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Above the 49: Heat optimistic about future despite poor attendance

By Daniel Fung, Sports Network Columnist

Vancouver, BC (Sports Network) - The AHL's Abbotsford Heat, a minor league affiliate of the NHL's Calgary Flames, are coming off their most successful season on the ice in their brief three-year existence although chances are not many people know that based on the limited fan support at the gate this season.

Despite advancing past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in their existence, hockey fans in Abbotsford, British Columbia - about an hour's drive from downtown Vancouver - seemed to be largely indifferent to the exploits of the Heat with only 6,150 combined fans turning out for the three games the Heat hosted in their second-round series against the Toronto Marlies - a series they lost four games to one.

A franchise-low 1,360 passed through the turnstiles in the fifth and deciding game of that series.

"It's obviously not what we want," said Justin McIntyre, the Heat's vice president of ticket sales and service regarding the low playoff turnout. "We want to see the numbers get bigger, not smaller.

"There are some practical realities - back-to-back nights on Tuesday and Wednesday (for Games 4 and 5 of the series) - but that notwithstanding the core fan base was there. We absolutely love our fans, they're fantastic, but, yeah, we were hoping to see the numbers a little bigger than what they were."

Even with all the struggles at the gate and the fact their average attendance has dipped each season since their arrival in the B.C.'s Fraser Valley region (they drew an average of 3,545 fans per game during the regular season to finish second-worst in the AHL), the Heat believe their aren't far off from seeing their on-ice success mirrored at the box office.

"One thing I would say coming off the end of the season is that I think the positivity towards our brand has increased, but ... that has to continue," said Heat president Ryan Walter during his end-of-season press conference. "I think we are up over 460 events that our players, coaches, team management, street team, mascot, the whole crew of us, have generated in the Valley since August.

"We're proud of that and it's something that we have to continue to do. We have to give first so that people will give back to us."

The Heat have always been a tough sell given the fact they are situated right smack in the middle of Vancouver Canucks territory while serving as the farm team for the rival Flames, but their low turnout particularly in the postseason is even more disappointing given the fact that, at least for a two-week stretch, they were the only live professional hockey option for fans in B.C., with the Canucks having been eliminated in the opening round of the NHL playoffs back on April 22.

The Heat hosted their first playoff game on April 25, drawing 3,406 fans in the 7,000-seat Abbotsford Sports and Entertainment Center, for the deciding third game of their best-of-three series against the Milwaukee Admirals.

While the Heat won't have much success downplaying their connection to the Flames, their focus this off-season - as it has been since Day 1 - will be selling the AHL brand of hockey and an affordable experience that arguably offers the best bang for the buck for professional hockey in B.C.

"For people that we talk to, (the Flames affiliation) definitely comes up, but there's a lot of people where that doesn't come up and we need to do a better job talking to the people who just appreciate hockey for what it is - especially the American league and the very high brand of hockey that it represents," McIntyre said. "For $15 next season, you can get in and watch the second-best brand of hockey on the planet and, if you were in our building for Saturday, Tuesday or Wednesday's games (against the Marlies in the second round of the playoffs), you would have seen five NHLers on the ice from the opposition in conjunction with four NHLers from our squad, so it's not like you're watching a second-tier brand of hockey.

"You're watching NHL-caliber hockey on many nights. It's less about the Flames and more about just how good the hockey is."

The Heat's affiliation with the Flames might not be the only reason why local fans have a sour taste about the club. The local ownership group, under the terms of their agreement with the City of Abbotsford, is guaranteed $5.7 million per season, putting the onus on taxpayers to make up that difference if the team falls short, which they have in each season of their existence. The Heat, however, hope the in-roads they have made in the community will overshadow any negativity the local fans might have toward the team and that their efforts will pay off down the line in the form of increased ticket sales.

"We're going to work tirelessly and very hard to continue to become part of the fabric of not only Abbotsford but the rest of the Fraser Valley and really prove to the local fans and local residence that having the American Hockey League and, more importantly, the Abbotsford Heat in town is a good thing for them," McIntyre said. "Our long-term success is not necessarily always going to be measured by what happens in the building. It's measured by how we really become a part of the community and it's a two-way street.

"When we're a stronger part of the community, we get stronger attendance locally."

The 2012-13 season will mark the fourth year of the 10-year affiliation agreement between the Heat's local ownership group in Abbotsford and the Flames.

05/16 10:11:03 ET