SPRINGFIELD – Five years ago, just when Springfield looked like it would go without a hockey team, the city’s long-standing passion for the sport led a group of local investors to create the Thunderbirds.
Just a few years later, that same hockey history encouraged a strong NHL partner to look to Western Mass.
After an initial four-year relationship with the Florida Panthers, the Thunderbirds signed an agreement with the St. Louis Blues in 2020, just days before the COVID-19 pandemic. That relationship has since led to increased optimism as the players have found success on both the NHL and AHL levels, and the Thunderbirds as a whole have progressed on the ice.
This week, the Thunderbirds will check a long-term goal off their list and participate in the AHL postseason for the first time, despite missing last season due to the pandemic.
For Thunderbirds managing partner Paul Picknelly, the Blues’ AHL strategy for development is a crucial part of this season’s success.
“The relationship we have with the St. Louis Blues is excellent, ”Picknelly said. “One of the reasons we’re in the playoffs is their commitment to developing professional hockey players into NHL stars. That commitment has certainly helped. ”
During its tenure with Florida, the Thunderbirds finished with a combined record of 128-126-0-26-9. While the team’s record was roughly .500, optimism still ran through the MassMutual Center as the team developed its relationship within the community and registered nine sellouts during their inaugural season.
“The Panthers were a great first partner of mine as team president,” Thunderbirds president Nate Costa said. “They helped us get off the ground as the Thunderbirds while also doing a lot in the community.
“We went to many events together since they were committed to this market.”
After the fourth and final year of its agreement, Florida and Springfield parted ways, as the Panthers eventually signed a multi-year contract with the Charlotte Checkers.
At the same time, the Blues were looking for their next top-level affiliate.
“We were looking for a new place because (former affiliate) San Antonio was in the process of being sold,” Thunderbirds general manager Kevin McDonald said. “Overall, though, the most important thing was a long-standing history of hockey the city holds. They also have a very rabid fanbase that loved having a team.
“To make things better, it was back to a more traditional way of hockey, which meant us traveling by bus instead of air.”
On March 6, 2020, the Thunderbirds and the 2019 Stanley Cup Champion Blues announced their affiliation – a deal that runs through the 2024-25 season and includes a mutual option for a fifth year.
“From our perspective,” Costa said, “we wanted to work with a partner that (believes) winning at this level also helps develop and provide an experience for their players to win and get to the next level.
“They wanted something long-term, so we agreed to a five-year deal. St. Louis consists of first-class and top-of-the-line people that made life easier. ”
The new agreement also led to a new home for Drew Bannister, former coach of San Antonio, who was also on the market upon learning the Vegas Golden Knights were purchasing the team after the 2019-20 season. Bannister, who has resided in the Blues’ organization through the past decade, was later announced as Springfield’s newest coach, replacing Geordie Kinnear.
For Springfield captain Tommy Cross, who has played for the Thunderbirds under both affiliations, the learning experience has been different and beneficial under both coaches.
Kinnear and Bannister “are two of the best coaches I’ve ever played for,” Cross said. “Playing for Geordie was an excellent experience as we were playing well before COVID-19 shut us down. But playing for Drew has been awesome because he’s a knowledgeable coach and putting us in good spots to succeed.
“He demands a lot from us, but I think a sign of a good coach is someone who pushes you to be your best.”
Through 76 games this season, Springfield has posted a franchise-leading 43 wins under Bannister, claiming the city’s first postseason berth since the Springfield Falcons in 2014. But what’s more impressive is the Thunderbirds’ ability to succeed with different faces on the ice throughout the season.
St. Louis has relied heavily on the Thunderbirds for support due to injuries. As a result, they’ve made nearly 50 different transactions between the teams, calling up players and returning them to Springfield. As a result, names like Alexei Toropchenko, Nathan Walker, Logan Brown, Dakota Joshua, Calle Rosen, and Scott Perunovich have maintained presences at both the NHL and AHL levels.
With their help, the Blues rank among the league’s best in the Western Conference, heading into the final week before this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“These are elite athletes in the top percentage,” McDonald said of his team’s roster moves. “Following opening night in Springfield last year, almost six guys are now at the NHL. And that attributes to players realizing if they’re playing well here, they’ll get a chance if there’s an opening in St. Louis. Louis. ”
Springfield’s lineup has often changed this season, however, that hasn’t stopped veterans Sam Anas, Matthew Peca, James Neal, and Cross from doing their job successfully. The Thunderbirds also share one of the league’s top-goaltending tandems in Charlie Lindgren (2.21 GAA) and Joel Hofer (2.96 GAA).
If the Thunderbirds hope to make a deep postseason run, they’ll need such members to dig deep and come together once again. For now, though, time is on Springfield’s side after earning the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic Division and a first-round bye, automatically punching its ticket into the best-of-five division semifinals.
No matter the case, just as Bannister has preached all season, the Thunderbirds are focusing on one day at a time.
Due to a new format, this year’s postseason is compromised of 23 teams competing for the Calder Cup. All but two teams in each of the AHL’s four divisions will qualify. This ultimately creates a playoff field of six or fewer teams in each of the four divisions.
Teams will also be ranked by their percentage points from the regular-season standings, and that statistic will determine who earns home-ice advantage through each of the five rounds.
“Every team has the same goal every season… you want to make playoffs and strive for home ice,” McDonald said. “The critical thing to remember, though, is the process of doing things the right way as much as we can within our group.
“I think we’re excited as anyone leading up to this weekend because we want to finish on the highest note to keep the building full and keep fans happy.”