‘Thunderdome’ ready to rock for Finals

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

📝 by Patrick Williams

The Springfield Thunderbirds know.

They know what the chance to play for the Calder Cup means to their home city, a mainstay on the American Hockey League map since 1936.

“The Thunderdome,” goaltender Charlie Lindgren said Wednesday night as the Thunderbirds celebrated their upcoming trip to the Calder Cup Finals against the Chicago Wolves.

“We’ve been loving it all year.”

Springfield last hosted a Finals game on May 24, 1991, when the hometown Indians defeated Rochester to win their second consecutive championship. So while these Thunderbirds grasp the Calder Cup’s importance to their Western Massachusetts home, whether most of these players can even remember anything about 1991 is a different question altogether.

Thirty-one years ago, Thunderbirds head coach Drew Bannister had just completed his rookie season in the Ontario Hockey League with Sault Ste. Marie. Among his assistant coaches, Daniel Tkaczuk was 10 years old and Stu Bickel was 4. The Thunderbirds’ eldest player, James Neal, was 3 years old. Captain Tommy Cross, from nearby Simsbury, Conn., was 1½. The rest of the team had not yet been born.

Eventually the Indians franchise relocated east to Worcester, Mass., in 1994, and the city replaced the departed club with the Springfield Falcons. That team spent 22 years in town but only went as deep in the Calder Cup Playoffs as the conference finals in 1997.

When the Falcons franchise was sold to the Arizona Coyotes in 2016 and relocated to Tucson, a group of local owners stepped in to keep AHL hockey in Springfield. And on Wednesday ― six years to the day after the name “Thunderbirds” was announced ― the team, now in its first season affiliated with the St. Louis Blues, celebrated winning the Richard F. Canning Trophy as Eastern Conference champions following a 4-0 masterpiece in Game 7 against Laval.

“We’ve got a really great fan base here,” said Lindgren, who had a 34-save shutout in Game 7. “I can’t say enough good things about our fans. I’ve truly loved playing here this year. I can say every single guy in that locker room has enjoyed this year playing in front of these fans, and they make it extra special.”

Opening the series at Allstate Arena against the regular-season champion Wolves is a considerable challenge. But as a Springfield team’s first-ever trip to Chicago unfolds, the Thunderbirds can look forward to being back in front of their fans at a packed 6,793-seat MassMutual Center for Games 3, 4 and (if necessary) 5 beginning next Wednesday.

“We play for them as much as [anyone],” said forward Matthew Peca, whose first-period power-play goal sent the Thunderbirds on their way to their Game 7 victory. “Everyone’s got different types of motivation. You play for the boys and ourselves and our own personal and team goals. But you’re playing for your fan base. It’s entertainment, and they’ve been on our side, by our side, all year. They’re in our head every single night. We love our fan base. We love how they’ve supported us, wins, losses. Even they seem calm and confident on game days.

“They’re always on our side. They’re always up to help.”