For some people, a summer bucket list contains travel plans, picking up a new hobby or exploring a new trail on a hike.
Abbotsford Canucks general manager Ryan Johnson’s summer to-do list included moving a professional hockey team from one side of the continent to another in the middle of a pandemic, launching a new team identity and brand, signing and evaluating players and offering his input on talent to his parent club.
In other words, slightly more onerous than figuring out the perfect angle for a selfie at the lake – but Johnson seems to think the views of his new team will be just as nice.
“It’s been a bit of a sprint, but we’re almost there,” he said, when asked about his busy offseason. “It’s been a lot in a short amount of time and we’ve been busy but it’s coming together and we’re getting closer now to actual puck drop, which is the most important thing.”
The team starts its journey as the Abbotsford Canucks on Saturday (Oct. 16) in California against the Bakersfield Condors, the first home game is coming up quickly on Oct. 22 and if everything feels like it’s happened fast that’s because it has.
The Vancouver Canucks made the relocation announcement on May 4, with the American Hockey League’s board of governors approving the move on May 6. After narrowing the team’s name down to 10 possibilities in June, the team name Abbotsford Canucks was chosen and revealed on July 14.
In between all of that, it was announced that Johnson, head coach Trent Cull and much of the staff from the former affiliate in Utica would be retained.
Johnson said he can feel the anticipation since he has arrived in Abbotsford.
“There’s an excitement not just in the city of Abbotsford but the Fraser Valley and the entire province is excited to have our affiliate there – the closeness of understanding and seeing the process of our young players and our development first-hand,” he said. “I’ve said all along, to be able to see somebody play in Abbotsford on a Friday night and then watch them play in Vancouver on a Saturday – that type of thing will engage our fans on a whole different level.”
He said there are a number of advantages to having the team in Abbotsford, including more flexibility to call players up or down.
“In a cap era to have the ability to move players in and out and to make adjustments to our roster in Vancouver to engage our fan base – that was a big motive to make the move happen,” he said. “I think it was important to our ownership on a lot of levels to have our organizational model right there in front of our entire province.”
Johnson said when the Abbotsford Centre hosted a Canucks preseason game in 2019 it proved to the entire organization this could be a good spot.
“It was something we’d talked about for awhile and it was just a matter of timing,” he said. “The pandemic played a part in it because we had an unusual situation in Utica with the challenges that travel created.”
He also had nothing but praise for the team’s new home inside the Abbotsford Centre. The building hosted the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat from 2009 to 2014 and remains a strong venue to watch sports.
“It’s a beautiful building, great city and a great place to watch a game,” he said. “The building almost looks brand new. Our business staff has done a phenomenal job getting everything up and going and we’re excited to make that building our home and get people in there very soon.”
Johnson said another advantage that being in Abbotsford brings is organizational support. Players now have the ability to work with staff at both buildings, and management can take in games, practices and meetings at both levels.
He said his relationship with Vancouver management will remain largely the same; he communicated frequently with Vancouver staff and now will have the ability to host them and meet them face-to-face on a more regular basis.
Two of those faces will be Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who were named as special advisors to Vancouver general manager Jim Benning back in June. Johnson played on the ice for two seasons with the Sedins and said he has already enjoyed working with them. He said they will be significantly involved in Abbotsford.
“They’ve been very involved,” he said. “I think they are really enjoying the process of understanding the operation of AHL and what that entails. I want them around as much as possible; they are a great resource. They’ve been around individually at different times with us but they will be a great support group for our staff and players. I couldn’t be more happy to have them here.”
Johnson will also be providing input and offering advice to moves made in Vancouver. He said the final decision is always Benning’s, but many moves are discussed as a group.
The impact of any move made by the NHL team on the AHL team is also considered. He said the recent Julovei trade to the Florida Panthers was an example of that.
“All these things we kind of discuss as a group,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s Jim’s call but we’re always looking at opportunities to improve our group. We felt this trade made our team better in Vancouver. For Olli (Juolevi) I think it’s a great opportunity and maybe a change of scenery and another look for him will be good. He’s a great player and a great person and maybe that’s going to be good for him.”
The News asked Johnson about the status of Travis Hamonic, who was supposed to report to Abbotsford this week, but he simply said, “That’s a Jim question.”
The defenceman was absent from the Vancouver Canucks training camp and was then waived by the team earlier this week. Hamonic cleared waivers and was expected to report to Abbotsford, but he has not yet appeared and was not on the team’s opening-day roster, which was posted on Oct. 14.
Johnson also said he’s also glad to have head coach Trent Cull back. He was the Comets’ head coach since 2017-18 and has posted a record of 122-93-0-26.
“He’s very organized and is very deliberate with his coaching,” he said. “Players enjoy playing for him because he’s got their back. Trent is a guy I want running that ship to give our players the best resources to get them an opportunity to play at the NHL.
“I’m excited for people to get to experience first-hand how good of a job he does in moving players along to the next level. Our job at the end of the day is to produce NHL players and give us a chance to build a Stanley Cup-winning team. He’s the guy that I want at the helm of the ship.”
Massive debut show set to drop Friday. We have @abbycanucks general manager and @Canucks senior director of player personnel Ryan Johnson and @TheAHL insider @pwilliamsAHL. Available tomorrow afternoon wherever you find podcasts #Canucks pic.twitter.com/B8yZKfZz0I
— Abbotsford Farm Podcast (@abbyfarmpod) October 14, 2021
1️⃣4️⃣ forwards, 8️⃣ defencemen & 3️⃣ goalies
— Abbotsford Canucks (@abbycanucks) October 14, 2021