365 Days: The Difference A Year Makes

Jun 15, 2017

Sold. Relocated. Gone.

It was not an exaggeration to say that Springfield hockey fans’ biggest nightmare had become their real-life emptiness in April of 2016 when the Falcons organization was sold to the Arizona Coyotes and, in turn, moved to Tucson.

An AHL charter city with history dating back to the 1930s suddenly seemed as if it would be gone, victims of circumstance and the always-changing landscape of the business of sports.

The void felt in the City of Homes was evident and palpable.

“I think on one level, some folks were in disbelief, almost in shock,” said Chris Thompson, the Thunderbirds’ Senior VP and a member of the Springfield AHL franchise’s front office for over a decade. “Over the years the media had talked about the instability of the franchise and the team potentially leaving, but this time, it was real.”

The biggest comeback by a Massachusetts team may not have surfaced until a Sunday night in February, but a summer earlier, the wheels were spinning on another bounce-back tale that was not seen as a sure thing.

Empirically speaking, the pessimism and uncertainty was not off-base. After all, the final season of Falcons hockey had brought the AHL’s lowest attendance in the stands and the AHL’s worst Eastern Conference record on the ice.

That did not deter more than two dozen Springfield area businessmen and women, however, who – rather than seeing a doomed enterprise – instead saw an opportunity to re-write the narrative on Springfield hockey and family fun. All along, Thompson, a native of the region, had full confidence.

“When I was approached by (owner Paul Picknelly) to join the management, I knew immediately this was going to work. (Thunderbirds Executive Vice President Nate Costa) and I had talked for nearly a decade on how we could build this into a franchise that the market would support, if we had the backing of a local investment group who had the same vision.”

Much of that vision came in the form of shifting the focus to the fans. Such a mindset was evident as they were polled to suggest a team name prior to the official birth of the team on June 15, 2016, a clear indicator that the people would be seen as much more than patrons, but moreover the lifeblood of the Springfield franchise. Later that summer, they would be entrusted again with naming the beloved “Boomer” mascot.

“I leaned on my experience working in the American Hockey League to bring the best of what I have seen in other successful AHL markets to Springfield,” said Thunderbirds Executive Vice President Nathan Costa, himself a Springfield native. “That included making a game-night a true event, incorporating live music, concession deals, in-game experiences and promotions that were going to draw in the non-hockey fan with the hope that once someone experiences AHL hockey in that atmosphere, they will be fans for life.”

In a noticeable way, the attitude around Springfield hockey was changing, and much of that groundwork was laid prior to the team’s announcement 365 days ago.

“We understood from the start that we had to become something more than just a hockey team,” Costa said. “We felt that in a city of Springfield’s size, it was important to become a part of the fabric of the community which included holding social events to attract families and young professionals alike, having signage and visibility at every turn, and having a presence at just about every community event in the area.”

Thunderbird Thursdays in conjunction with the Springfield Business Improvement District (BID) gave the town a coating of T-Bird colors that Costa envisioned. Through just one year of community activity, the Thunderbirds raised nearly $60,000 to area causes, while Boomer took flight to over 100 events spanning from Springfield and throughout the Pioneer Valley.

When the hockey finally arrived in October, the momentum put forth by the front office staff and embraced by fans and community partners alike had parlayed into an unforgettable Opening Night before the puck even hit the ice.

Much like how the Thunderbirds’ initial announcement was met with excitement and a hint of uncertainty, the on-ice debut was not without its hurdles, as the Thunderbirds twice found themselves behind by a pair of goals, including a 4-2 deficit in the final period.

However, on a night with the largest crowd for Springfield hockey in over a decade, the home team was not going to go quietly into the evening. Two goals in the game’s final 10 minutes deadlocked the tilt, and MacKenzie Weegar sent the crowd into a frenzy in overtime, scoring to hand the T-Birds a 5-4 win.

In many ways, Weegar’s goal was a lot more than a win for a hockey team. It was the realization of a dream for so many in Springfield.

“I’ll never forget (Weegar’s goal); it was the loudest I have heard this building in over a decade,” said Thompson.

Soon after the win, then-Springfield goaltender Mike McKenna, himself a veteran of over a decade of AHL service, called the home crowd a true sixth attacker.

Opening Night proved to be just the tip of an iceberg that reshaped the norm for hockey in the Pioneer Valley. Three sellouts and 38 energetic home games later, total season attendance increased by a 50% margin from 2015-16, fan morale was incalculably higher, and the work ethic displayed on- and off-ice mirrored that of the blue-collar community the Thunderbirds represented.

A year later, what was once seen as an impossibility has instead turned into a feeling of renaissance.

“It’s pretty incredible to look back and see what has been accomplished in a very short amount of time, and it was an experience that everyone in the front office will remember for the rest of their lives,” Costa says. “It’s not common to start up a professional franchise in just a few short months, but we were able to do it successfully, and that breeds a lot of confidence. We are so excited for year two and beyond, because I think the opportunities are limitless.” 

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