THUNDER BAY -- The failure of the American Hockey League in Abbotsford, B.C. has little bearing on the City of Thunder Bay’s pursuit of the Winnipeg Jets primary farm team, says Mayor Keith Hobbs and city manager Tim Commisso.
On Tuesday, Abbotsford officials announced they were severing ties with the Abbotsford Heat.
The buy-out, which came five years into a 10-year deal the city signed with the team, cost the western Canadian community more than $5.5 million. Abbotsford taxpayers had also subsidized the team to the tune of $5.1 million, a guaranteed income deal that ensured the municipality would cover any attendance shortfalls.
Asked if the city of Thunder Bay planned to sign a similar type deal with True North Sports and Entertainment, owners of the Jets, Commisso said absolutely not.
“No,” was his one-word initial response.
Commisso went on to say Thunder Bay and the Jets are both doing their due diligence, that no deal has been signed and locally they plan to do things right.
That wasn’t the case in Abbotsford, he said.
“Abbotsford built their facility first with 7,000 seats and then needed to get a tenant, so they agreed to cover the Heat’s losses beyond a certain level. They were also only averaging about 2,500 fans, maybe less,” Commisso said.
“That won’t be the case in Thunder Bay and that is also why we are looking at 5,700 seats, maximum.”
It didn’t help that the Heat were the primary farm-team of the Calgary Flames, a hated rival of the nearby Vancouver Canucks.
Hobbs said there won’t be any sweetheart deals made with any potential tenants, be it True North Sports and Entertainment or another group.
He also pointed out neither side has made a firm commitment to the other.
The Jets have announced they will be pulling their farm team out of St. John’s, N.L., where they averaged more than 6,500 fans per night, citing travel distance as the main reason. They are a partner in Thunder Bay Live, Thunder Bay’s preferred partner for the yet-to-be-approved, $100-million event centre slated for the city’s downtown north core.
But there are no guarantees the AHL club will ever land in Thunder Bay.
“We haven’t signed any deals with the Jets or an AHL franchise. They’re not even committed to coming here yet. They’re doing their due diligence. They’re a part of the Thunder Bay Live group, but no contracts have been signed,” Hobbs said.
Would the city consider an incentive-laden deal to lure a team to Thunder Bay?
Like Commisso, Hobbs said not a chance.
“It’s going to have to be affordable and sustainable, that whole project, right from building the event centre to who our partners are going to be. We’re not signing any sweetheart deals just to attract someone here,” he said.
The city plans to apply for money to pay a portion of the event centre’s cost through the federal government’s $14-billion Building Canada fund. Thunder Bay has set aside about $22.5 million to cover some of its share of the cost through Renew Thunder Bay.