For McCormick, Firebirds captaincy a ‘big honor’

Photo: Angela Burger

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Life for the Coachella Valley Firebirds feels quite familiar these days.

It’s the middle of May, and they’re still playing hockey in the southern California desert. They just survived a challenge from the stubborn Calgary Wranglers. Their faithful fans are packing Acrisure Arena. And captain Max McCormick is helping to lead the way.

Last year McCormick piled up 27 points, including 14 goals, in 26 postseason contests as the Firebirds went all the way to Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals before a heartbreaking overtime loss to Hershey. McCormick, a 10th-year pro, came back this season ready to make another run at a championship, scoring a career-best 32 goals and ranking second on the club with 60 points.

Coming off last year’s conference championship and after winning the Pacific Division title in 2023-24, postseason expectations were understandably high as the team prepared to face Calgary in the division semifinals.

But the Firebirds might not still be playing if not for McCormick. Down 1-0 in the series and trailing 3-2 late in Game 2, McCormick scored the tying goal with 5:27 left in regulation to force overtime, where Devin Shore’s winning goal gave Coachella Valley a much-needed win. The captain came through again in Game 3 with a pair of third-period goals in a 7-5 win, and the Firebirds went on to close out the series in four games.

Head coach Dan Bylsma has leaned heavily on McCormick for leadership through the franchise’s first two seasons, beginning when the team had to spend the first two months of its inaugural season on the road while Acrisure Arena completed construction.

But the relationship between the two formed even before the Firebirds ever took the ice. In 2021-22, the first season for the Seattle Kraken, the organization sent its AHL personnel to the Charlotte Checkers in a one-year arrangement with the Florida Panthers. Bylsma was hired to represent the Kraken in the set-up as an assistant coach in Charlotte, and McCormick, signed as a free agent by the Kraken on Sept. 30, 2021, was named an alternate captain for the Checkers.

Bylsma quickly came away a fan of McCormick’s game.

“He’s a true professional in how he works,” Bylsma said. “A true professional in his determination and his tenacity. He’s a leader for everybody.”

It’s easy to point at McCormick’s offensive output and conclude that puck skills define his game. But it’s the consistent doggedness that most stands out most for Bylsma. McCormick plays a hard, rugged game, and he does so consistently. He can play in all situations and is an easy plug-in wherever needed.

This season’s Firebirds club is structured somewhat differently from the one that took its fans on that wild ride through the Calder Cup Playoffs last year. Loaded with skill last season, these Firebirds are a bit grittier, a bit more down-and-dirty. Some of that is the personnel; some of that could be the lessons acquired through five rounds of Calder Cup Playoff hockey last year.

They can still score, so much so that they led the league with 3.50 goals per game in the regular season. But it’s a more physical group now.

“We’ve just found different ways to win all season long,” McCormick said.

McCormick is also proof that development is not merely limited to players in their first or second pro season. Drafted by Ottawa in 2011, he started his pro career in 2014-15 with the Binghamton Senators in a third- or fourth-line role, hitting double digits in goals and triple digits in penalty minutes in each of his first three seasons. He developed into a solid two-way player, adding power-play and penalty-killing responsibilities.

And regardless of his role, McCormick has always been a reliable recall option, playing 94 games in the National Hockey League with Ottawa, Carolina and Seattle.

It’s a resume that serves as an example for anyone on the Coachella Valley roster. There’s a reason that the club made McCormick its first captain last season.

Any AHL club, especially a dangerous Calder Cup contender like the Firebirds, needs leadership. McCormick provides it.

“Wearing the ‘C’ is a big honor,” McCormick said. “It’s a role that I don’t take lightly.”