Print Edition: May 21, 2014
“They will be here on a Wednesday or Saturday and it’s going to be loud and it’s going to be fun and we are going to be wondering what we were doing this time last year. This place is going to be accepted by the community and welcomed by the community and they are going to love it.” — Trey Bell, AESC general manager, to the Abbotsford News, 2007
By the time the Abbotsford Heat played their last-ever home game, two days short of their fifth anniversary, most in attendance were clothed in red. Year one had seen skeptics, dedicated boosters, and indifferent time-wasters alike arrive in a mix of colours that betrayed no attitude toward the team pledging to be taken seriously — save the Canucks sweaters that led many sports journalists to write of Abbotsford as long-purchased territory.
Five years later, the green stadium seats ringing the ice surface were dotted with home red, though some of it belonged to the visiting Grand Rapids Griffins: relatives to the Red Wings, defending league champions, and victors of an exhausting double-overtime game the night before. That loss put a strain on things: with the home and away count of the playoffs’ best-of-five first round weighted 2-3, spectators knew this could be the end of the Heat. More dispiritingly, they also knew they were the few who cared in the way only fans do: with an insatiable desire for second chances.
Low attendance, often the subject of controversy and analysis, was part of the reason the Heat came to an end after five years of record-skipping financial reports. Though the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre (AESC) could hold over 7,000, the statistics always came back closer to 2,000, unless some combination of NHL prospects (Vancouver, Edmonton, and Toronto fared best) and a free weekend pushed that number near, but rarely exactly, to capacity.
But the reality of attendance in the sporting world is that only the tickets no longer in the box office’s possession are counted — one only had to glimpse the scattered audience toward the end of the Canucks’ disappointing season to find at-capacity numbers needing an asterisk. A headcount on an average night — and this was an average night, not a grand, barn-storming, “save our team!” kind of end — is easy from any vantage point in the AESC, and an accurate count of those enjoying clear sightlines on April 26 was in the 750 range, a fraction that might give pause to the otherwise uncontested position of ice hockey as Canada’s game, not the domain of sensational esoterica.
Sylvester Stallone boomed out to end the pre-game wait.
His speech from Rocky Balboa, superimposed over images of Heat players gritting it out, lifting weights, and colliding with each other in fierce hugs, rallied fans to believe that “It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. That’s. How. Winning. Is. Done!”
The inspirational effect the video had on the crowd had more to do with the footage at the beginning: solemn language from the Heat termination press conference met with isolated boos.
[pullquote]“A headcount on an average night — and this was an average night, not a grand, barn-storming, “save our team!” kind of end — is easy from any vantage point in the AESC, and an accurate count of those enjoying clear sightlines on April 26 was in the 750 range.”[/pullquote]
But the brief Hollywood intrusion was out of place for another reason as well: the news of a limited lifespan was the first sure thing to build an identity around since news broke that the Heat was a hockey team, located in Abbotsford, and belonged to the Calgary Flames.
Everything since has pointed to a lack: of fans; of naming rights for the arena and demand for logos and signs above its scoreboard, sideboards, and concession items; of public involvement in the contractual beginnings of the team; and of conceivable ways that hockey in Abbotsford could have gone worse.
To the players waiting in the locker room and concrete hallways below, none of this had any bearing. Listen to any sampling of playoff-time player interviews, and you’ll get an echo of Brett Olsen, minutes after his team’s marathon loss: “short-term memory — it’s just gone.”
Municipal politics, who’s watching from the stands, and the unforgiveable mistakes or uncommon highs of the previous game stand little chance of reaching their full, haunting powers when players commit to the cycles of routine — like actors, throwing themselves into the work of being present, able to react to what unfolds in every moment.
The Heat contended with that cycle all year: their unique place in the AHL universe, a northwest corner far from the bus-friendly East Coast, meant a schedule of quick home doubleheaders and long roadtrips to minimize the travel subsidies the Heat committed to when they entered the league. Between the overtime heartbreaker the Griffins scored just past 11 p.m. and the next night’s puck drop at 7 p.m., there was the panicky realization familiar to a student watching a deadline’s merciless approach: not enough time. Every minute Olsen spent talking to journalists was one he could be spending sleeping, forgetting.
Not everybody crossed over from Friday to Saturday in decent shape. Corban night, a top-six forward with seven shots in the series opener, was not deemed ready to play: the first omen of many.
On the first play of the game, Heat goaltender Joni Ortio lost his stick as an attacker approached and stretched far beyond his crease, awkwardly trapping the puck under his body in a shape like a question mark.
Every player was fatigued, but the Griffins, at least, had been here before. Goaltender Petr Mrazek backstopped each of the team’s 16 playoff wins in 2013 (only five of them by one goal); rather than raid the farm team to shore up an injured forward group, Detroit had decided to leave the Grand Rapids core together, ready to go on another run through multiple rounds.
Though third- and fourth-line excellence figures into any conversation on how a team survives the lengthy, bruised circuit of hockey playoffs, for most on hand the persistent vision was of the Griffins’ group of five running the powerplay: overtime hero Ryan Sproul and Nathan Paetsch at the points, and slick nightmares Teemu Pulkkinen, Andrej Nestrasil, and Andreas Athanasiou steadily advancing on the Heat net.
Special teams or penalty trouble are ready explanations for how things go sideways in a hockey game, but even before the infractions that gave the Griffins 10 two-minute advantages, the game’s flow presented an imbalance of power. Grand Rapids moved the puck with short passes and excellent zone entry, attempting any number of drives to the net, passing plays, or endurance runs of offensive pressure as they pleased, while the Heat waited for the odd puck to dump in, battle for, and hopefully shoot or skip toward the net.
For a while, the percentages didn’t matter. A missed check let Emile Poirier score first, to the home crowd’s delight, and a deflection past Mrazek by Max Reinhart erased the minor depression when the Griffins quickly tied the score. Both celebration and edgy waiting were normal, not urgent.
The Heat’s fanbase could be categorized into Calgary transplants; those with the fervent belief good hockey transcends poor politics or local loyalty; and, perhaps most importantly, children for whom trips to the game were formative experiences.
In the first days after the news of the Heat’s imminent departure, letters from parents describing what they’d be losing were convincing evidence there was something noble in the imprint left by the team, buried under the folly and financial waste.
For this last group, who held up the few signs in the rink (hand-printed slogans pledging goodwill to players and undying allegiance to the team), clearly feeling with greater intensity the weight of a loss and a team taken away, the normalcy of the game must have been unsettling.
From the loud, echo-prone speakers in the arena, the same novelty tunes rolled out during play stoppages as the first night the gates opened to spectators: a bad “Ring of Fire” cover, “TNT,” and almost any song within spitting distance of the words “fever” or “flame,” though stopping short of “The Theme from Cat People.”
Heat president Ryan Walter had routinely said all that was needed to make the Heat a success was to show people the inside of the rink once. In the summer of 2013 he was still saying it was possible, though an NHL lockout and a Canucks-affiliate-only ticket pack hadn’t done it yet. Increasingly desperate events were organized: Legends of Hockey visits brought in ex-NHLers, some with only tenuous connection to Abbotsford, Calgary, or the Heat, while with every goal siren on “Pucks ‘n’ Paws” night came disaster.
On this last night, Walter walked past the arena’s suites, shaking hands and telling stories; the end of the Heat meant more trouble for City Hall than his mind. Meanwhile, with the score again tied at 2-2, the puck eluded an Abbotsford powerplay and was chased down by the Griffins’ Cory Emmerton. With breakaway speed he shifted past a challenging Ortio and deposited the puck to give his team their first lead of the game, and the only one they would need. A second later, Sven Baertschi, in pursuit, slid into net after an unsuccessful diving leap. After a long, five-goal first period, Baertschi did not spring back to his feet, but lay stomach to ice, head in net, for five seconds that felt like 30, Ortio next to him likewise frozen in a downcast butterfly stance. The goal came in the final minute of the period and erased what little hope was left in the building.
Ortio left the net after the fifth goal against halfway through the second period, leaving mop-up duty to Doug Carr, just joining the team after his senior year at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. This did little to break the monotony of Griffin dominance (the Heat didn’t reach 10 shots in the game until several minutes after Ortio took his rest on the bench), but by the time the sixth or seventh puck went past, no one in the audience was scrutinizing on-ice events. If they stayed (and most did), it was to be able to say they stuck with their team to the end, to say goodbye in a way that split from the city’s abandonment.
Waiting for the end, it’s no great leap to guess some thoughts arrived at the question that drove so much of the Heat’s time in Abbotsford: how did things get so bad that the team was often referred to as a situation, problem, experiment (failed), or object for contempt instead of a sports team? The truth is, Abbotsford is not special. Without leaving the province, mirroring stories leap from the map: Dawson Creek, Chilliwack, Penticton, and Langley all have arenas built in the last 10 years, all searching for a sports team worthy of a national story, concerts headlined by acts who have a song playing right now on the radio somewhere, and the worthwhile return on public investment that has so far eluded each community.
Abbotsford’s deal to secure an AHL team was uniquely lopsided, but sports seem to be the most reliable lure in the eyes of city planners everywhere, and people in Edmonton, Detroit, Kansas City, Seattle, and Quebec City are paying for it either as a guard against or a bid for the taking away of other cities’ teams in a post-expansion era.
In short, things are bad all over, and the only way Abbotsfordians could have had decisive input was a barely-attended vote in naïve November 2006 — a time when then-mayor George Peary could say, “it seems to be a very modest risk … even at 1,000 fans per game you would see significant revenues,” and PR documents stated, “we’ve studied many similar situations from other regions, and we’ve learned from their mistakes.”
What everyone is studying now is not the past, but the shuttered future of the Abbotsford Centre (renamed to drop the “Entertainment and Sports” portion of its name). Even if the Heat had been successful, eventually people would have noticed that the large, concert-ready stadium showed a remarkable lack of interest in music. A flip through the calendar shows only two acts booked for the rest of the year — the Doobie Brothers and John Fogerty — which is normal for the venue.
Far from the pitch of big names plunking down in the valley while swinging west to promote a new album, the lights inside are most often dimmed for acts whose concert DVDs are being re-released in 30th anniversary editions, sparking once or twice a year for Christian rock, or making headlines for hosting the tail-end of the third leg of a Carrie Underwood tour.
Infrequent bookings and unpopular choices (try lingerie football in the Bible belt) by Global Spectrum, which operates this arena as well as Dawson Creek’s and Penticton’s, have received criticism that will only grow with hockey gone — but any hypothetical solution has to work against reality.
At 8,500 seats for concerts, the Abbotsford Centre cannot contend or share with Vancouver, nor can it be a place for local artists to work up to, unless you count hit-chasers like Hedley as local. So Carly Rae Jepsen visits Vancouver and Mission but not Abbotsford, and most country acts prefer to play the Rockin’ River Music Festival over trying to conquer the world of arena rock.
One of the standby clinchers used to sell the wisdom of building big was the projected population growth (commonly cited at 195,000 by 2021) which will in this scenario come straight to the front door of the stadium. The unpainted, pill-shaped building, still clean and showing few signs of wear, has yet to prove persuasive to highway commuters passing under the glow of a Pattison sign or to those living within city limits.
If there have been any playoffs to disprove the “forget yesterday” plan of attack, it’s this year’s edition. The NHL’s two Eastern Conference finalists, led by Martin St. Louis and P.K. Subban, have made it there hanging onto specific memories and writing their endings on the ice.
It’s only an aphorism to hear it from some commentators, but the actual outcome of ignoring the past is real, and easily visible on the larger stage.
One of the pleasures often denied to watchers of AHL hockey is the comfort of familiar names. Learn a handful stitched to the backs of the brightest prospects, and it’s a guarantee they’ll be the first to leave to other leagues.
So it’s with a mixture of curiosity and excitement that declining NHLers are sometimes demoted from precarious roster spots to the minor pro ranks. Following in the tradition of Wade Redden, Jeff Finger, and Mike Commodore, Shane O’Brien was sent to Abbotsford in the middle of a disappointing year for the Flames, and showed up in the playoffs with all the little errors and undisciplined tendencies Vancouver fans noticed and magnified during his two years in the province.
O’Brien played like a minor attraction: here was a defenseman who hadn’t changed a day since you last saw him, repeatedly taking himself out of position to attempt the rush of an open-ice bodycheck, moving in from the point with little puck control or offensive awareness, taking the instinctive penalties that extend an already-lost game into agony.
As the final minutes ticked off the clock, the crowd remained silent.
They might have readied boos, but at the buzzer a confrontation between the two tired and spiteful sides broke out, and the fans, happy to see something to react to, began to applaud — here and there standing to make a point.
Referees assigned two meaningless misconducts to each team, and the benches emptied for the locker rooms. Many in the seats behind the glass did not follow their lead — if this was an end, shouldn’t there be a sign?
The Heat never made a practice of saluting the fans at centre ice as some teams do, so to attempt one now would be as conspicuous as giving their sweaters away. No one wished to admit the likelihood of defeat; the mantra of forgetting this result, remembering a collective game plan, and waiting for the official word once they lost in Grand Rapids, would begin again.
Exiting the Abbotsford Centre, one can’t help but acknowledge the location of the building, which abuts a number of arguments. A concern when the first inkling arose that 7,000 spectators might need a place to put their cars, the fact that the Abbotsford Centre has no parking lot to speak of is only a minor issue, owing to how it was built, island-like, with UFV’s parking lots on every side.
Despite it being next door, UFV students have little use for or interest in the building beyond regarding activity at the arena as an inconvenience. Aside from the two or three sell-out dates that fall within the school year, such as the recent Florida Georgia Line concert (a pop-in-country-clothes outfit), which back up traffic with stretch limos and streams of attendees with can’t-be-hurried strides, the arena might as well not exist.
[pullquote]“How did things get so bad that the team was often referred to as a situation, problem, experiment (failed), or object for contempt instead of a sports team? The truth is, Abbotsford is not special.”[/pullquote]
Attempts to connect the two were unsuccessful: UFV’s hockey team folded after the 2010-11 season, and a basketball series played in the stadium received similar attendance to varsity games played in the campus gym. Some might point to UFV’s reputation as an apathetic campus for why there was never a student section at Heat home games, but here — as everywhere the “public,” “masses,” and the non-descript “citizens” are invoked with puzzlement over why the city at large never realized that if they only went to games every once in a while, the situation would have paid for itself — is the largest of all blind spots.
No one, especially those going to UFV, was unaware the Heat or the arena existed. They — excluding city councillors, the business community, and a minority of hockey fans — chose not to go, to let the team stay obscure and leave.
A popular conclusion is the public was not persuaded by branding that linked the team too strongly with the Flames, and that any name besides the one they used and the corresponding promotional decisions made along the way would have done the trick. But that is only one of the outcomes of a central decision, which was not to involve the people the facility was supposedly built for.
It’s what happens when a referendum campaign is run seeking a yes outcome, knowing that not voter turnout, but guaranteed favourable votes is the goal. The president of the Chamber of Commerce and the chief of the Abbotsford police gave their endorsement in a full-page newspaper spread; promotional materials criticized by some as propaganda were distributed at schools that would later serve as voting locations for parents; and the city admitted to $40,000 spent on a Vote Yes campaign. Seven out of 18 polling stations came back weighted toward no, but the project passed, and the idea was the public would one day thank the minds that looked into the future and saw an expensive sports centre.
If the search for a new tenant doesn’t swallow every minute of attention from now on, people might actually get to use the arena. The Abbotsford News did their part to find the human interest in a yes vote through a series that ran before the referendum, culminating in a family profile: mother and father were having trouble getting their necessary hours due to 6 a.m. being the only available icetime.
[pullquote]“Despite it being next door, UFV students have little use for or interest in the building beyond regarding activity at the arena as an inconvenience.”[/pullquote]
After construction, though the Heat was noticed for its community service, minor hockey didn’t enjoy a new sheet of ice when the team was out of town. Likewise, figure and speed-skating, flourishing campaign promises, saw little in the way of new beginnings with the new facility. It took five years, but the city’s contract termination press conference indicated that the small consolation of giving the community access to the building might finally be explored.
More plans will be made to spin this failure as a temporary one, but the Abbotsford Centre continues to dent projections. Of particular interest to UFV students will be how the AESC was the first tangible sign of U-District concepts that pointed vaguely to “sensitive residential densification” and “new public spaces” between now and 2041.
Rather than its intended position as an urban anchor, there’s a possible version of events where the arena sits in the middle of an artist’s rendering of green beauty, eco-friendly apartments, and fantastic new university architecture as a lightly-used financial drain — an inadequacy politicians will have to answer to, and one that no one will want to hear much about.
That tactic is always available: forgetting about the embarassment is an option for Abbotsford, and with a municipal election coming up in November, it’s a scenario that would serve some local figures well.
The other option — remembering every piece of this unwanted history, attempting to do something with it — will in any case be presented to every new student that drives or takes the bus to UFV’s Abbotsford campus.