In the heart of Boston Bruins country, of all places, the Springfield (Mass.) Thunderbirds are eager to wrap their arms around the St. Louis Blues. Well, the Blues’ prospects.
The Blues announced a five-year agreement with the Thunderbirds during the first week of March, replacing the San Antonio Rampage as St. Louis’ American Hockey League affiliate.
Of course, we all know what happened the next week. Hockey, and pretty much the rest of the sports world, shut down March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re trying to get ready, but it’s been delayed,” Thunderbirds president Nathan Costa told the Post-Dispatch. “It’s been a challenge. We obviously would’ve been underway by now. But we haven’t been able to do much to be quite honest.”
At the moment, the AHL is shooting for a Feb. 5 start, or about a month after the NHL’s hoped-for return to play.
None of the projected players for the Thunderbirds’ roster have been able to get to Springfield yet because of the pandemic. Costa talks regularly with Kevin McDonald, the Blues’ executive and scout who also serves as Springfield’s general manager.
“Normally, we would really do a huge blowout and welcome the Blues’ organization in our market,” Costa said. “We would also do the same thing with our players around our opening and really try to educate our fans as to who’s coming into town, especially with a new franchise.”
Instead, the Thunderbirds have had to get by with virtual marketing. Over the past few weeks, they’ve held a series of “Town Halls” on Facebook in which fans and sponsors have gotten to meet and interact with McDonald, coach Drew Bannister, and forward Nolan Stevens.
Stevens, who played the past two seasons for San Antonio, is the son of a well-known name in Springfield hockey — John Stevens. Currently assistant coach of the Dallas Stars and a former NHL head coach, Stevens was captain of the Springfield Indians’ Calder Cup team in 1990.
The city of 155,000 (with a metro population of just under 700,000) has a long and storied history in minor league hockey, dating back to 1926 and the Canadian-American Hockey League.
It was a charter member of the AHL, has won seven Calder Cups as league champs, and has had an AHL franchise continuously since 1954, albeit with different ownership groups, NHL affiliates, and team nicknames. AHL headquarters are within walking distance of the MassMutual Center, which seats 6,793 for hockey.
Many times in the AHL, the franchise ownership group and the NHL affiliate are separate entities, with the ownership group running business operations while the NHL affiliate provides the players and coaches. Such is the case here. Throughout the league, it can be a roving carousel.
When the Rampage ownership group in San Antonio sold its franchise to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Knights moved the team to Henderson, Nevada, just outside Las Vegas — leaving the Blues without an AHL affiliation.
Filling the void was Springfield, which was just ending a four-year affiliation with the Florida Panthers and jumped on the chance to hook up with the Blues.
“We thought it was a prudent decision for us to partner with an organization that has the rich history that the Blues do, and obviously coming off a Cup win,” Costa said. “A lot of their guys have been developed in our league, and I think both of our mindsets really meshed well in terms of trying to develop players in a winning environment. And that’s what we’re about.”
Costa previously had worked for the Rampage, and reached out to contacts in San Antonio for a scouting report on the Blues.
“Touched base with them on what type of people and business the Blues had run, and they had nothing but great things to say,” Costa said. “We met with (the Blues) and things worked out really well.”
The Thunderbirds are entering their fifth season under their current ownership group, which has gradually built up the fan base in Springfield.
“We took over a franchise that was last in the league in attendance and have really grown quite a bit in the last four years,” Costa said. “We had nine sellouts last year, averaged over 5,000 in the building.
“Our fans were really enthusiastic about (the Blues’ affiliation) because I think they see the pedigree — the things that the Blues have done at their level. I think it’s an exciting thing to be a part of here.”
In terms of logistics and travel, it should be a much better arrangement for the Blues than San Antonio. Playing in the Central Division the past three seasons, the Rampage had only one destination they could reach via bus — the Texas Stars near Austin.
In Springfield, it’s the opposite. They have only one plane trip in the AHL’s Atlantic Division — Charlotte.
“The travel is gonna be a lot less on the players,” Costa said. “We’ve got Providence an hour away; we’ve got Bridgeport and hour and 15; we’ve got Hartford 30 minutes down the road. So the players can sleep in their own bed 90 percent of the time.”
In addition, there won’t be a grueling “rodeo trip” in February, when the Rampage were on the road for most of the month because of the annual San Antonio Stock and Rodeo Show at the AT&T Center. So there will be less wear and tear, more time for practice and training, and more days off. All of which should aid player development.
Once they get to the season, that is.
“I’m really looking forward to the relationship,” Costa said. “It’s just we’re not sure exactly when we’re going to be able to kick that relationship off.”