📝 by Patrick Williams
Bonding can happen in the most difficult of ways, and the Abbotsford Canucks grew closer to local hockey fans through some painful circumstances.
Normally the arrival of an American Hockey League franchise in a city means a certain sort of bonding process between that team and its new home. First comes the speculation that builds and builds. Then the deal becomes official, and a press conference follows. Ticket sales begin. A logo is unveiled. Interviews commence for jobs in the team’s front office.
The bonding process in Abbotsford began normally enough for the club and its fans, much of it following that same tried-and-true blueprint.
Considerable excitement accompanied the Vancouver Canucks’ offseason decision to bring their American Hockey League franchise close to home. After eight successful seasons with the Utica Comets, Vancouver undertook a cross-continental move that planted their AHL affiliate an hour east of Rogers Arena. Bearing the same name as their parent club and adorned in the organization’s traditional blue-and-green colors with the familiar Johnny Canuck logo, the new arrangement gave Vancouver a geographically convenient AHL set-up for the first time since the NHL’s arrival in 1970.
Vancouver prospects shared in that excitement. Now they can be seen regularly by the parent club’s top management, and player recalls mean a short drive west on Highway 1. And just as Vancouver is one of the most visually striking cities in North America, Abbotsford and the Fraser Valley are picturesque as well. Rolling hills and farmland blend with snow-capped peaks and Suma Mountain. Slightly north of the city, the Fraser River continues its flow from the Rocky Mountains to the Strait of Georgia.
Assistant coach Jeff Ulmer had arrived early with his family to settle into the Abbotsford area.
“I’d be walking, setting up things, going to the hardware store, whatever, it was amazing,” Ulmer said of the reception. “People knew you were new in town, and they were asking about hockey and just excited about the Canucks affiliate being in Abbotsford.
“We see the jerseys and the shirts, and everybody’s talking about the team. We’re happy to be in this area, in the area around Vancouver, and have such a passionate fan base. They’ve carried it over and adopted us under the Canucks bubble.”
That bonding process still was underway, and the Abbotsford Canucks had barely settled into their new home when Mother Nature interfered. The AHL club had played just six home games and still had a handful of players living in a local hotel when catastrophic flooding hit the Fraser Valley in mid-November.
Even for an area that had dealt with flooding in the past, November’s event hit hard. Mudslides shut down local roads and railways. Local residents faced mass evacuations. The Canadian Armed Forces quickly arrived from different points across the country to assist in relief efforts.
The team had just returned from a weekend trip down to Tucson. Nature runs on its own schedule, however, and the team arrived home to a much different place than when it had left. Team services and communications manager Ben Goodman sent a text message to players asking if anyone would be willing to volunteer to assist in sand-bagging efforts.
“All the players agreed that we just want to get involved in any situation we can,” Arseneau said. “If we can save a house or save a business or help somebody, I think it was the main focus for us.”
Word also reached the Abbotsford coaching staff.
“The coaches were in the office still kind of pounding away at some video,” Ulmer recounted. “So we jumped in a car and went over and started filling up sandbags.”
Twenty or 30 minutes later, the team had healthy players and coaches on the job.
“It was good to get to be together and have everybody digging in and pitching where they can,” Ulmer said. “We have 15, 20 strong guys [who] can move a lot of sandbags.”
Ulmer also stressed that the team was only on site for a few hours and that the main takeaway was to witness how many residents, Armed Forces members, and other rescue personnel worked tirelessly to fight back against the rising waters.
“That’s one thing that [head coach Trent Cull] has tried to stress, just getting around and being part of the community,” Ulmer continued. “Obviously you’d like a more positive way. But at the same time, [we got] to see the passion and the togetherness of a community like Abbotsford and the surrounding area.”
With a nearby dike threatening to breach, every bit of help mattered.
Arseneau said, “I couldn’t believe it that [there was] that much water. They were talking about [25 to 35] feet more water (if there was a breach).”
A month later, the clean-up process in the area is well underway. The Insurance Bureau of Canada eventually landed on an estimate of $450 million in insured damage caused by flooding. Armed Forces personnel participated in a pre-game ceremony before the team’s game against the San Jose Barracuda on Dec. 4 and have been able to scatter since. The federal government has provided $5 billion in relief aid.
And the team and local hockey fans have been through this experience that no one will forget.
“Those things are things that can really bring a community together,” Ulmer said.
“We’re thankful for all the efforts of the local people and those that came to help.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.