Ryan's Ramblings: 5 Dates I'm Circling in 2021-22Aug 22, 2021
Periodically throughout the Springfield Thunderbirds’ 5th Anniversary season, “Voice of the Thunderbirds” Ryan Smith will inject some of his personal insights, analysis, and other opined, miscellaneous nuggets into a project that we’ll coin as “5 Ramblings w/ Ryan Smith.”
I’m not sure how to properly build up what this October will mean to so many people in the Greater Springfield area. This community – and the entire world, for that matter – has had to endure so much adversity and loss for a year and a half. Many have lost somebody, some have had to endure a loss of a job or a sudden change in career, and just about all of us have been left pondering when “normal life” may return.
Suffice it to say the word “normal” is all relative, but there is reason for optimism. There is a 76-game AHL schedule in our hands, full capacity expectations, and perhaps best of all, there is a sense that our community will be brought back together inside the MassMutual Center. As a season ticket holder once told us, “Springfield isn’t Springfield without hockey.” I find myself remembering that quote daily as I am lucky enough to return to my desk and, eventually, my booth.
The St. Louis Blues will become the latest NHL franchise to feel the love that emanates from the fiercely loyal hockey fans of Western Massachusetts when they begin their affiliation with the Thunderbirds come October. The cheers, the chants – heck, even the “boos” – will be a welcome change from the artificial sound effects that had to be the way of the sports world in 2020.
It has been a long time coming, but Springfield Thunderbirds hockey is ready for its return to the ice, and it cannot arrive soon enough for a community that is nothing short of starving for its next trip to the rink. So, without further dwelling on a trying time in our lives, let’s instead turn the page and get ourselves geared up for a triumphant reunion at the Thunderdome.
Here are five dates I’ve got highlighted and underlined for the season to come:
1 - Saturday, October 16 vs. Hartford Wolf Pack, 7:05 p.m.
You didn’t think I’d start anywhere else, did you? When the puck drops for the T-Birds’ 5th Opening Night at the MassMutual Center, it will bring an end to a hockey drought the likes of which we have never seen. 587 days without a rocking Thunderdome. 587 days since getting our ears ringing by means of that goal horn. 587 days was 587 too many. Adding to the anticipation of it all is the debut of the Blues’ prospects in Springfield red, white, and blue.
The cherry on top? New Thunderbirds head coach Drew Bannister will be leading his squad of Blues’ prospects out on the ice against the team he helped lead to a Calder Cup championship as a player in 2000. This marks Bannister’s first game he will coach against his former team.
2 - Sunday, October 31 vs. Charlotte Checkers, 2:05 p.m.
While Sunday afternoons in the fall are generally reserved for football viewing, this T-Birds/Checkers matchup will be one heck of a Halloween matchup. With the Checkers now affiliated with the Florida Panthers, this will be a reunion game, to be sure. Springfield spent the last four seasons affiliated with the Panthers, so there are bound to be many former Thunderbirds playing their first game inside the MassMutual Center as an opponent. Checkers head coach Geordie Kinnear also makes his return to Springfield – he previously served as a Checkers assistant coach before holding the head coaching position from 2016-20 with the T-Birds. Charlotte will have no shortage of motivation that day. Regardless, it will be nice to see some old friends-turned-enemies.
3 - Saturday, December 11 vs. Providence Bruins, 7:05 p.m.
This game marks the intersection of a few of my favorite things every AHL season – rivalry matchups with the Providence Bruins plus the annual Teddy Bear Toss. Somehow, this is the first time the T-Birds will host the Bruins in the 2021-22 season. It’s also hard to imagine that facing Providence 12 times in 2021-22 will mark the fewest games between the two clubs since 2016-17.
Springfield vs. Providence has been a storybook rivalry in the American League dating back to the league’s formative days and the rivalry of Springfield’s Indians vs. Providence’s Reds. The disdain is still just as strong, and it always seems to bring about just a little more fuel in the crowd. Couple that with my personal favorite tradition in this league – thousands of donated teddy bears hitting the ice to celebrate a goal – and you have a recipe for a memorable December evening. Maybe this is the year I’ll actually get my teddy bear to reach the ice from my booth – time to warm up the pitching arm.
4 - Saturday, February 12 vs. Providence Bruins, 7:05 p.m.
It’s not cheating to have another Bruins game in here, right? Well, many of you already know where I’m going with this one. It’s the much-anticipated return of the Springfield Ice-O-Topes, and if it goes anything like the first one did (a 2-0 win in front of a sellout crowd and viral jerseys), it will be every bit as memorable.
I’d just like to shout out anyone who created a design for this year’s jersey, no matter the artistic skill level. Speaking as someone with exactly ZERO artistic or handy skillsets at my disposal, it astounds me how innovative you all are.
5 - Bringing it Home Down the Stretch
I know I said five “dates” on the schedule for this article, but I can’t choose just one here. Get used to that – I’ll probably go off-script more than once in these ramblings (hence the name!). The Thunderbirds’ schedule is bookended with lots of home ice action. Nowhere is that more prevalent than in mid-to-late April, as the T-Birds will finish their season with five of the final six contests taking place at the Thunderdome. Four of those five are against division rivals, including what could turn out to be a monstrous two-game set with Charlotte on April 15-16.
If this year’s iteration of the T-Birds defends home ice at a high level, the closing two weeks of the season could be loaded with playoff implications. Not that we want the season to go that quickly, but what a finish that would be!