Monday, 27 June 2011

When Evil Lurks In Your Backyard

When it was announced that True North Sports and Entertainment had purchased the Atlanta Thrashers with the intent to move the team north to Winnipeg, there was a collective letdown on the left coast as Vancouver's affiliation with the Manitoba Moose would undoubtedly come to an end. After all, TNSE still owned the Moose, so it made sense for the then-Thrashers to affiliate themselves with the Moose as they were both under ownership by the same group. With the Thrashers' former AHL affiliate in the Chicago Wolves now without a parent team, the Vancouver Canucks did the easiest of moves and affiliated themselves with the Wolves. That's right: Vancouver's prospects will now play in the Blackhawks' backyard.

It's not like this hasn't happened before in the AHL. In fact, there's another team that knows exactly what this situation feels like, and I'm sure the Abbotsford Heat can give the management of the Chicago Wolves a little advice when it comes to playing in front of sparse crowds on most nights due to the proximity of the team to a rival NHL team's city.

You see, Abbotsford plays to small crowds because of their affiliation with the Calgary Flames. Abbotsford is a mere 68 kilometers from Vancouver, yet they ranked 26th in attendance in the AHL in 2010-11 with 152,272 people attending last year, or an average of 3807 people per game. Sure, they have their die-hard fans who come out to games and events and support the team, but the baby Flames play in Canuck-land. The vast majority of people won't drive the 68 kilometers to see the Heat play simply due to their affiliation with the hated Flames. Had it not been for a number of sold-out games with the Moose in town, Abbotsford could have finished the season lower than the 26th-best team in the AHL for attendance.

The Wolves, on the other hand, finished third in the AHL in attendance last year with 298,117 fans pushing through the turnstiles for an average of 7453 fans per game. That's a pretty good total of fans that showed up to see the baby Thrashers battle into the Calder Cup Playoffs. Chicago Wolves hockey is affordable, fun, and the team was a winner, and that's why they were successful on and off the ice. One of the most attractive things for players about going to Chicago is that the Wolves, like the Moose, are very in tune with making sure their players are happy while with the team.

"We kind of zeroed in on Chicago right away," Canucks assistant GM Lorne Henning said Monday to The Vancouver Sun. "We struck up a conversation quite a while ago with them when we found out the Moose were moving on. They run a first-class organization and they always take care of their players. They're a good fit for us."

But the problem I see is that Chicago hockey fans - both Blackhawk fans and Wolves fans - never really had a beef with Atlanta, but hate everything about the Canucks. I cannot deny that the Blackhawks don't hold the city captive in the winter with such rising stars as Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane to name a few, and the rivalry the Blackhawks have developed with the Vancouver Canucks is a marketing department's dream. The fans in Chicago love to hate the Canucks, making this new Canucks-Wolves affiliation so puzzling.

On one hand, it makes total sense for the Canucks to affiliate themselves with an organization like the Wolves who work really hard at making sure players are ready for the next level. The Wolves have won the Calder Cup in their short history in the AHL already, so it's clear that the Wolves emphasize building a strong, competitive team that will compete every night - something every NHL club would like to see from their AHL affiliate. The Canucks had the same commitment from the Manitoba Moose while with them, and it appears they have partnered with another franchise that values excellence.

Wolves General Manager Wendell Young stated, "They've got a great franchise, a great group of players. Honestly, they have the same philosophy as us. They want to treat their players so well that their players want to stay and play. We couldn't find anybody better."

The other hand is where I'm puzzled by the Wolves accepting this affiliation. The Wolves' management has to know that the people of Chicago want nothing more the absolute failure for the Vancouver Canucks and any players associated with the team due to the Canucks' burning rivalry with the Blackhawks. Don't get me wrong - the Wolves are getting a great bunch of players from the Canucks organization, and I can tell you first-hand that the men who wore the Moose uniforms last season are hard-working and care about the fans.

Wendell Young sees no problem with the Canucks being affiliated with the Wolves, though. "That has come up a bit today," Young chuckled. "We don't compete against the Blackhawks. They're a different genre, a different level, a different everything. The Hawks might think differently but we don't. If anything, it will add spice when their farm team in Rockford plays us."

I'm sure the players in Abbotsford are the same type of players: hard-working, care about the fans, involved in the community. It's just that people care more about the Canucks than they do about the Flames. I happen to think that the same fate awaits the Chicago Wolves this season as the people in Chicago care more about their Blackhawks than the hated Canucks. While it may not be fair, people are very loyal to their teams and having Canucks in Wolves' clothing will not sway a lot of people.

I guess that for Vancouver, it's all about keeping your enemies closer as they have the baby Flames in their backyard, and now they're camping out in the Blackhawks' backyard.

Seriously, though, the Wolves franchise is a first-class organization, and I think the former Moose players who will be assigned to Chicago will find a lot of the same great benefits that they found in Manitoba. The only difference is that they may play to smaller crowds that what they did in Manitoba.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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