‘Crushing’ end won’t overshadow Firebirds’ season

Photo: Tori Hartman

Patrick Williams, TheAHL.com Features Writer

Dan Bylsma sighed heavily before speaking, fighting to make it through his post-game press conference.

“It hurts a ton,” Bylsma said after Monday’s overtime loss to Hershey in Game 6 ended the Coachella Valley Firebirds’ season just short of a Calder Cup championship for the second year in a row. “But it hurts a ton because of the group we had, the work they put in, how they came together as a team, and the people they are. They’re outstanding, and that’s why it makes the outcome crushing.

“They’re an amazing group of guys.”

Said captain Max McCormick, “It’s been an incredible group. Just coming to the rink every day was a blast. I mean, we had tons of fun together, but at the same time everybody just worked so hard all year long in the gym, on the ice, constantly trying to compete against each other and push each other.”

Following last year’s devastating Game 7 overtime loss at home, the Firebirds had planned to author a different finish to the latest chapter in a wild, improbable cross-country rivalry between the AHL’s senior franchise and its newest one.

They went up 2-1 in the series, delivering the Bears a 6-2 loss in Game 3. They were 7-0 at home this postseason, and had two more games ahead of them at Acrisure Arena. It seemed quite possible to think that this could be the Firebirds’ year, perhaps even lifting the Calder Cup in front of their raucous fans to send Bylsma off to his new job as head coach of the Seattle Kraken as a champion.

Instead, a pair of one-goal losses followed, sending the series back to Hershey with the Bears holding the 3-2 lead. Then the Firebirds saw a pair of leads disappear in a see-saw Game 6 before Cale Fleury’s goal with 2:55 to go in regulation sent the game to overtime at 4-4.

And then it ended so suddenly.

A loose puck found Matt Strome in a patch of open ice, and he snapped a shot past Chris Driedger just a split-second before defenseman Connor Carrick could dive across the slot to possibly break up the chance.

It was over.

While the Bears and Giant Center erupted into celebration, the Firebirds were crushed. They shook hands and made their way back to their dressing room, the sound of 11,013 cheering fans – a Giant Center record – reaching through the walls.

But when the pain recedes, this group will have plenty to be proud of. It starts with bringing hockey to what was a patch of open desert off Interstate 10 in southern California. Acrisure Arena, which opened its doors just 18 months ago, is a thriving venue and one of the AHL’s most impressive facilities. The perception that the franchise would be supported only by the snowbirds who flock to the area each winter for its sunshine and warmth was quickly dispelled as the local residents – people who had never followed the sport before the team’s 2022 arrival – quickly became diehard fans. Hockey development programs for kids and adults are thriving in the Coachella Valley.

“It’s been an honor,” McCormick said.

A bounce here, a loose puck there, and either of the last two Calder Cup Finals could have had different outcomes. The Firebirds controlled play for large portions of both series, but Hershey was 7-1 in one-goal games, winning four times in overtime.

It just did not happen for Bylsma’s team. Hockey can be cruel that way.

“This is where I say I’m sorry because we didn’t get what we should have gotten,” he said. “I think what those guys did and what those players put out on the ice should have gotten a championship. There’s a lot of pride in the last two years. Not getting the end prize is going to leave a mark.”

And so Bylsma departs for Seattle. Several players have positioned themselves for roles on the Kraken roster. Others are due to become free agents. There will be 31 other NHL organizations hungry to sign competitors like the ones who wore a Firebirds jersey these past two seasons.

All of the practices, the games, the long bus rides, the breakfasts and dinners together, have come to an end for this group.

“The hardest part is just knowing that this group is never going to be the same,” McCormick said. “We’re never going to be together again. That’s the hardest pill to swallow. You just cherish the time and memories we made together, and it’s a group that we’ll never forget. We definitely created a brotherhood in the locker room.

“Just being with the guys, that’s really the best part.”

There is not much that a captain, a head coach, or anyone can say to soothe the pain that comes with missing out on the Calder Cup. But Bylsma tried anyway.

“It doesn’t need to end in a championship for them to know how good of a team they are, how good of individuals they are, how we came together as a team,” he explained. “You’d like it to end in a championship, but it didn’t. But that doesn’t take away from what that team has become and what those individual players are.

“You just appreciate each and every one of them.”

Toward the end of his post-game comments, Bylsma sighed, leaned back, sighed more, and tried to keep his composure.

“Somebody said it after the game: we found the joy of playing the game,” he said. “We found the love in the game with this group. I’m thankful for that, and I want to take that with me.”