Firebirds fans learning from Hall of Famer Fuhr

Photo: Mike Zitek

📝 by Patrick Williams

Game 1 – COACHELLA VALLEY 5, Hershey 0
Game 2 – COACHELLA VALLEY 4, Hershey 0
Game 3 – HERSHEY 5, Coachella Valley 4 (OT)
Game 4 – HERSHEY 3, Coachella Valley 2
Game 5 – HERSHEY 1, Coachella Valley 0 (OT)
Game 6 – Tonight at Coachella Valley, 10:00
*Game 7 – Wednesday at Coachella Valley, 10:00
*if necessary… All times Eastern

PALM DESERT, Calif.Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. George Burns and Gracie Allen. Dinah Shore and Marilyn Monroe.

The Coachella Valley has long been an escape for celebrities attracted to its natural beauty, warm-weather climate and year-round recreation.

Now the area’s first high-level professional sports team, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, has its own celebrity: Hockey Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr.

The 60-year-old Fuhr settled in the area 15 years ago with his wife, Lisa; when the Firebirds brought pro hockey to the California desert this season, Fuhr found a quick fit teaching the game to the region’s new hockey fans on television and radio broadcasts.

Fuhr will be back on the call once again tonight as the Firebirds fight to stay alive in Game 6 of the Calder Cup Finals (10 ET, NHL Network, AHLTV, NHL Network Radio). Coachella Valley trails the best-of-seven series three games to two.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Fuhr said. “I think any time you’re around good hockey, it’s enjoyable. There’s a little less stress involved when you’re sitting here doing this than when you’re on the ice.”

Fans in the Valley are getting an education from one of hockey’s all-time greats, a goaltender who won five Stanley Cups with the 1980’s-era Edmonton Oilers dynasty. Fuhr, who also had brief stints in the AHL with the Moncton Alpines, Cape Breton Oilers, Rochester Americans and Saint John Flames, was a shoo-in as a first-ballot selection to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.

A golf aficionado since his playing days, Fuhr said the area’s many courses are a natural appeal. But it wasn’t until this season that he could reconnect with hockey on a regular basis when the Firebirds came to the Coachella Valley, a multi-city region that grows to more than a half-million people each winter as snowbirds arrive from northern climes for its beautiful weather, scenery and recreation. The outgoing, affable Fuhr provides analysis on all Firebirds home broadcasts.

Ground broke on Acrisure Arena in June 2021 and the Firebirds made their home debut on Dec. 18, 2022. The arena project included a practice facility that also serves as a community rink, something that has allowed people in the area to try skating and playing hockey for the first time.

This wasn’t a Los Angeles team or a San Diego team. It was the Valley’s own home team. Before the Firebirds arrived, the area had not had an affiliated pro team since the California Angels’ Single-A baseball team departed Palm Springs in 1993. Moreover, the team is not relying exclusively on snowbirds to fill the building; most cold-weather visitors have left the area, so it is local residents backing this Calder Cup pursuit. At long last, they have a team to cheer for that represents their home.

“You see this building, and the hockey it’s brought,” Fuhr said, “and it’s something that I at one point was hoping [for], but I’m not sure it’s something that we ever really envisioned.

“The organization has done a really good job of selling it to locals. And they’ve done a great job of buying in and being committed to it. I think if you can get people in the building, it sells itself.”

Once those fans are lured in by the game’s speed, skill and physical play, they naturally want to dig more deeply into the sport’s details and strategy. And while fans learn hockey’s intricacies through Fuhr, he is getting familiar with the broadcast business.

“I’m learning,” Fuhr said with a smile. “I know the game and understand the game, and now it’s trying to spit out the right words to describe the game. I’ll talk to people when I’m running around. I’ll do the TV set, and then I run over to the radio set. If people have questions, I try to answer them and help them understand the game.

“They cheered everything [at first]. Good, bad, otherwise, they cheered for it. They’ve gotten more knowledgeable as the year’s gone along. They bring that raw enthusiasm, and I think that’s fun for the guys to play in front of.”

Fuhr also has advice for this Firebirds team as their season-long journey culminates this week. They can take it from someone who had five Stanley Cup rings by the time he was 27, and then had to spend the rest of his career pursuing another opportunity.

“I think you have to enjoy it,” Fuhr said. “I mean, a lot of times you get caught up in how intense it is, and you can’t enjoy it. You never know when you’re going to get back to the Finals again.”

Thanks to those Firebirds, it’s June 19, and Fuhr still has a hockey game to call tonight in Palm Desert.

“I’ve got the best of all worlds right now,” Fuhr said. “I’ve got hockey. I’ve got golf. I’ve got sunshine.”