hot dogs and $2 Brews.

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