Abby Canucks make strong first impression in year one

Photo: Abbotsford Canucks

📝 by Chris Faber | AHL On The Beat

May 4, 2021, will always be a historic day for the City of Abbotsford.

That was the day that the Vancouver Canucks announced their intentions to move their AHL affiliate closer to home. The Baby ’Nucks were coming to the Fraser Valley and with them came optimism from a fan base that had to rely on clips and articles to know what was going on with their top pro prospects.

May 4, 2021, was step one in bringing the Canucks home.

Building an AHL team from the ground up is not an easy task. It took smart hockey minds, smart business minds and a lot of elbow grease to get this team on track for the beginning of the AHL season. The Abbotsford Canucks began training camp with just 12 skaters and two goalies and waited to see an influx of talent join the squad.

General manager Ryan Johnson was never worried about the players that he was going to ice for the team. It was more about seeing the organization come together enough to cover things like travel, creating a sturdy environment for the players to develop, and ultimately, hosting their first home game with a community behind them.

“I was proud after that home opener where we experienced the communities and fans of the organization in this province,” said Johnson. “Hockey has been around in different capacities throughout B.C. for a long time and I am proud of a thing we’ve done for the game, I’m proud to be a part of a group that got AHL hockey going [in Abbotsford].”

The home opener on Oct. 22 saw Madison Bowey bury an overtime winner that sent the Abbotsford Centre into a frenzy. It was a real sense of coming together as the new organization was just on the heels of allowing fans back into arenas. The feeling of being together and cheering with a community returned and it returned with some of the best hockey we have ever seen in the Fraser Valley. Instant love for the team was built on the backs of local talent like Abbotsford native Noah Juulsen or other local B.C. boys like Devante Stephens and Jarid Lukosevicius.

On top of dealing with the looming COVID problems, the community of Abbotsford was ripped to shreds by some of the worst floodings the area has ever seen. Farms were under water, animals were lost, and lives were in danger, but the community did what it could to hold it all together and begin to build itself back up.

Nothing will ever be the same in the affected area, but through support from around the province, the hope is to get back on your feet and get back to the life that brought so many people into the Abbotsford area.

Multiple Canucks players were evacuated from their homes. Foward Karel Plasek was in a walking boot when a passing Abbotsford family aided him in moving his possessions from his hotel to higher ground the day before it flooded.

“When we were faced with the flooding and what the community was going through, each day I had players coming in and saying, ‘What can we do to help?’” said Johnson. “The local authorities were saying that we needed to stay safe at this point and there will come a time where we may be able to help. I recall players saying to me that they were calling the local police station every morning asking if there was anything they could do.

“I think our staff did a great job of offering anything that we could do and as soon as there was an opportunity to help, the players were chomping at the bit to be able to do something. They wanted to get out there to help support our community. They feel incredibly embraced by the community through hockey and just hadn’t had the opportunity to jump into the community the way we’d like because of the restrictions during the pandemic. That sandbagging was a huge desire for the players to say, ‘We’re here to help be a part of the community through this struggle.’”

Among those to help with sandbagging was forward Vincent Arseneau. Known as the toughest guy on the team, with hands that even a lobster claw can’t crack, Arseneau was the first player to reach out to the team officials and let them know that the players were going to go help. Multiple players recounted that Arseneau was running sandbags like a horse. The big veteran AHL’er inspired some of the younger players on the team and by the end of the day, all of the Abbotsford Canucks players and coaches were out at Albert Dyck Park in an effort to contain some of the flooding.

“Vinny was so excited to be a part of that and to help the community that supports him on the ice,” said Johnson. “Our big man can carry a big load. Vinny is a perfect example of a person that cares a lot off the ice. We’ve got a lot of those guys and it’s a reason why we’ve ended up where we are. Even through all the different obstacles like injuries, call-ups, COVID or whatever it may be — to be where we sit right now, there’s a lot of good people in our group of players.”

Away from the rink, the Abbotsford Canucks have pressed all the right buttons and hope to be even more involved with local schools, community events and minor hockey in the coming years. This is just year one of the new era of AHL hockey in Abbotsford. This is about building something special in the Fraser Valley and so far, so good.

On the ice, there isn’t a hotter team in the AHL. The Canucks will welcome back a handful of players through recovering from injury and players currently in NHL action. Fans are excited to see Vasily Podkolzin make his Abbotsford debut in the Calder Cup Playoffs after a strong rookie season in the NHL.

There’s an expectation for a long playoff run for the local AHL team. Their success comes from top-end goaltending, a sturdy defense core, and one of the best power plays in the league. Abbotsford plays exciting hockey that fans are impressed by more and more each week. There’s a lot to cheer about now that the local AHL team has come home.

Fans are invested in their AHL team like never before.

The resident DJ, Jay Swing, has been a massive hit out in the Abbotsford Centre and the connection between local minor hockey and the Abbotsford Canucks can be seen at every game during the intermissions.

Then, when it comes to local, nothing is better than having your AHL team right in the
backyard of the NHL squad.

The Abbotsford Canucks are making a strong impression on not only the local community but the entire league as well.

Even after early struggles for the team, they found their footing in the middle of January and have been electric on the ice for the better part of three months. The team now sets their sights on a deep playoff run that presents the Calder Cup as the ultimate prize. It would sure be a heck of an achievement to bring home the league championship in your inaugural season.

The Canucks are looking to turn that dream into reality.

No matter the final outcome, the Abbotsford Canucks have cemented a tremendous first impression with everyone this season. Here’s to many more years of AHL hockey in the Fraser Valley.