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#AHLOTB: Thunderbirds cleared for takeoff

By Ryan Smith | AHL On The Beat

Geordie Kinnear only knew how to play the game of hockey one way: a way that demanded hard work, a team-first always attitude, all while maintaining an unwavering fire to compete and, moreover, win.

In many ways, the Springfield Thunderbirds head coach’s philosophy – one that has carried on from a decade-long playing career his into his first season at the helm of an AHL bench – perfectly personifies one of the league’s original charter cities.

Springfield is a proud community, a hockey-crazed band of blue-collar men and women who are unafraid to put on their proverbial hard hats to show their pride, even if it means jockeying with adversity. Much like their neighbors to the east along the Massachusetts Turnpike, winning is not a goal, but rather an expectation; respect is not guaranteed, but rather earned; and anything less than a complete desire to succeed is punishable by termination.

It is a city that, for a brief period in the late spring of this year, almost lost one of its nearest and dearest treasures. The departure of the Springfield Falcons to Tucson, Arizona, brought about an uneasy, unspeakable reality. Adversity presented a dreary forecast to a community where hockey was a mainstay on winter weekends for almost 80 years.

In desperate need of a pick-me-up, a city with a reluctance to quit got its biggest assist when a Springfield-centered team of investors purchased the Portland Pirates and reestablished hockey in Springfield, and the Thunderbirds were formally born in the morning hours of June 15, 2016.

A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Thunderbirds general manager Eric Joyce knew first-hand the impact his club would have on the league’s headquartering city.

“A lot of great things are happening to help the city of Springfield really come back to the prominence that it deserves,” said Joyce. “It’s known for its innovation and many inventions; our guys are excited to play there.”

Immediately, Joyce was tasked with finding a leader who would instill the Florida Panthers’ strong desire to be a driver of player development, while not losing sight of the importance of bringing a Calder Cup back to Springfield for the first time since 1991.

Enter Kinnear, a man whose AHL resume featured nine seasons of over 100 penalty minutes, many of which came under the umbrella of standing up for his fellow teammates. A meticulous teacher and student of the game, Kinnear honed his coaching craft from the likes of Stanley Cup champions Jacques Lemaire and Peter Laviolette, as well as Panthers general manager Tom Rowe, a former head coach himself. Kinnear paid close watch to Rowe’s motivational style as one of his biggest lessons.

“(Rowe) held people to high standards. It’s about raising expectations and meeting those standards,” said Kinnear.

Not surprisingly, the standards and expectations for Kinnear’s squad, much the same way the front office approached the franchise’s formative weeks, were sky-high.

“Competition is going to be the main ingredient,” said Kinnear. “You want people to be pushing for jobs (with Florida). We want that competitive organization where we’re all pushing each other to get better.”

Perhaps Kinnear’s biggest theme came in the form of one simplistic goal he set out prior to his first season as a head coach.

“I told everyone right from day one, the product on the ice would be something (for Springfield fans) to be proud of, and I’m going to continue to do that through the end of the season.”

T-Birds Take Flight in October

Many factors go into what makes fans proud of their hometown team. In the Thunderbirds’ case, a 5-2-0 record in a crammed 16-day October schedule certainly passed the win-loss litmus test.

Springfield reached that point despite scoring just 15 goals in seven October contests. Twice on home ice, the Thunderbirds trailed in the third period before erasing deficits to win in overtime. Twice on the road, Reto Berra has stolen victories from frustrated opponents in Wilkes-Barre and Bridgeport in shutout fashion.

In each of the overtime victories, the Thunderbirds were willed to victory by one of their secret weapons: the Springfield fan base, which came out in swarms on each Saturday, to the tune of over 6,000 fans on each occasion. Included in that total was an Opening Night sellout crowd of 6,793, the largest hockey crowd at the MassMutual Center in over a decade.

“(The fans’) support has been, I’d say, crucial to our two comeback wins,” said alternate captain and veteran forward Paul Thompson. “That might not happen without the support from the fans.”

Thompson was not the only one who felt the collective push, either.

“It gets you fired up to play when you’ve got a crowd like that behind you,” said forward Sena Acolatse, himself a six-year veteran. “We knew it was going to be a sellout, so it definitely helps you get up for a game like that.”

The Thunderbirds’ fast start might not have been possible (crowd support notwithstanding) if not for the play of veteran goaltenders Mike McKenna and Berra, who have allowed just 2.14 goals per game in October. The 33-year-old McKenna has had a front-row seat for each overtime thriller on home ice – the same place where he spent the 2013-14 season with the Falcons – and the charismatic righty saw something completely different from any home opener of his decade-long AHL career.

“That was the best crowd I’ve ever seen (at the MassMutual Center),” McKenna said of the sellout crowd on Oct. 22. “They were our seventh man on the ice, no question about it. It’s a credit to our front office and how great a job they have done in ramping up all the excitement for this season, and it sure helped us tonight.”

Not a bad start for a franchise that had exactly four months from inception to take the ice. Even better for a head coach who is already winning over the franchise that trusted his sparkling résumé. Never one for self-praise, though, Kinnear is not one to get ahead of himself or his team.

“I’m not someone that looks back a lot, I always look ahead,” said Kinnear. “One thing I’ve noticed is this city wants a team they can be proud of that goes out and competes every night. The guys have put the work in. We’re built on work ethic, and it’s important that we continue with that. We will be rewarded.”