Firebirds get off to successful AHL start with home opener approaching in Coachella Valley
How do you build a professional hockey franchise from the desert floor up?
The Vegas Golden Knights certainly accomplished that daunting feat in their inaugural season by posting the fifth-best record in the NHL during the regular season en route to winning a division title, Western Conference playoff championship and a runner-up finish in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
The Seattle Kraken, the NHL’s newest expansion franchise, is hoping to do the same with its fledgling American Hockey League club, the Coachella Valley Firebirds.
The Firebirds, the top developmental affiliate of the Kraken, is set to face off its inaugural AHL season in 2022-23 as a member of the 10-team Pacific Division. Coachella Valley is among a glut of five California-based franchises in the division, including the San Diego Gulls (Anaheim Ducks), Ontario Reign (L.A. Kings), Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton Oilers) and San Jose Barracuda (San Jose Sharks).
The Firebirds will also face off against the Henderson (Nev.) Silver Knights (Vegas Golden Knights), Tucson Roadrunners (Arizona Coyotes), Colorado Eagles (Colorado Avalanche), Abbotsford Canucks (Vancouver Canucks) and the new Calgary Wranglers (Calgary Flames) as divisional foes.
The Wranglers were relocated from Stockton during the offseason by the parent Calgary Flames. The debut of the Firebirds thus keeps the division at five California clubs despite the departure of the Heat, which won last year’s Pacific Division championship and advanced as far as the Western Conference Finals.
Interestingly, the division’s two newest teams – the Firebirds and Wranglers – were set to face off the season Oct. 16-17 in Canada.
It will be a while – 22 games, to be exact – before Coachella Valley fans can see their team locally while Acrisure Arena, the Firebirds’ state-of-the-art 10,000-seat home, is completed.
Coachella Valley is scheduled to host Tucson Dec. 18 in its first-ever home game.
In the meantime, the Firebirds will play nearly a third of their 72-game regular season schedule on the road.
Coachella Valley is scheduled to play four games in the Seattle area, officially designated as “home” games, with two contests against Abbotsford and a two-game rematch with the Wranglers
The Firebirds will play 16 more road games until Acrisure Arena opens in mid-December.
Coachella Valley’s two longest home stands take place Jan. 4-16 and March 8-19. Both home stands include six games against various teams.
The Firebirds will play 11 different opponents in their inaugural season – eight times each against Calgary, Tucson, San Diego, Henderson, San Jose, Bakersfield and Ontario and four teams each against Abbotsford, Colorado, Iowa and Texas. Of Coachella’s 72 games, 64 will be against Pacific Division opponents.
Laying the foundation
Seattle management selected former L.A. King and Anaheim Mighty Duck Dan Bylsma as the Firebirds first head coach back in June. The Michigan native appeared in 220 regular-season games with the Kings as a defensive forward from 1995-2000 and later in 209 games with the Mighty Ducks from 2000-04.
He also logged 72 games with the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the International Hockey League. All totaled, Blysma suited up for 429 NHL games with the Kings and Ducks with 19 goals, 62 points and 184 penalty minutes to his credit.
Kraken general manager Ron Francis had to like Bylsma’s coaching credentials that included 565 NHL games with a 320-190-55 record over eight seasons, seven playoff appearances and one Stanley Cup championship (2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins).
Blysma got his start as an assistant coach with Anaheim’s AHL affiliate, the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, in 2004-05. His first head coaching assignment was in 2008-09 with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, joining the NHL parent club a year later (and winning the Stanley Cup).
He coached in Pittsburgh for six seasons (2008-14), becoming the Penguins’ winningest coach during that span, then coached two seasons with the Buffalo Sabres (2015-17) before serving as an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings for three seasons (2018-21).
He earned the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s Coach of the Year in 2011 and coached the United States men’s Olympic team at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games,
Bylsma served as an assistant coach with the AHL Charlotte Checkers last season where the Kraken had placed its prospects while the Coachella Valley franchise was still being finalized.
“The head coach of our American Hockey League affiliate plays a critical role in developing future Kraken players,” Francis said. “Dan worked with our prospects this past season in Charlotte and brings a wealth of NHL and AHL experience to our new AHL club.”
Next on board was Jessica Campbell as the team’s first assistant coach and the first female assistant coach in league history. The Saskatchewan native represented her native Canada twice in two Under-18 World Junior Championships. She served as team captain at the 2010 event, scoring the gold medal-winning goal en route to earning tournament MVP honors.
Campbell’s playing resume also includes a Clarkson Cup championship in 2016 with the Calgary Inferno of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and four years at Cornell University, serving as a captain her senior season.
Regarded as a world-class skating coach, she served as an assistant coach for Germany at the 2022 IIHF Men’s World Championship, becoming the first woman to join the coaching staff of a national team participating in a world championship event.
“Jessica’s skill and talent for developing players who understand all aspects of the game and what it takes to be successful on and off the ice is her strength,” Bylsma said. “She has a passion for developing all aspects of the game and creating players with impact. We are focused on building a culture of impact, skill and tenacity for both the Coachella Valley Firebirds and the Seattle Kraken and know Jessica’s talent will help us establish that culture in our inaugural year.”
Despite being a start-up franchise, the Firebirds have been busy stocking up on playing talent, primarily through free agent signings as well as player assignments from the Kraken.
Coachella Valley announced its first player signings on July 11, tabbing Samuel Bucek as the club’s first signee and Ian McKinnon as its second. Bucek was the top scorer in Slovakia’s professional league while McKinnon comes to the Firebirds with prior experience with the AHL Providence Bruins and ECHL’s Maine Mariners and Jacksonville Icemen.
Coachella Valley signed the first Californian on its roster – defenseman Matt Tennyson – on Sept. 1. The now 32-year-old Bay Area product began his youth hockey career with the San Jose Jr. Sharks and later branched out to junior hockey in the NAHL and USHL before playing three seasons at Western Michigan University.
He has relatives in the Coachella Valley region, making his first season with the Firebirds a happy homecoming.
“It’s awesome to be back in the Coachella Valley,” said Tennyson, who played 173 NHL games with the San Jose Sharks, Carolina Hurricanes, Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils. “My grandparents lived in Palm Springs and my parents live in Rancho Mirage, so the opportunity to be closer to family made the decision to sign here extremely easy for me.
“I grew up playing hockey in California and the youth hockey scene here has come quite a long way since then. I am looking forward to being able to give back and play in front of this great fan base and community.”
Tennyson launched his pro career by spending five seasons in the Sharks organization (2011-16) that included 60 NHL games and an appearance with the AHL San Jose Barracuda during its inaugural season in 2015-16.
He spent last season in the Nashville Predators organization, logging 53 games with the AHL Milwaukee Admirals.
The Firebirds rounded out their coaching staff and hockey operations staff on Sept. 13 with the addition of former San Diego Gull Stu Bickel as an assistant coach. The additions had a distinct California flavor as Brian Garcia will serve as equipment manager and Brett Bernstein as head athletic trainer.
Garcia made his debut in 2001-02 with the West Coast Hockey League’s Long Beach Ice Dogs and has worked more than 1,000 professional hockey games since then. Bernstein previously held the same position with the Gulls.
So, just how good can fans expect the Firebirds to be in their inaugural season? Well, good enough to win their first two games in franchise history, in fact.
Coachella Valley branded the host Wranglers by a score of 6-5 to collect its first AHL win in franchise history in its Oct. 16 debut in front of 5,663 fans at the Scotiabank Saddledome, home of the NHL Flames.
Kole Lind scored the first goal in Firebirds history at 6:59 of the first period, assisted by Ryker Evans and Cameron Hughes. The goal was the lone tally of the first period, leaving the California visitors with a 1-0 lead.
Coachella Valley reeled off four of the next five goals to take a commanding four-goal lead that later proved critical in the game’s outcome.
Former San Diego Gull Andrew Poturalski, the AHL’s scoring leader in 2021-22 with 101 points in 71 games for the Chicago Wolves, made it 2-0 Firebirds with a power-play goal at the 4:47 mark of the second period.
After the hosts scored to halve the score, Coachella Valley ripped off the next three goals – one each by Michal Kempny, captain Max McCormick and Jesper Froden – to make it a 5-1 game.
Lind scored his second goal of the night to open scoring in the third period at 4:51 to open up the game once again for the Firebirds with a three-goal lead.
Coachella Valley goaltender Joey Daccord and the Firebirds defense rose to the occasion as the game veered toward a heart-pounding finish. Daccord attempted an empty net goalie goal but the ice-length puck drifted wide after Calgary had pulled its goaltender in favor of an extra attacker.
Daccord made 25 saves on 30 shots to pick up the first goaltender victory in franchise history while Lind finished as the game’s first star with two goals and two assists. Froden was the game’s third star with a goal and two assists.
Lind, a second-round draft pick (33rd overall) by the Vancouver Canucks in 2017, previously played in the AHL for the Utica Comets and Charlotte Checkers. He won a Western Hockey League championship with the Kelowna Rockets in 2015. In three full seasons with the Rockets, he tallied 224 points in 204 career games.
Coachella Valley’s starting line-up in its inaugural game featured former AHL Barracuda Alexander True at center, Lind at right wing, McCormick at left wing, former Gull Brogan Rafferty and Kempny on defense and Daccord between the pipes.
McCormick and Poturalski both finished the game with a goal and assist. Tennyson logged an assist and two-minute penalty in his debut with the Firebirds.
On Coachella Valley’s 27-man opening-night roster were nine players on AHL contracts and 18 players on assignment from the parent Kraken.
The Firebirds improved to 2-0 in as many games after dealing the Wranglers a 3-1 defeat on Oct. 17. Lind earned first star honors again with a goal and assist while Froden received the third star award for the second consecutive game after scoring the game’s jump goal.Ville Petman extended the Coachella Valley lead to 3-0 with the lone goal of the second period.
Rafferty, Austin Poganski, Gustav Olofsson and Lind all had assists in the game.
Daccord picked up his second win in as many games while Calgary starter and Northern California native Dustin Wolf (Gilroy) tasted defeat while making 27 saves on 30 shots.
Wolf was pulled from the net in Game 1 after allowing five goals in 30:31.
A total of 13 players put up points between the two games for the Firebirds. Lind finished the two-game set in Canada with six points on three goals and three assists. Froden collected four points on two goals and two assists.
Daccord posted a 3.00 goals-against average with a 0.891 save percentage in going 2-0-0.
The team’s inaugural season motto seems appropriate enough: One Valley, One Team, Rising Together.
It should be exciting to see what develops.
Photos/Oak View Group & Coachella Valley Firebirds
— Phillip Brents
(October 21, 2022)