The city of Springfield, Mass., has long been recognized as the City of Firsts.
It’s a city built on the foundations of innovation and resurgence, a place where countless ideas have been built, torn down and put back together in search for perfection. It’s where a gym teacher named James Naismith first introduced the world to a game he called “basket ball” and where Merriam Webster diligently penned the first American-English dictionary.
It is also within the fabric of this long, rich history that some of hockey’s earliest and strongest roots can be found. Long before they were the Thunderbirds, Springfield’s hockey team was known as the Indians, who first called Western Massachusetts home in 1926 when they were a part of the Canadian-American Hockey League.
“The hockey in this community is important for so many different reasons,” said Bruce Landon, who has worked with Springfield in nearly every facet, from player to co-owner, since 1977. “You can’t even imagine not having hockey in Springfield after having been here for so long… This team is going to be here for the long haul. We have smart hockey fans. They’ve been here a really long time and they understand the game.”
As Springfield’s latest American Hockey League franchise, and affiliate of the Florida Panthers, the Thunderbirds will look to build upon a storied history that includes seven Calder cup titles – from 1960-62, and again in 1971, 1975, 1990 and 1991.
“It’s what every body plays for,” said Landon, who won two championships as Springfield’s general manager in 1990 and 1991. “I don’t care what level you’re at; you compete to win; you compete to be the best. If we can ever bring another Calder Cup to this city and end this drought, it would be phenomenal, not just for our organization and the Panthers organization, but for the city as well.”
After the Falcons left Springfield for Tucson, Ariz., following the 2015-16 season, Landon and a broad-based group of local investors fought tooth and nail to keep the city’s hockey heritage alive. In the end, the group was granted AHL approval to purchase the Panthers’ former minor-league affiliate, the Portland Pirates, and relocate the team to Springfield, where they were rebranded as the Thunderbirds.
“This group of investors stepped up and purchased the team when it looked like there wasn’t going to be hockey here,” said Thunderbirds General Manager Eric Joyce, who also serves as Assistant General Manager for the Panthers. “Everyone here knows the game, loves the game, and a lot of kids play the game. The game has deep roots here and we are proud to represent that history and build upon it.”
The man chosen to lead the Thunderbirds from behind the bench in their inaugural season is longtime coach Geordie Kinnear, who spent the previous 10 seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes organization serving as assistant coach for the club’s AHL affiliates, the Charlotte Checkers (2010-16) and Albany River Rats (2007-10).
Kinnear, 43, began his coaching career with Albany in 2001-02 as an assistant coach in the New Jersey Devils organization (2001-06) following an eight-year professional playing career and also served as a special assignment scout for New Jersey during the 2004-05 season.
“I think his overall strategic vision was right in line with what the Panthers talk about,” Joyce said of Kinnear. “He relishes the opportunity. We have a young team this year with highly skilled, very good players. But they’re young guys, so he’s going to expect them to make some mistakes. He’s going to be happy about that, though, and work with those guys in order to make them better hockey players.”
With an exciting, new era of hockey set to begin in Springfield, the buzz surrounding the city’s latest team is already beginning to grow. The Thunderbirds will compete in the Atlantic Division of the AHL’s Eastern Conference and play their home games at the MassMutual Center, located in the heart of downtown Springfield.
And with some of the Panthers’ top young prospects, such as forwards Jayce Hawryluk and Dryden Hunt, eligible to make their professional debuts with the Thunderbirds in the upcoming season, Joyce is confident that the latest chapter in Springfield's lengthy hockey history will built upon a culture of winning.
“Our organization’s goal is to win at every level,” said Joyce, who has seen Florida’s AHL affiliate reach the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. “In the National Hockey League it’s literally 100 percent about winning. In the American Hockey League, however, you have to walk the fine line between the development of certain players and winning. But from our owners, Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu, all the way down to me, what we try and tell the players is that you can’t develop unless you’re winning.
“You can’t really understand what sacrifice is or learn to be accountable to your teammates unless you’re winning and you have the opportunity to win. It’s very important for us to instill that culture here.”
THUNDERBIRDS UNVEIL 2016-17 JERSEY DESIGNS
The Thunderbirds released their first-ever jersey designs yesterday at an event in Springfield, Mass. “Boomer,” the newly named team mascot was also unveiled as the winning choice from Springfield’s “Name the Mascot” digital contest. See more here.