‘We may never play a game bigger than this one’

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 – COACHELLA VALLEY 5, Hershey 2
Game 7 – Tonight at Coachella Valley, 10:00 ET

PALM DESERT, Calif. … Only one team will lift the Calder Cup tonight.

But both the Coachella Valley Firebirds and Hershey Bears will take away memories and relationships made from an eight-month journey that will culminate with Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals.

Since October and the first day of training camp, the Bears have stressed a family-first mentality. That approach has helped to carry them through to tonight. Out amid the sunshine, palm trees and mountains of the Coachella Valley, that mentality now applies to extended family as well.

The Bears flew family members of their players, coaches and staff out to California before Game 6. They wanted the people closest to them alongside them to possibly share a moment that may only come once in a career.

Hershey dropped Game 6 on Monday. But why let one setback cast a cloud on the trip?

“It starts with me,” head coach Todd Nelson recounted following today’s morning skate. “I said I was really tense before Game 6. I wanted to solve that.”

Nelson’s wife, Josette, made the trip with him. One chat with her, and the ideas started to flow. The players’ significant others handled the logistics, acquired the burgers, and soon the Bears had themselves a barbecue on a classically beautiful California day.

“It was a good day,” Nelson continued. “I’ve realized my whole life how important family is, and just to get together with players’ moms and dads, their brothers and sisters, their kids, their wives, their girlfriends. It just made me realize once again this is the most important thing.

“It’s the last time this group’s going to be together, because it’ll never be replicated. So I told the guys, ‘We’re family here, and let’s put our best foot forward, and whatever happens, happens.’”

In the process, Nelson was able to reunite with former NHL defenseman Rich Pilon, the father of Bears forward Garrett Pilon. Nelson and Pilon were young blueliners together with the Western Hockey League’s Prince Albert Raiders back in the mid-1980’s. Some 35 years later, they spent the night chatting away and reminiscing.

Nelson always makes it a priority to treat his players as people, to learn about them, to help guide some of them through their early years of adulthood. Part of being a head coach in the AHL involves what happens on the ice. Perhaps the more critical part of the job is guiding 25 people who are all at different points in their respective careers, going through ups and downs, or dealing with perhaps a trade or being put on waivers, not to mention the challenges that anyone must face in day-to-day life.

Meeting his players’ families made that player-coach relationship just a bit stronger Tuesday.

“We have a really good group in our locker room,” Nelson said. “Solid, character people, and now I know why. I met their families, and they’re unbelievable people. You can see how they did a great job raising their children. Just to get to know them on a personal level.

“I never laughed so hard in my life. We had a great time, some good laughs, and I think that was the recipe needed for me.”

And then there are the Firebirds, and this wild journey that their first AHL season has been. There was the first two months on the road while they awaited the completion of Acrisure Arena. Living out of hotels. Having cars shipped south to the Coachella Valley. Finding places to live. Learning a brand-new area. Playing their first 22 games of the season somewhere other than this desert oasis.

Then finally, a true home game, Dec. 18 against Tucson. Cameron Hughes scores the first goal in arena history. Enthusiastic fans, many of them seeing live hockey for the first time and getting a crash course in the sport. A standout second half helping the Firebirds to finish second overall in the regular season.

And now the Calder Cup Playoffs. Five rounds. Five elimination games so far. A triple-overtime win against Calgary, the AHL’s regular-season champion, that eventually helped the Firebirds to take the long-awaited series showdown with the Wranglers. A hard, drawn-out grind with Milwaukee in the Western Conference Finals. The thrill of winning the first two games of the Finals on home ice. And staving off elimination again in Game 6 on Monday.

Finally, the Firebirds are here. Tonight will be their 48th and final date this season at Acrisure Arena.

No matter what happens, the Firebirds have built a bond with their fans. Many of the area’s snowbirds have since headed north. The fans that have sold out the building this postseason — these are the local fans, the year-round residents who have and will continue to become the backbone of this wildly successful franchise.

“The energy in this building is unbelievable,” Kole Lind said following Game 6. “It just keeps getting better, and it’s so exciting playing for these fans. Our group’s done it all season long. We play through adversity, and we know how to handle it.”

Lind played the first part of his career with Utica, home to one of the most energetic fan bases in the AHL. But this is different. The Coachella Valley is not a tried-and-true hockey market. Putting an expansion AHL team here required a leap of faith from everybody.

And it’s worked.

“I think just coming in, a new city, a new atmosphere,” Lind said of this season, “we really didn’t know what to expect. This building just seems to get your ears ringing. They’re cheering, and I think you can see it in our game. We definitely have an extra step out there.”

Joey Daccord had already built a bond with Firebirds fans before even playing one playoff game. Twenty-five starts in net later, and that connection grows stronger each night.

“I think from day one of the season, we’ve never had it easy,” Daccord said. “We’ve grinded through a lot of it. I think when you go through each step of the playoffs, and you keep climbing hurdles, and you keep achieving more together as a group, it really brings you closer together. And now we’re at the ultimate end of it all. There’s only one hockey game left in the entire season.”

Indeed there is. Tonight the Bears and Firebirds wrap up the North American pro calendar for this season. The teams will settle this once and for all, build more memories, and, as Nelson put it, “whatever happens, happens.”

“It’s going to be one of the biggest games of our lives,” Daccord said. “And for most of us, we may never play a game bigger than this one.

“There’s no other way we’d want to have it than Game 7 in our barn in front of our fans.”