Captain McCormick leading Firebirds to great heights

Photo: Daniel Stopani

📝 by Patrick Williams

Coachella Valley Firebirds captain Max McCormick had already had himself a career season coming into the Calder Cup Playoffs.

The ninth-year pro set personal bests with 28 goals, 39 assists and 67 points to lead the Firebirds in scoring.

But reputations are really built in the postseason, and McCormick has continued to shine. His 11 goals — including four through the first two games of the Western Conference Finals — lead the AHL, and his 19 points are tied for the league lead with linemate Kole Lind. His third-period hat trick in Game 1 against Milwaukee lifted Coachella Valley to a 6-4 win, and his empty-net goal in Game 2 sealed a 5-3 victory that put the Firebirds ahead two games to none in the best-of-seven series.

Now the teams head to Milwaukee for Game 3 tonight, which will be the first time that the De Pere, Wis., native will play in his home state as a professional.

McCormick has long been one of the AHL’s top hard-nosed, gritty forwards, someone who can play in all situations. An Ohio State product, he went in the sixth round of the 2011 NHL Draft to the Ottawa Senators and played parts of five AHL seasons in the Ottawa organization for Binghamton and Belleville before moving on to stints between the NHL and AHL for the Colorado and Carolina organizations. He signed with the Seattle Kraken on Sept. 30, 2021.

Coachella Valley head coach Dan Bylsma was an assistant coach last season with Charlotte, where he first got to know McCormick.

“This is my second year with coaching and watching Max be a leader,” Bylsma told earlier this season. “Last year he was coming off a pretty serious injury and surgery in the summertime and was still rehabbing. Max has an extremely high compete level and an extremely high bringing-everything-to-the-rink [level].”

McCormick has helped lead the Firebirds to three wins in series that all went the distance, eliminating Tucson, Colorado and regular-season champion Calgary to set up this match-up with Milwaukee.

“It was a grind all the way through,” McCormick said of reaching the Western Conference Finals.

Listed at 5-11, 188 pounds, McCormick is more than capable of handling bigger players. His tough, grinding style is something that is needed against a Milwaukee club that likes to push pucks in deep, get in on defensemen, and then win board battles.

Named the Firebirds’ first captain, McCormick has provided crucial leadership for a team that had to navigate more than two months on the road while awaiting the completion of Acrisure Arena. They also lost two-time AHL scoring champion Andrew Poturalski to injury for 44 games, and Jesper Froden and AHL rookie of the year Tye Kartye to extended NHL recalls.

“We have a super-competitive group,” McCormick said. “It doesn’t really matter what we’re doing… In practice playing small-area games, playing cards on the bus, it can literally be anything. It’s like every single guy on our team seems to be super-competitive and things always get chippy. They always get a little heated in a good way.”

That competitive group has an opportunity to finish off this series in Milwaukee and book a trip to the Calder Cup Finals. The Wisconsinite expects plenty of support at Panther Arena this week.

“It’ll be exciting to be back in Wisconsin playing some games,” McCormick said. “I’ll have a good amount of family and friends at each game, so it’ll be cool.”

This week in Milwaukee will be the latest test for Coachella Valley in a season full of them. The Firebirds are up 2-0 in the series, but they trailed in the third period of Game 1 before McCormick’s hat trick, and were clinging to a one-goal lead late in Game 2 before McCormick put in that empty-netter.

Said Bylsma of his captain, “That’s how he leads every day. To see it be transferred to our other players is a true testament to his leadership and what he’s brought.”