The history of hockey in Springfield dates back to 1926 and the introduction of the Springfield Indians to the Canadian-American Hockey League. The Indians captured championships in each of their first two seasons in the CAHL.
In 1936, the American Hockey League welcomed the Indians to the league, and with the exception of a brief hiatus in the early 1950s, the city has had a presence in the AHL ever since. One of the early AHL pioneers for hockey in Springfield was Hockey Hall of Famer Eddie Shore. A four-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner with the Boston Bruins, Shore played parts of three seasons with the Indians before taking on roles as coach and owner in the years following his playing career.
When the Indians made their return to the AHL in 1954, championships were quick to follow. Playing out of the Eastern States Coliseum in West Springfield, the Indians captured three consecutive championships from 1959-1962, winning both the Teddy Oke Trophy (regular season champions) and the Calder Cup each season under the direction of head coach Pat Egan.
The 1960-61 edition of the Indians may have been the best ever AHL franchise, as the offense lit the lamp 344 times, almost 100 more times than the next closest team.
After undergoing a name change and becoming the Springfield Kings in 1967, the city found itself on top of the AHL world in 1970-71, winning the fourth Calder Cup in team history despite entering the playoffs with a record of just 29-35-8.
The franchise underwent another rebranding, this time returning to its Indians roots in 1975. That same year, they captured their fifth Calder Cup championship.
The 1980s did not go auspiciously for the Springfield franchise, as they slipped into a Calder Cup drought.
After more than a decade without a Calder Cup to their credit, the Indians ended a 15-year wait in 1989-90, capturing the franchise's sixth championship. Not to be outdone, the Indians repeated in 1990-91 for the seventh and final Calder Cup to come to Springfield.
The Indians' name was discontinued before the start of the 1994 season, as the team rebranded as the Falcons. The club achieved much regular season success, reaching the Calder Cup playoffs five straight times between 1996 and 2000, but failing to capture an elusive eighth Calder Cup championship.
Upon the Falcons' move to Tucson, Ariz. in 2016, and with the Portland Pirates closing their doors soon after their playoff exit, AHL hockey made its return to Springfield officially in June of 2016.
“The Springfield Thunderbirds’ name represents the strength and pride of western Massachusetts. It is a nod to our hockey past, a tribute to the men and woman of the Air Force who are so vital to this region, and a symbol of the new energy and spirit that is palpable in Springfield,” said Nathan Costa, the Thunderbirds Executive Vice-President.
In their inaugural season, the Thunderbirds brought a renaissance of hockey to the Pioneer Valley, seeing over 4,600 fans convene in the MassMutual Center on average. On the ice, the Thunderbirds fought valiantly in a tough Atlantic Division that saw five teams eclipse 92 points on the season.
The Thunderbirds opened the new era of hockey in Springfield with a thrilling, come-from-behind 5-4 overtime win on Oct. 22, 2016 over the St. John's IceCaps. Defenseman MacKenzie Weegar picked up the overtime winner for his first goal in a Thunderbirds jersey.
Just a few months later, Weegar made his own piece of Thunderbirds history as the first T-Bird to be selected to participate in the AHL All-Star Classic in Allentown, Pa.
While the Thunderbirds had some trying times in January, the team came roaring down the stretch, excelling on their home rink in the process.
In their final 14 games at the MassMutual Center in 2016-17, the Thunderbirds won 12 contests, including a franchise-record five-game home winning streak to end the season just one game under the .500 plateau. That feat was made all the more impressive considering the youthfulness of first year head coach Geordie Kinnear's roster.
Of the 45 players who dressed in Thunderbirds red and white, 35 of them began the year aged 25 or younger, including 11 AHL rookies.Their young defense finished the season in the top-ten among AHL teams in goals against per game.
Three times in 2016-17, the Thunderbirds sold out the MassMutual Center, and the team responded, winning all three games before the capacity crowd.