Heat make best of life on road

by Ryan Pinder || AHL On The Beat Archive

Pro hockey demands travel, and lots of it, but no team in the American Hockey League will endure more than the Abbotsford Heat.

The three-year-old franchise (top affiliate of the NHL’s Calgary Flames) is unofficially the western outpost of the AHL, as the lone franchise in the Pacific time zone. Abbotsford is located just 27 miles from the Pacific Ocean in the Fraser Valley, which is nestled next to Greater Vancouver.

In fact, with no teams in the Mountain time zone either, the Heat have to travel 1,563 miles to get to their nearest opponent, the Oklahoma City Barons – not exactly next-door neighbors.

The 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons saw a nice rivalry develop with the Manitoba Moose, as the Winnipeg-based club served as the affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks. Hockey fans in British Columbia have been rooting for the Canucks for ages, particularly in recent years as the Canucks have had the look of a contender.

With the Moose now extinct (the NHL’s Jets have taken over as the primary tenant in the MTS Centre, and their affiliate was moved to Newfoundland to become the St. John’s IceCaps as the Jets’ developmental club; the Canucks are now affiliated with the Chicago Wolves), the Heat are without their nearest club and fiercest AHL rival.

The nearest competitor in the AHL to the Heat is now Oklahoma City, followed by Rockford and Chicago, all over 1,500 miles away. Realignment has lassoed the Heat into a division with San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Texas and Houston, but the team will have played a dozen games this season before playing their first divisional contest (Nov. 10 at Houston). The average distance between the Heat and its divisional rival is a jet-lag-inducing 1,788 miles.

Team president Ryan Walter is familiar with un-chartered air travel, as he saw 15 seasons in the NHL prior to charters becoming commonplace. Walter says the strategy is to try to group road games together.

“Part of the key component with travel is trying to bunch games up but not be too tight,” states Walter. “Obviously there are [scheduling] regulations, how often you can play. It’s tough when you have to go east, and then come back, and then go east again. When we were planning our schedule, we tried to (bunch games) as much as possible, as an organization.”

Reigning Reebok/AHL Player of the Week Krys Kolanos also knows a thing or two about travel; the 30-year-old pro who has played in the NHL, the AHL and the Swiss league is aware of the large amount of travel amassed by the club.

“Like they say, we’re in the outpost of the league right now,” Kolanos said. “The organization is definitely first-class and they make it as easy as possible on the team and on the guys, so that’s a real plus.”

The Heat has gotten some advice on travel from Calgary’s organization, which has made things easier.

“Calgary is a great partner in this area (travel)” explains Walter, “They want to make sure that we – and they – are treating their players at the highest level; they’re great partners. They actually sent us a schedule showing us how their sleep doctor can help us.”

Making the journeys more arduous than for other clubs, the team must travel east for every road trip – meaning they lose two or three hours just to time change, never mind the travel time on airplanes and buses. The Heat will typically leave two days prior to road games to ensure they can practice the day before they play.

The Heat are set to embark on their longest road trip of the season next week, one that will see the team out of the province (and country for that matter) for 14 days, with seven games played over 11 nights.

The trip will feature four flights, three bus trips between cities, and five hotels checked into over two weeks as the team plays all four divisional rivals at least once on the pass through Texas and Oklahoma.

“If you had your own jet – which we don’t – we could be much tidier with our travel,” says Walter. “The thing we do as much as we can is to stay at airport hotels the night before morning flights. So, instead of having to get up a couple of hours earlier, and having to travel to the airport and out, we’re already there. I think we spend the money where we need to spend it so we can be as good as we can be.”

So, is it crazy to start talking about a charter in the AHL?

“I think it is from the dollar point of view, unless somebody wanted to partner with us from a sponsorship point of view,” Walter said. “No doubt it makes things easier, because you get a plane when you need a plane. I would say that our players are well taken care of, and it’s as good as it can be.”

Ryan Pinder is the play-by-play broadcaster for the Abbotsford Heat.