It was reported yesterday by Scott Linesburgh of RecordNet that the Stockton Heat would play their season in Calgary. While the team has yet to officially go on record with this announcement, Linesburgh spoke with city and county officials who were informed that the Flames would not be playing in the city.
This is enormous news.
Not only was the team very confident that they would be playing in Stockton, there even was a released schedule for the Heat. The team was due to play pre-season games later this week, and officially start games on February 5th against the Colorado Eagles. However, the plan was always in doubt as San Joaquin County and the City of Stockton would not sign off on the Heat playing games in town.
While this is a surprise, there are a number of big benefits for the Heat and for the Flames. There are also major issues and some big questions that are still left outstanding.
The biggest reason to have the team playing in Calgary is it provides the team the opportunity to use their AHL team to their full advantage this season. With the Canadian government requiring travelers from abroad to quarantine for 14 days, it would have been nearly impossible for anyone from the Heat to make a meaningful impact in Calgary. Barring a long term injury to a Flames player, the Flames would have a difficult time bringing a player across the border and into game action in a reasonable amount of time. That’s no longer an issue.
Even in a non-pandemic year, there is an additional cost to bring players to Calgary from Stockton then send them back again. From the flight to hotel expenses to additional per diem expenses, the costs increase substantially, especially when players may not get into a game. Last season, the Flames brought eight players from Stockton to Calgary to feature in games, and each player got at least four games with the big club. The Toronto Maple Leafs, who have their AHL affiliate in Toronto, were able to call up 14 players, with some only featuring in one game. Especially in a COVID season, the flexibility this gives the Flames is enormous.
On top of that, it would take ice time away from young players in Stockton who are still working to develop. Taking two weeks off coming to Calgary, then having time with the team, then having to send the player back to Stockton where they could endure another two week quarantine might take away 10 or more games from their season. With the Heat currently set for a 40 game season, this would be a very significant chunk of games missed by a player.
Playing in Calgary eliminates this hassle. Not only would the Flames have the ability to draw on guys like Glenn Gawdin and Matthew Phillips more often, the management and coaching staff also has more opportunity to evaluate their players. With the travel restrictions, scouts and management would be relying on video replays to judge their players’ performance. Having them play home games at the ‘Dome would be a huge benefit for the organization.
Finally, there have been lots of rumours about the Flames wanting to move their AHL team closer to home. The team used to be located in Abbotsford, which made the process of bringing players to Calgary visa-free. Now with players in the US, there are immigration issues as well as numerous others that the Flames have to face, and with the ongoing pandemic, this has been made even more difficult. Playing the season in Calgary gives the team an opportunity to evaluate what it would be like to have their farm team playing closer to home.
The Flames are going into the last year of their deal with Stockton Arena to play games in California, and this move may be an opportunity to see if it is worth renewing that agreement. While there are undoubtedly financial reasons for the team to be in California, and a very loyal fan base, the Flames will have to take a long and hard look as to whether it makes sense to have their farm team 2000 kilometers south.
While there are benefits, a decision of this magnitude has some big drawbacks as well, and the Flames have been very vocal about their intention to play out the season in Stockton. Leaving aside the need to uproot their entire organization and staff and move in across the border, the team needs to figure out the logistics for how all the teams would be able to play out of the Saddledome.
The building is home to the already playing Flames, the (hopefully) soon to be playing Calgary Hitmen, and the tentatively playing Calgary Roughnecks, and that’s just the major sports. There’s also events, concerts, conventions, etc., and though those types of functions won’t occur in a covid world, they will soon. The Flames will need to find time and space for both games and practices for the Heat.
This is a lot. Only three AHL teams share a home with their NHL teams, the Manitoba Moose and Winnipeg Jets, the Laval Rockets and the Montreal Canadiens , and the San Jose Barracuda and the San Jose Sharks. However, none of those teams also has a minor hockey team playing in their building as well. There is no QMJHL team located in Montreal and the Winnipeg Ice of the WHL play in a different arena. While the Flames are able to utilize WinSport and the Max Bell Arena for practices as needed, neither is like the Saddledome.
On top of that, with the ongoing pandemic, there are concerns about cleaning the dressing rooms, common spaces and ice between usages to minimize transmission of the virus. Not only does this cost a lot of money, it also takes time to clean the spaces, limiting the amount of time that teams can practice. The NHL already has strict guidelines for cleanliness, and expect that to be the case for the AHL and WHL. This is going to limit the amount that these spaces can be used.
Thankfully all three teams will be playing a combination of home and away games, which should help minimize the time that all three teams are at home. That being said, travel will be a huge factor for the Heat this season. Last season, the Heat had six divisional rivals that were relatively close.
Two, the San Jose Barracuda and Bakersfield Condors, were just a short drive away, while two others, the Ontario Reign and the San Diego Gulls, were just a quick hour flight (or eight hour drive) away. The final two, the Tucson Roadrunners and Colorado Eagles, were less than a two hour flight away (but much longer drives). The short travel time and ability to bus to some games brought the team’s costs down.
This season, the Heat will likely be playing in a Canadian Division, which means they will be playing against the Manitoba Moose, Belville Senators, Toronto Marlies, and Laval Rocket. Barring the team putting their players on a grueling 12 hour bus trip to Winnipeg, the Heat will have to pay for flights to each of their games. This is an enormous cost, and with no fans in the stands to bring in revenue, this is going to increase the cost to run this season.
One savings opportunity is if the schedules of the Canadian NHL teams matched up with the AHL teams. Teams could save money by flying both teams to the same city for a similar road trip in both leagues. It would take significant effort from schedule makers and would need to be fit around the current NHL schedule (ice time will be a tough task to manage).
What does it all mean?
Sports leagues are hemorrhaging money this season across the board. With no fans in stands and limited opportunity to recoup revenue losses, teams are going to be tightening their belts and trying to save money where possible. The decision for the Heat to play in Calgary has some major hockey benefits, but some real off-ice costs that are going to cause headaches for Calgary Sports and Entertainment’s accounting teams.
The big question that we will look back on at the end of the season is was it all worth it. Was it the best decision for the Flames to move the Heat up to Calgary as opposed to moving them to another arena in California to play out the season. Here is how we will know?
First, do the Flames take advantage of their ability to call up players from Stockton this season. If the Flames are able to get games out of guys like Gawdin, Phillips, and more, it may help them strengthen the bottom of their lineup, which has looked shaky.
Second, are the Heat successful in the new Canadian Division? Last season, the Heat finished behind Tuscon and Colorado for third in the league. This season, they will face off against Belville, who was the fifth best team in the AHL, as well as bottom feeders Toronto, Laval, and Manitoba. Belville will likely be less strong this season, with Ottawa promoting some of their young players to the big club. Toronto, Winnipeg, and Laval will all have some new talent from the draft in their systems this year that will make things more competitive. If the Heat are able to earn a playoff spot this season, it will be a win for them.
Finally, this is going to be an expensive year for everyone, but if the Flames’ affiliate team, be they in Stockton or elsewhere, is able to be financially viable in a few seasons, and is able to come out of this season, successful on the ice and not saddled by a major debt off the ice, you can put this one in the win column. Time will tell.
Photo Credit: Stockton Heat