During his introductory press conference just over two weeks ago, Ryan Walter said one of his chief goals as the new president and CEO of the Abbotsford Heat was to strengthen the hockey franchise’s connection to the community.
In the days since then, Walter has demonstrated he plans to lead by example in that respect.
Last Saturday, the former NHLer and his wife Jennifer became more familiar with the city during a bus tour hosted by the City of Abbotsford’s economic development department.
Then it was off to the Abbotsford International Airshow, the city’s signature summer event, where Walter signed autographs and handed out Heat ballcaps to as many people as possible.
“I’d look at a little guy and say, ‘We’re going to change your hat – are you okay with that?’” Walter recounted with a chuckle. “And I’d rip their hat off, and I’d put on a Heat hat. The kids loved it.”
Walter believes that interaction – putting Heat hats on Abbotsford heads, one at a time – is a great metaphor for what the American Hockey League franchise needs to do as it seeks to grow the business.
The 53-year-old New Westminster native, who played 15 NHL seasons with the Washington Capitals, Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks, is well aware of the challenges facing the Heat.
The franchise has been at the lower end of the AHL attendance rankings since moving to Abbotsford prior to the 2009/10 season, averaging 3,852 fans per home game over the past two years. That the Heat are affiliated with the Calgary Flames – division rivals of the Vancouver Canucks – hasn’t exactly greased the skids.
The Heat’s 10-year supply fee agreement to play out of the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, which guarantees the team a break-even budget of up to $5.7 million annually, brings extra scrutiny. The City of Abbotsford covered a shortfall of $450,637 in 2009/10, and it’s estimated the deficit for 2010/11 will be in the $1.2 million range.
But Walter believes there are reasons for optimism moving forward. The staff in the Heat’s business office, he says, have learned things over the first two seasons that will help to improve the enterprise.
Case in point is the scheduling process. In years past, the vast majority of the Heat’s home schedule consisted of back-to-back games against the same team.
That led to a certain amount of fan fatigue, according to Walter. The Heat’s 2011/12 schedule sees a significant reduction in consecutive home games.
“When you think about it, we’re like any young business,” Walter said. “We’re in year three, and this should be a better year. But nothing’s going to happen overnight. We’re not going to create miracles here. But we are in a growth curve, and we think we’ve got some good momentum.”
Ask Walter about his vision for the franchise, and the first thing out of his mouth is, “I want to win championships.”
“Put it on the table,” he says with a shrug. “It’s hard, but you don’t play to lose.”
To that end, Walter is pleased with the increased investment the NHL parent Flames have made in their AHL club this summer. After trotting out the AHL’s youngest roster last season, the Flames have brought in a series of veteran pros who could lead the way in Abbotsford, or fill in with the NHL club if the need arises.
Defencemen Clay Wilson, Derek Smith and Jordan Henry would add a great deal of poise and point production from the blue line, and former Canuck forward Guillaume Desbiens brings a great deal of toughness and a decent scoring touch.
Then there’s Ben Walter, Ryan’s son, a 27-year-old centre who finished ninth in AHL scoring last season with the Lake Erie Monsters. He signed a two-way contract with the Flames as a free agent back in July.
“As a dad, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I so much hope he’s in Calgary,’” the elder Walter said with a chuckle. “And as the president here, I’m going, ‘I so much hope he’s going to be here.’”
In the end, it all comes back to that community connection for the new Heat president.
“They need to see us as part of the fabric of Abbotsford,” he said. “If we had 3,500 people (from Abbotsford) who came consistently to every home game, from the other footprint area we could easily sell out every night.”
As he ponders building the Heat brand, Walter recalls one of his favourite quotes from motivational speaker Marcus Buckingham.
“He said, ‘Leadership is inspiring people to a better future,’ ” he said. “I love that thought.
“I would love our people and our larger community of Abbotsford to be thankful for the last two years. Were they hard years? Yup. And we’re so thankful for the city for underwriting those years.
“And then, just really be inspired that this is their team, and that the future is bright. That’s the key component that we need to keep moving towards.
“And it’s up to us to create that sort of local momentum that helps that happen.”