Firebirds beaming with confidence, dazzling on, off ice in first AHL season
With half of their inaugural AHL season put to bed, it would seem that the first-year Coachella Valley Firebirds are very much for real.
The expansion franchise, the top affiliate of the NHL’s Seattle Kraken, is not only a legitimate contender to capture a Calder Cup playoff berth, but perhaps even a division championship … or more.
Sound like something out of Cinderella fairy tale? It’s fact, not fiction.
The Firebirds, who were forced to play 22 consecutive games on the road before their home arena was completed, owned the 32-team league’s best winning percentage (.789) at the mid-season mark courtesy of a 28-6-3-1 record.
Coachella Valley pulled even with the Calgary Wranglers for the AHL’s Pacific Division lead the final weekend in December, then passed the Wranglers for sole possession of first place a week into the new year.
Coachella Valley doesn’t appear to be looking back either after riding a phenomenal 14-game point streak (13-0-0-1) into first place.
“We have a pretty confident group in what we do,” Firebirds forward Cameron Hughes told the Desert Sun newspaper. “I think if we just keep at it and sticking to what we know we can do, it’s going to pay off,”
The Firebirds have won while ahead and also coming from behind. Coachella Valley had its lengthy point streak challenged in a Jan. 22 home game against the San Diego Gulls, who held a 2-1 lead heading into the final period. The hosts roared back with three unanswered third-period goals to claim a 5-2 win to grab two more valuable points in the standings.
“I told the guys that it’s great winning, but it’s better winning when you have to dig down and have a challenge in front of you,” head coach Dan Bylsma told the Palm Springs-headquartered newspaper.
With 33 of their 72 regular season game remaining on the 2022-23 schedule, the Firebirds can now look forward to creating a magic number to formally clinch a playoff berth and perhaps even a division title in advance of the playoffs, which start in April.
Seven of the 10 teams in the division qualify for the playoffs. As of Jan. 29, Coachella Valley owned a whopping 21-point bulge on the eighth-place team in the division.
It’s been nothing short of a magical season for the Firebirds, who have already become accustomed to playing in front of large crowds in their first season on the ice.
The team attracted a full house of 10,087 fans for its inaugural game at Acrisure Arena on Dec. 18 – a 4-3 Firebirds win over the visiting Tucson Roadrunners.
The firsts have kept coming for the AHL’s newest team.
Coachella Valley held its inaugural Teddy Bear Toss on Dec. 23. The Firebirds collected 7,278 stuffed animals to be donated to local charities.
The Teddy Bear Toss has become a holiday staple at the minor professional, junior and collegiate levels since its introduction in 1993. Fans toss stuffed toys onto the ice after the first goal scored by the home team in the game. The toys are then gathered up, usually by players of both teams on the ice, and donated to local hospitals or charities. Players often donate the toys themselves during visits to children’s hospitals.
Coachella Valley fans had to wait a bit for the cue to toss the toys onto the ice, but it was worth it as Luke Henman‘s goal with 6:23 remaining in the third period stood up as the game-winner in a 1-0 victory against the Henderson Silver Knights in front of 8,631 fans inside Acrisure Arena.
There’s been plenty to engage fans with during the team’s inaugural season.
The Coachella Valley franchise held its inaugural Pride Weekend on Jan. 7-8 when players donned special rainbow-themed jerseys for both games. Proceeds from an online jersey auction benefited youth LGBTQ+ organizations in the region.
Upcoming promotions include Pink in the Rink on Feb. 4, Military Appreciation on March 11, Kraken Night on April 1 and Fan Appreciation on April 8.
Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky had the honor of participating in the ceremonial puck drop for the Jan. 22 home game against the Gulls. That’s recognition of the first order.
Moving on up
Besides growing a dedicated and diverse fan base, the Firebirds are also fulfilling another key component of being minor league affiliate by providing invaluable player development for the NHL parent club.
Veteran center John Hayden became Coachella Valley’s first call-up to the Kraken on Jan. 24 after collecting 13 goals and 25 points with the Firebirds in 34 games. He scored his first goal for Seattle on Jan. 27 in a 5-2 loss to the visiting Calgary Flames.
Team captain Max McCormick became the second Firebirds player to receive promotion after earning AHL Player of the Week honors for the period ending Jan. 22 with eight points (four goals, four assists) in three games.
Originally a sixth-round pick (171st overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft, McCormick has already set career season highs with 24 assists and 42 points in 38 games as the Firebirds’ leading scorer in 2022-23. He appeared in 10 games for the Kraken in their inaugural 2021-22 season.
Forward Jesper Froden was the first Firebird to earn AHL Player of the Month recognition when he recorded 11 points (five goals, six assists) in six games in October as the AHL team got off to a promising 4-2-0 start.
As for chasing a playoff berth, there’s still plenty of time to rise – and fall – in the division standings. In the meantime, these birds continue to soar.
Forward Andrew Poturalski and defenseman Ryker Evans will represent Coachella Valley in the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic Feb. 5-6 in Laval, Quebec. The event, which is being held for the first time since 2020, features the All-Star Skills Competition on Feb. 5 and the AHL All-Star Challenge on Feb. 6.
Photos/Eric J. Fowler
— Phillip Brents
(February 2, 2023)