Is this an end to an era of sports instability in the Fraser Valley?

Will the arrival of the Abbotsford Canucks bring 10 years of sporting turmoil to a close?

By Tyler Olsen | October 19, 2021 |10:16 am

This story appeared in the Oct. 14 edition of the Fraser Valley Current’s daily newsletter. To support our work and get immediate access to every story we publish, subscribe below.

Is an era of sports instability drawing to a close?

The sound was overwhelming. So was the smoke from the pre-game ceremonies. It was 2006 and Fraser Valley hockey fans had been anticipating the arrival of a top-level team for years, if not decades, and the owners of the Chilliwack Bruins were determined to bring a level of spectacle to the city’s new hockey arena. There were videos. There were lasers. And there was even some hockey played.

The arrival of the Western Hockey League’s Bruins was a big deal in the city and the valley. It was the first time many residents had been in Chilliwack’s new sports arena. People drove from as far away as Princeton to witness the birth of the region’s first Western Hockey League team, an enterprise supported by legendary hockey names like Brian Burke and Glen Sather. And, in their first game, the Bruins won.

Then they lost 11 consecutive games.

The arrival of the Bruins was supposed to kick off a new era of high-level hockey in the Fraser Valley. Instead it marked the beginning of an era of sporting upheaval that continued into 2021, but which many hope will finally result in some stability.

Don’t blame the Bruins, though. It wasn’t the arrival of the WHL that upset the sporting status quo. Instead, maybe blame the politicians. The spark had been lit several years before the Bruins were even an idea, in the 2000s, when mid-sized cities around Canada became infatuated with the need to build fancy new arenas and “sports centres.” Everyone wanted one, and within a decade it seemed like everyone had one. Chilliwack opened its new 5,000-seat arena in 2004, Abbotsford’s 7,000-seat facility welcomed its first visitors in 2009, as did Langley’s new sports centre. (New buildings had also recently popped up in Kelowna, Kamloops, Vernon, Penticton, and Victoria.)

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If you build it, they will come (and then leave)

Nature abhors a vacuum. And so does business—even, or especially, the business of sports.

The Fraser Valley lacked any hockey teams that could realistically hope to fill their new arenas; the British Columbia Hockey League has long had teams in both Langley and Chilliwack, but they were community-scale enterprises. The valley’s population base, the new arenas, and the absence of much competition made the region attractive to hockey team owners looking for a better deal. For cities that had financed the construction of huge new arenas, their scale encouraged—and potentially demanded—fan bases, revenues, and publicity beyond the scope of the BCHL.

Enter the WHL. It was, and continues to be, one of the main feeder leagues for the NHL, with many of the world’s best players coming through its program. Players in the WHL are between the ages of 16 and 20. Everything about the WHL was bigger—the media coverage, the budgets, the pre-game entertainment, and the buffets for insiders—and its arrival in the Fraser Valley with the Chilliwack Bruins was greeted with tremendous excitement.

But enter also the AHL: the professional minor league where would-be big-leaguers play until their call up to the National Hockey League. In 2009, the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat moved to the valley and the Bruins—whose business plans clearly involved drawing fans and sponsors from Abbotsford—suddenly had serious competition for fans’ precious dollars.

Attendance sagged in Chilliwack (it didn’t help that the team wasn’t great), and two years after the Heat arrived, the Bruins left for Victoria—a city that also needed a hockey team to play in its large, new arena. (When the Bruins arrived in 2006, the Chilliwack Chiefs had moved to Langley. Five years later, the void left by the Bruins was filled in a complex move when the BCHL’s Quesnel Millionaires moved to Chilliwack and became the Chiefs, while the Langley Chiefs became the Langley Rivermen.)

Heat check

But the Heat didn’t win a struggle for Fraser Valley sports dominance. They just held on for longer. In order to attract the Heat to their vacant building, the City of Abbotsford had guaranteed that it would cover any losses incurred by the team. And as the Calgary Flames farm team struggled to fill its building in a region of Canuck fans, the city ended up paying millions to cover the Heat’s losses. Increasingly politically toxic, the city paid more than $5 million in 2014 to get the Heat to go away. Once again, Abbotsford Centre had no major tenant.

Financially, the arena wasn’t a huge drain, hosting dozens of concerts each year. But it wasn’t a place you went to watch professional sports. That changed a little when, in 2019, the Fraser Valley Bandits began playing in the Abbotsford Centre in the new Canadian Elite Basketball League. The Bandits drew as many as a couple thousand fans per game, and brought new diversity to the sports scene. But they weren’t hockey.

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Which brings us, finally, to 2021.

The Abbotsford Canucks arrived—and forced another move: that of the Bandits to Langley, a city increasingly flush with top-level sports (Today, there is still a BCHL team, but also the WHL’s Vancouver Giants, the National Lacrosse League’s Vancouver Warriors, and the Bandits).

Fifteen years ago the entire Fraser Valley only had two BCHL teams. Today, there are six sports teams playing in three different sports in four arenas. The Canucks’ first home game this week will mark the start of one new era and, potentially, the end of another. Sports eras are often closed with tears and melodrama. But nobody will be sad to see the last of moving trucks at Fraser Valley arenas.

—By Tyler Olsen

Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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