SPRINGFIELD, MA- Nearly one year is in the books of the affiliation agreement between the Florida Panthers and Springfield Thunderbirds. Panthers Assistant General Manager Eric Joyce is also the General Manager of the Thunderbirds.
When Paul Picknelly went to purchase the Portland Pirates at the end of the 2015-16 year, it kind of caught Joyce, as well as the Panthers off guard. The Panthers had just signed a four-year affiliation agreement with Portland, parting ways with San Antonio, which made much more geographical sense, allowing them to keep their AHL affiliate on the Eastern seaboard. It provided an opportunity for lighter travel, but also consistency between the two franchises.
When Portland decided to sell and Springfield became a landing spot for the Panthers, everyone within the organization was excited about the opportunity to come to and play in Springfield.
Joyce is a Dorchester, Massachusetts native and is very happy with how things have gone during the first year including that their AHL affiliate gets to play and practice in a beautiful arena like the MassMutual Center, to the Thunderbirds fans being phenominal in showing their passion for hockey in the City Of Springfield, to the ownership group bringing hockey back to the city after the building could have gone dark when the Falcons packed up and moved out of town.
One of the things that have improved since the Thunderbirds came to play here in Springfield is the attendance. When the Springfield Falcons were here, they ranked last in attendance in the AHL. The Thunderbirds ranked 20th in attendance with an average of 4,664 people per game this season, which is definitely a huge step in the right direction. The front office worked night and day to broaden the reach and public knowledge of the Thunderbirds. MGM Springfield Casino will open in the fall 2018 and will take over the management of the MassMutual Center on July 1st. MGM Springfield was part of the early discussions when the Panthers talked about affiliating with the Thunderbirds.
“They’re a world-class organization, obviously. You can see the results here in the building at the MassMutual Center, and that’s a direct takeaway of the way the state of Massachusetts has run this building, but at the end of the day it’s awesome to have a dedicated, long-term business interest that knows how to promote, sell, and reach out to the great fans of Springfield,” Joyce stated.
The American Hockey League has been known as a developmental league, and teams are normally a great mix of veteran and young players. The Thunderbirds have primarily been a young team all season. Joyce feels that these players have learned to be professionals on and off the ice. He also believes that his young team has learned what it takes to not only win in this league but also what it feels like to play hard for all 76 games. He knows they will all be better for it heading into the 2017-18 year.
“Our mandate to the coaches was to make sure those guys learned how to become professionals on and off the ice, and to play hard every game. We understood there was going to be some growth periods and some learning curves. There would be things we would have overcome and we did that, in large part to the great coaching staff of Geordie Kinnear, and his assistants Dougie Janik, Mikey Ryan, and Leo Luongo,” Joyce said.
In reality, when looking at where this team was at the beginning of the season, every player has made improvements, and they never stopped working or competing. In a season chock full of one-goal games, much can be said about the preparation provided by Kinnear and his staff to ensure that their team was ready to battle each and every night.
The NHL Trade Deadline resulted in the Panthers making a couple moves that had a positive impact on the Thunderbirds, despite having to part ways with familiar faces. For example, former Thunderbirds goaltender Mike McKenna was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Adam Wilcox,a player that had been on the Panthers’ radar since his days at the University of Minnesota.
“He’s (McKenna) a heck of a goaltender. He competes for every puck, doesn’t like to get scored on at all and has done a heck of a job since he’s been here. He was a great team leader for us. He is a great person, a great family man off the ice, and one of the guys we depended on. It was an opportunity for him to go to a team in Syracuse that is hopefully going to make a deep run in the playoffs and Mike can use that potentially to get a contract for next year. It was an opportunity for him as much as it was for us,” Joyce said.
Joyce feels when you’re in a situation like that, it just makes sense to try to do it. Joyce felt that McKenna was appreciative of his opportunity that the Panthers had given him and that he was equally appreciative that the Panthers organization provided him with an opportunity to succeed, even if it meant with another team.
The landscape of the AHL will be much different next season with three franchises relocating. The Albany Devils will relocate to Binghamton, the Binghamton Senators will relocate to Belleville, Ontario, and the St. John’s Ice Caps will relocate to Laval, Quebec. The Charlotte Checkers will also be moving into the Eastern Conference for the 2017-18 campaign.
The Panthers and Thunderbirds have a four-year affiliation agreement. Thunderbirds hockey will return to the MassMutual Center next fall for the 2017-18 year.