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Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Thunderbirds announced the return of Steve Forni as the team’s public-address (PA) announcer inside the MassMutual Center.

A native of Agawam, Forni began his pro-hockey announcing career with the Springfield Falcons in 2015 and held the position with the Thunderbirds from 2016 to 2020. During the 2021-22 season, he served as one of the PA voices of the NHL’s Boston Bruins at the TD Garden. He also currently serves as the PA voice of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun.

“My grandparents housed players during the season in the ’70s and ’80s, and my dad [Ken] was obviously heavily involved in the team. To put my generational stamp on Springfield hockey is an honor, and I hope to do it as long as I possibly can,” Forni said. “My wife, Caroline, has been so supportive of all the places my career has taken me and spends a lot of nights at home with two kids. She’s a real rock star.”

Forni will be back on the mic as the Thunderbirds begin their 2022-23 regular season on Saturday, Oct. 15 as they welcome the Bridgeport Islanders for a 7:05 p.m. puck drop. The day begins with a block party, presented by Community Bank N.A., from 4 to 6 p.m. at Court Square, featuring live music by Fever.

“Steve’s passion for his craft and for the Thunderbirds organization is palpable every time he takes the microphone, and we could not be more excited to welcome Steve and his family back this season,” Thunderbirds President Nathan Costa said.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — St. Louis Blues President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Doug Armstrong announced that the club hired Jordan Smith as an assistant coach for the Blues’ AHL affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds.

Smith spent the last five years in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) as an associate coach with the Sudbury Wolves (2017-18) and Soo Greyhounds (2018-22). He was on the same coaching staff as current Thunderbirds Goalie Coach Dan Stewart with the Greyhounds from 2018 to 2020. Smith reached the postseason with Soo in 2019 and 2022.

Smith is now the third member of the Thunderbirds’ coaching staff with ties to the Soo organization. Head coach Drew Bannister served in the same position for the Greyhounds from 2015 to 2018.

A native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Smith began his coaching career in 2012-13 with the Thunder Bay North Stars of the Superior International Junior Hockey League before serving four seasons as a head coach with the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League (2013-17), where he won four division titles and compiled a 176-29-10-3 record.

In his playing career, Smith was a second-round selection by the Anaheim Ducks in 2004 but was forced to retire from professional hockey due to injury after two AHL seasons with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks and Portland Pirates. He also skated for the Greyhounds from 2001 to 2005, putting up 68 points in 211 games in the OHL.

In addition, the Springfield Thunderbirds announced two staff promotions and two new hires ahead of the 2022-23 season.

Matthew McRobbie has been promoted to director of Business Development. An original member of the Thunderbirds’ front office, this is McRobbie’s third promotion within the organization. He served as a senior account executive from 2016 to 2021 before taking on the role of manager of Ticket Sales last season, where he oversaw the Thunderbirds’ team-record year in tickets sold and ticket revenue. In his new role, McRobbie, an alumnus of Springfield College, will be focused on working with local and national brands in the Thunderbirds’ Corporate Sales department.

“Matt has been a dedicated and reliable member of our team from our very first day,” Thunderbirds President Nathan Costa said. “He has repeatedly met and exceeded every goal thrown his way, and we could not be happier to see him continue to grow his career here in Springfield.”

Additionally, John Jones, Jr. has been promoted to senior account executive. An alumnus of Florida State University, Jones has been a member of the Thunderbirds’ Ticket Sales department since the 2018-19 season.

The Thunderbirds have also announced the hires of Nate Lynch and Alana Mather as account executives in ticket sales. Lynch joins the Thunderbirds full-time after serving as an intern in the team’s Ticket Sales department. He graduated from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2021. Mather joins the Thunderbirds after serving as an intern with the team for two seasons while a student at Western New England University.

Cover Story

High Flight

Nate Costa with the AHL’s Eastern Conference Championship trophy

Nate Costa with the AHL’s Eastern Conference Championship trophy and his AHL Finals jersey.

The Springfield Thunderbirds soared to new heights during the 2021-22 season, making the playoffs for the first time in their existence and taking Springfield to the championship round of the playoffs for the first time in three decades. As the franchise enters what will be an abbreviated offseason, it does so with momentum and a championship-caliber team to sell to a more engaged fan base, and management is laser-focused on taking full advantage of this opportunity.

Within the pantheon of ‘good problems to have,’ specifically in the world of professional sports, it doesn’t get much better than this. Although, yes, it does get a little better.

Indeed, after a lengthy playoff run that took the team to within a few wins of a Calder Cup, the Springfield Thunderbirds are looking at a short offseason — as in two full months shorter than the norm.

That’s a problem, said team President Nate Costa, because there’s a lot to do before the 2022-23 season starts, from season-ticket sales to scheduling promotions to lining up special guests and programs. But it’s a good problem, obviously, because of everything that happened during those aforementioned two months and what they mean to this franchise, and this brand, moving forward.

What happened, said Costa, is that the Thunderbirds, the franchise that brought pro hockey back to Springfield in 2016 after a brief time without a team, became “the talk of the town” during that playoff run. Elaborating, he told BusinessWest that the team took a huge leap forward in terms of visibility, prominence, and, yes, relevance. It always had a core of solid fans, but it hadn’t truly arrived. Until this spring.

“It all came to fruition when the playoff run happened,” he told BusinessWest. “All the stuff we thought could happen — that we would be the talk of the town, that we could be the focal point of downtown Springfield … it all came together. And now, it’s about trying to capture some of that momentum and keep things moving.”

The team took this huge step forward in large part because the team seized a huge opportunity during the playoffs to capitalize on the 11 extra games and the excitement generated with each passing round by promoting the brand in every way imaginable, from ceremonial posters and rally towels handed out at the home games to extensive social-media coverage of the team’s run to the Eastern Conference title and the brink of a Calder Cup.

The challenge — and huge opportunity — moving forward, as Costa said, is to build off this hard-earned momentum, and this is what management will be doing in this abbreviated offseason.

Thunderbirds

The extended playoff run gives the Thunderbirds a short offseason, but in the larger scheme of things, that’s a good problem to have.

“All the positives around the business now, and all the stuff that comes from having a nice run like this is … huge, and it’s something we’ve never had before — we’ve never even made the playoffs before in my time with the Thunderbirds,” he noted. “We’re in a good position to take advantage because we’ve laid a really solid foundation that we can build on.”

Looking back on a memorable season, one that earned the T-Birds Team of the Year honors (the President’s Award) from the AHL, Costa said it happened because many pieces fell in place and because all the various players — from the local ownership group that provided the needed resources to a parent team, the St. Louis Blues, that “understands the value of winning at this level,” as he put it, to the players and management — did their respective jobs.

Overall, he said the deep playoff run was and is validation of everything that management and ownership have done to not only bring hockey back to Springfield but to generate interest in hockey and build a successful brand.

“It all came to fruition when the playoff run happened. All the stuff we thought could happen — that we would be the talk of the town, that we could be the focal point of downtown Springfield … it all came together. And now, it’s about trying to capture some of that momentum and keep things moving.”

“It’s been a huge validation, not only for me personally, but for the owners, who stepped up for the city, made a big investment, and did it the right way,” he said. “To be able to get the Eastern Conference championship and do something that hadn’t been done in 30 years … that’s pretty special.

“Getting to the playoffs is really important to the development of these players; these guys are getting extra games, they’re getting extra high-pressure games … that all means a lot to development,” he added. “The really cool thing is that there is lot of continuity between last year’s team and this year’s team, which is a testament to the Blues — they’re bringing back a lot of guys.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Costa about the season — and postseason — that was, how the team made the most of that unique opportunity, and how it intends to build on all that was gained during the 2022-23 season and beyond.

 

Banner Year

One of the many items on the to-do list for Costa and his team this offseason is to order a ‘2022 Eastern Conference Champions’ banner to hang in the rafters at the soon-to-be-renamed MassMutual Center.

Costa said research revealed the name of a company in Waltham that makes such banners for a number of professional sports teams, and preliminary talks with that outfit will commence soon.

Thunderbirds fared well

While the playoffs are not a ticket to guaranteed financial success, the Thunderbirds fared well, selling out each of its three games in the Finals.

“We want to do it right — to go the company that does this for everyone,” he said. “I want to get their input — I want to get some direction on how to design this the right way, because it’s going to live in our rafters for a long time.”

Finding a company to make a banner for the rafters was about the last thing on anyone’s mind during a very challenging start to the 2021-22 season, said Costa, adding that this past year was a stern test on many different levels.

For starters, the team was starting up again after deciding not to play during the 2020-21 season, when COVID was at its height and the AHL was playing a shorter schedule with a host of restrictions and, for the most part, no fans. This meant assembling a team of employees (with many returnees from before COVID) and re-engaging with a fan base.

But mostly, it meant dealing with a pandemic that kept coming in waves and was still very much a disruptive force, especially for businesses dependent on bringing large numbers of people together in closed spaces.

“All the positives around the business now, and all the stuff that comes from having a nice run like this is … huge, and it’s something we’ve never had before — we’ve never even made the playoffs before in my time with the Thunderbirds.”

“It’s been a long year,” said Costa, putting heavy emphasis on that word ‘long.’ “We dealt with a lot of ups and downs; there were a lot of challenges. Groups were essentially non-existent because schools weren’t doing anything, and we were living in a real COVID world for half the year. January and February were some dark months where we still wearing masks and there were potential capacity limitations … we were dealing with that all year, and it was a really taxing and challenging environment to work through. It was exhausting.”

While dealing with these challenges, the Thunderbirds, thanks to a solid mix of established veterans and emerging prospects, established themselves as not only a playoff contender (23 of the league’s 31 teams would qualify for postseason play for the 2021-22 season following some changes to the format), but as a frontrunner. Indeed, the team forged its way near the top of the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference and stayed there for the bulk of the season.

By the spring, the team’s consistently solid play made a playoff birth likely, and then inevitable, giving Costa and his team a chance to start planning — as much as any organization can plan a playoff run, even with a bye in the first round, which the T-Birds earned by finishing second overall in the Atlantic Division.

Indeed, the playoffs are to be taken one series — and, in many respects, one game — at a time, he said, adding that, while a playoff run can benefit a team’s bottom line, there are many additional expenses, especially travel and logistics, and some challenges when it comes to ticket sales, including the loss of all-important group sales.

playoff experience different

Nate Costa says one of the team’s goals was to make the playoff experience different for the fans and the players, with rally towels and banners like this one.

“Every series is like a mini-season, the way we market it and the way you go through the process, because you don’t know what’s going to happen; it’s all dependent on your performance on the ice. At the beginning of the run, we wanted it to make it feel different and feel separate from the regular season, and so, from a marketing perspective, we put together an entire campaign around the playoffs,” Costa explained, including a hashtag slogan — Fly, Fight, Win! — that was a nod to the Air Force. “It was completely different from what our regular-season marketing campaign was.”

 

Winning Formula

Such marketing efforts included everything from lawn signs to new signage around the arena to stickers placed in the windows of downtown businesses, as well as that hashtag. They were a necessary expense, but ones with a very uncertain ROI.

“You can do all that planning and do all those things, and then get knocked out in the first round,” Costa explained. “We were really fortunate that we got to go all the way to the end, but every round you have to redo the schedule, get tickets up on sale, set the pricing on tickets, get the tickets sold, getting marketing in place and buying the advertising — and it all happens within a week.”

“The other blessing about going so late into the playoffs is that it’s only three months from the end of our year to the start of the new year. I think there’s still going to be a lot of pent-up excitement, especially with the number of guys we have coming back and the continuity with raising the banner and all that.”

And there are no guarantees that a playoff run will be a financial success, he said, noting that some teams in the playoffs — including the Chicago Wolves, who triumphed over the T-Birds in the Calder Cup Finals in five games — played before crowds that were far from sellouts, and one of the playoff teams from the Western Conference, Stockton, was averaging just over 1,000 per game.

“At this level, though tickets were in demand, you still have to grind, and you still have to have relationships with people in the region to try to move tickets,” Costa said. “And if you’re not prepared to do that at this level, you’re not going to succeed.

“The first two rounds are really challenging, and teams traditionally break even or lose,” he explained. “But you maximize those opportunities to build momentum for future rounds, if you can get there, and that’s what we did.”

Overall, the Thunderbirds did well with playoff ticket sales, he went on, noting that each of the three Finals games hosted in Springfield was a sellout (6,793 seats), and the earlier rounds averaged more than 5,000, with some games coming on weekdays and even Mondays.

Eastern Conference Champions’ hat.

There are many benefits to an extended playoff run, including merchandise, such as this ‘Eastern Conference Champions’ hat.

But beyond ticket sales, Costa said he saw the playoffs as an opportunity to build the Thunderbirds brand, and he invested heavily in many different initiatives.

For starters, he made sure all three of the team’s media members went to every playoff series to cover the Thunderbirds for social media.

“From the beginning, I wanted to feel like a pro hockey team, and that means getting photography, video, and social media on the road,” he said. “That’s what separates us from a lot of AHL teams; not many teams in this league are willing to invest in this stuff. But I think it’s important for perception of the brand.

“If you can do the little things like that, if you can let the players feel like real pros, then the fans, by extension, the people who are following your brand, can also feel that, and that gives you a lot to sell,” he went on. “The playoffs, to me, was all about maximizing the opportunity.”

 

Setting Sale

As he talked with BusinessWest, Costa was wearing a ‘Calder Cup Finals’ pullover. At one point in the proceedings, he paused to show off the AHL’s Eastern Conference Championship trophy, named for former AHL President Richard Canning.

These are just a few of the symbolic ways in which he and his team are still living in the moment, if you will.

But in most other ways, the team is putting its deep playoff run behind it and moving onto next season. Indeed, Costa made a point of referring to the 2021-22 campaign as ‘last season,’ and to 2022-23 as ‘this season.’

Which brought him back to the ‘good problem to have’ he mentioned at the top.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he said of the shortened offseason, noting that it’s too short for everyone involved — players, many of whom will be back with the team, as well as coaches and administrators.

But from a business perspective, and most all other perspectives, it certainly beats the alternative — another season with no playoffs.

“I’m going to take the playoff run and everything that came with it over a longer offseason,” he said, adding quickly that some, but not all, of the page-turning work that comes after a year’s final game is over had to wait until the playoff run ended.

The mission now is to make up for that lost time, and Costa and his team are now forging ahead with the plans for 2022-23. The schedule has been officially released, which means the team can now start slotting in everything from annual events to who will sing the national anthem at each game.

And, as he mentioned, there is momentum to build on, and it is already showing up in season-ticket sales; by mid-July, the team had more than 1,150 season tickets sold for the coming season, a jump of nearly 100 from last year, with more than 200 still to renew and a projected 80% of those coming back. That means the team is looking at perhaps a 30% increase in season-ticket volume.

And that should be just one area of growth, he said, adding that, overall, a short offseason isn’t beneficial only because of what it means about last season.

“The other blessing about going so late into the playoffs is that it’s only three months from the end of our year to the start of the new year,” Costa explained. “I think there’s still going to be a lot of pent-up excitement, especially with the number of guys we have coming back and the continuity with raising the banner and all that.

“Early on in the year is typically really hard for us,” he went on, adding that the team is competing with pro and college football and other sports as well. “But coming out of this, I think we’re going to have a lot of momentum. We don’t really hit our stride typically on the business side with big crowds until December, when people really start to turn the page and think hockey. This will help us early in the season; we’re going to come out of the gates strong.”

As the team continues its budgeting for the coming year, it will be aggressive as it sets goals for ticket sales and revenue because of last year’s success, Costa said, but it will also look for new areas in which to grow and improve, on both the revenue and expense sides.

“It’s just the maturation of the business,” he explained. “We’re in a healthy place now, and it’s all about how we take advantage of our momentum. When we took this over, it was obviously exciting, but there wasn’t a ton of value built up in the brand, and now we’ve gotten to the point where we have some value built into the brand, and we have to take advantage of that.

“Now, we have a winning team to talk about and a championship-caliber team,” he went on. “And that just adds to everything that we’re doing, and it makes our job easier.”

 

Soar Subject

Summing up the playoff run that was, from both a personal and professional perspective, Costa said it was, in a word, “special.”

“It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in my career,” he said, noting that the team won the Eastern Conference title exactly six years from the day the new franchise was announced. “I’ve been in pro sports for more than 15 years now and had never gotten to that point — it was fulfilling on many levels.

“And that’s one of the things I hammered home with our staff. I said, ‘I know it’s exhausting, and I know we’re working extra games, but this doesn’t happen every year,’” he went on, adding that, when it does happen, a team has to take full advantage of the moment — and the momentum created by that moment.

And he and his team are fully committed to doing just that.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — St. Louis Blues President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Doug Armstrong announced that the team has hired Kevin Maxwell as general manager of the club’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds, as well as a pro scout.

Maxwell joins the Blues organization following 14 seasons in the scouting department with the New York Rangers. Since 2011, Maxwell had served as the Rangers’ director of Professional Scouting. New York reached the Stanley Cup playoffs in 10 of Maxwell’s 14 seasons in the organization, including a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals last season.

Maxwell was a third-round selection by the Minnesota North Stars in the 1979 NHL draft following an All-American season at the University of North Dakota in 1978-79, when the center amassed 82 points in 42 games for the Fighting Sioux.

Maxwell turned pro in 1980 and skated in eight professional seasons, including 66 NHL games with the North Stars, Colorado Rockies, and New Jersey Devils. In his AHL playing career, Maxwell was a member of two Calder Cup winners with the Maine Mariners in 1984 and the Hershey Bears in his final season in 1988.

After retiring from his playing career in 1988, Maxwell immediately jumped into the scouting ranks, spending three seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers scouting department from 1988 to 1991. Following a brief stint as the head coach for the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings in 1991-92, Maxwell spent the last 30 years in NHL scouting roles with the Hartford Whalers (1992-96), New York Islanders (1996-2006), Dallas Stars (2006-08), and Rangers (2008-2022). He has served as the director of Professional Scouting for the Whalers, Islanders, and Rangers over his tenure as an executive.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The American Hockey League (AHL) announced the Springfield Thunderbirds as the winner of the President’s Award for the 2021-22 season during the Board of Governors’ annual meeting in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Bestowed upon the team that demonstrates overall excellence both on and off the ice, the Thunderbirds captured Team of the Year honors following a historic season that set team records across a wide range of business categories, including average attendance (5,375), season tickets sold, overall ticket revenue, and corporate sales revenue. The T-Birds achieved these milestones while winning the AHL’s Eastern Conference Championship. This marked the franchise’s first-ever playoff appearance and Springfield’s first trip to the Calder Cup Finals since 1991.

“On behalf of the entire Thunderbirds ownership group, we are honored to receive the AHL’s prestigious President’s Award for Team of the Year,” Thunderbirds Managing Partner Paul Picknelly said. “In a short six years, we went from the precipice of losing professional hockey in Springfield to Eastern Conference champions and three sellout crowds in the Calder Cup finals. None of this would have been possible without team President Nate Costa, the entire T-Birds staff, our partners at the St. Louis Blues, and, of course, the best fans in all of hockey. This award belongs to all of them.”

In addition to the President’s Award, the Thunderbirds were previously recognized at the AHL Team Business Awards for reaching 600 new full-season equivalents (FSEs) during the 2021-22 season. One FSE equates to one full season ticket sold. The club was also lauded for achieving a greater than 83% renewal rate in corporate sponsorships.

During their run to the Calder Cup Finals, the Thunderbirds’ MassMutual Center attendance numbers soared to new heights, with an average of 6,134 fans on hand for the team’s 11 home playoff games. Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, as well as all three of the club’s home games during the Calder Cup Finals, featured sellout crowds of 6,793. In the process, the Thunderbirds smashed their club record for single-game ticket revenue multiple times and created a high-energy, in-game presentation that turned the Thunderdome into one of the toughest buildings for opposing teams during the postseason.

“I could not be more proud of our amazing staff for their tireless efforts throughout this historic year,” Thunderbirds President Nathan Costa said. “From day one, we all believed this organization was capable of establishing itself as one of the model franchises in the American Hockey League, and this recognition serves as the ultimate validation.”

The Thunderbirds’ success could be seen in their digital footprint as well. Over a 365-day period, the T-Birds’ social-media platforms saw more than 5 million users reached, more than 4 million new page visits, and more than 20,000 new followers across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In the month of June alone, as the club marched into the Calder Cup Finals, the team saw more than 2 million visitors across its social outlets. Its #WeAre413 marketing campaign was also recognized as the Marketing Campaign of the Year last month by the AHL.

Despite a year that still featured some COVID-19 restrictions, the Thunderbirds’ community presence was felt throughout the region, with team mascot Boomer making more than 125 visits during the season to a wide variety of community and charitable events. Perhaps no one program was more prevalent than the team’s Stick to Reading initiative, which featured a franchise-record 24 participating schools.

The awards did not stop with the Team of the Year for the Thunderbirds, as General Manager Kevin McDonald was named the recipient of the Thomas Ebright Memorial Award for outstanding career contributions in the AHL over his three decades in professional hockey. McDonald joined the St. Louis Blues organization in 2001 and has overseen the Blues’ AHL affiliates for the last 17 seasons.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 121: July 18, 2022

George Interviews Nate Costa, president of the Springfield Thunderbirds

Nate Costa

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Nate Costa, president of the Springfield Thunderbirds. The two discuss the team’s strong finish last season (an Eastern Conference championship), it’s lengthy playoff run, and how the team intends to build on all the momentum built during its surge to the top of the standings. It’s all must listening, so join us for BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

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Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Thunderbirds, AHL affiliate of the St. Louis Blues, have carried on their mission of being pillars of the Springfield community, with continued support from People’s United Bank. Since the start of the 2021-22 regular season, the Thunderbirds have made more than 60 appearances in the community, in addition to charitable initiatives such as Hockey Fights Cancer, Toys for Tots toy drives, and Teddy Bear Toss donations. Many of these events have featured interaction in the community from the team mascot, Boomer.

“We at the Thunderbirds pride ourselves on being champions in the community,” team President Nathan Costa said. “As much as we love putting on a first-class operation at each of our games, we put equal importance on making a positive impact in our community, whether that is engaging with young people in schools, working in tandem with nonprofit charities, or performing random acts of kindness. We thank our longtime partners at People’s United Bank for their continued support and shared philanthropic values.”

Jaimye Kelley, senior vice president, Commercial Banking at People’s United Bank, added that “we’re proud to support and partner with the Thunderbirds in their many community initiatives and to have the opportunity to be a part of the life-changing impact their efforts are having on local families. Community giving and volunteerism is central to People’s United’s mission, and we look forward to continuing our support of the Thunderbirds in 2022 and bringing our shared philanthropic values to communities across Western Massachusetts.”

In the month of November, the Thunderbirds went lavender across their platforms to spotlight the NHL and AHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer initiative. Proceeds raised throughout the month went on to benefit a wide array of local cancer-based charities, including the Sister Caritas Cancer Center, CHD’s Cancer House of Hope, Baystate Children’s Hospital, and the Hockey Fights Cancer charity itself.

Highlighting a busy month of December, the Thunderbirds collected more than 5,000 stuffed animals in the club’s annual Teddy Bear Toss on Dec. 11. In a showing of holiday spirit, Thunderbirds staff and Boomer delivered donations of those bears to a wide range of area charities, including the Springfield Boys & Girls Club, Ronald McDonald House, YMCA of Greater Springfield, CHD, Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services, and the Boys & Girls Club Family Center.

Furthering the team’s heartfelt gestures, Thunderbirds captain Tommy Cross, together with teammates Michael Kim and Drew Callin, also provided a meaningful gesture at holiday time when the trio purchased a plethora of presents for three local families who were recently displaced from their homes. This marked the second time in his two Thunderbirds seasons that Cross has led such a mission.

Boomer and the team were active in numerous other charitable affairs throughout the fall and early winter. The T-Birds partnered with local elementary schools for yet another successful kickoff to the team’s Stick to Reading program, with support from MassMutual. The initiative promotes literacy among elementary-school students in the Western Mass. community. Schools participate in a six-week reading program during the Thunderbirds’ regular season, with a reward of tickets to a game for students who complete their reading goals.

For more information on the Springfield Thunderbirds and their charitable contributions, please visit www.springfieldthunderbirds.com. To donate to the T-Birds Foundation, click here.

Daily News

ST. LOUIS — Due to St. Louis Blues Assistant Coach Mike Van Ryn being in COVID-19 protocols and Assistant Coach Steve Ott dealing with a back issue, Springfield Thunderbirds Head Coach Drew Bannister will join the NHL team to assist the coaching staff for Wednesday’s game in Pittsburgh against the Penguins.

Bannister is in his fourth season as head coach with the Thunderbirds, the Blues’ AHL affiliate. Over his AHL head-coaching career, with the San Antonio Rampage and Thunderbirds, he has posted a record of 72-71-22. He has led the Thunderbirds to a 17-8-2-1 record thus far in 2021-22, and his team currently sits atop the AHL’s Atlantic Division standings with 37 points.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Thunderbirds have announced rescheduled game dates for three road games that were impacted by league postponements earlier this month.

The Thunderbirds at Hartford Wolf Pack game, originally slated for Dec. 1 at the XL Center in Hartford, has been rescheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. in Hartford.

The Thunderbirds at Rochester Americans game, originally slated for Dec. 3 at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, has been rescheduled for Tuesday, April 19 at 7:05 p.m. in Rochester.

The Thunderbirds at Toronto Marlies game, originally slated for Dec. 4 at Coca-Cola Coliseum in Toronto, has been rescheduled for Monday, Jan. 10 at 7 p.m. in Toronto.

For more information on the Springfield Thunderbirds and to order tickets, visit www.springfieldthunderbirds.com. To learn more about becoming a Thunderbirds ticket member, call (413) 739-4625 to speak to a Thunderbirds representative.

Cover Story

Setting Some New Goals

Team President Nate Costa (back row, fourth from right) with the front-office staff

Team President Nate Costa (back row, fourth from right) with the front-office staff

For team President Nate Costa and Springfield Thunderbirds ownership, it has been a frustrating year and a half — but not a quiet one, even with the cancellation of the 2020-21 season. Indeed, the organization has been busy staying connected to the community through a host of programs and providing value to its supporters, while preparing for a 2021-22 season of great promise — season-ticket sales remain high — but also great uncertainty. It’s a season, Costa said, that not only the team, but its city desperately needs.

 

For Nate Costa, launching a hockey season after skipping the previous one might feel like starting from square one, but it isn’t, really. Because he was at the real square one, tasked by the Springfield Thunderbirds’ ownership group with fielding a team just four months after luring it from Maine to Western Mass.

“This is a completely different challenge because at least then you didn’t have COVID surrounding you,” he said. “But the processes are very similar.”

To be sure, while no hockey was played in Springfield during the 2020-21 season, ‘skipping’ may not be the right word. Because keeping the franchise relevant and in the public eye was a daily challenge.

“Unfortunately, we had to make some really hard decisions last year in terms of staffing,” said Costa, the team’s president. “We did our best to get through the year, but we had limited staff on reduced hours, and a lot of our staff had opportunities to get jobs elsewhere.”

With eight newcomers on this year’s front-office staff of 17 — about half the crew — “it’s both challenging and exciting,” he went on. “But I tend to hire young because we like to bring people in and teach them how we do things. We find you don’t have a lot of bad habits that come with those individuals — a lot of them have really good energy, and that’s what’s happened. They’ve energized me and the entire staff.”

Nate Costa has high hopes for the season based on robust season-ticket sales and loyalty among corporate sponsors.

Nate Costa has high hopes for the season based on robust season-ticket sales and loyalty among corporate sponsors.

As he’s noted in the past, he can look to 2016, the year he and his ownership group brought the team to Springfield a month after the departure of the Falcons, for a blueprint of sorts. While the team has a new NHL affiliate in the St. Louis Blues, the core front-office group, including all of last year’s department heads, are back.

“That’s huge because you’re not really starting from scratch,” he said. “You’ve got institutional knowledge, people who know how to do this. So we’ve got a lot of confidence there.”

The team leadership has drawn on that confidence while facing a series of roadblocks and unknowns since shutting down the 2019-20 season early and making the decision to ride out the following season without any gameplay. Even now, the Delta surge that has brought back mask mandates is one more unexpected wrench in a long line of them.

“Our industry is obviously reliant on people coming together in large groups, and that’s the hardest thing.”

“It seems like we get hit with something different every day,” Costa told BusinessWest. “And you just have to be able to be nimble and pivot. It is what it is. Everyone’s dealing with it — not just us, not just our industry.

“But we’re kind of in the public eye,” he went on, “and our industry is obviously reliant on people coming together in large groups, and that’s the hardest thing. Even in the summer, [COVID] was moving in a different direction. So we’ve had to pivot and change things even since the summertime. But at the end of the day, we want to get back to doing what we do.”

One piece of good news is that public support hasn’t wavered. In March 2020, the team had 1,109 full season-ticket holders, the first Springfield hockey team to reach that milestone, he noted; the Falcons had been at 325 before they left town. Right now, the number is 989, and Costa expects that number to easily surpass 1,019 and set a new franchise high. He hopes to set a new attendance mark, too, after the AHL scheduled 29 of the team’s 38 home games on Friday and Saturday nights.

The 2021-22 promotional schedule is filled with favorites

The 2021-22 promotional schedule is filled with favorites like the Teddy Bear Toss, which collects stuffed animals for local charities.

“People are supporting us, and I think people are ready to come back out and do things and get back to some normalcy,” he said. “And hopefully, we won’t need to wear masks all season.”

Costa supports the city’s mask mandate and said the most visceral opposition to it on social media comes from people who don’t have tickets and aren’t likely to support the team anyway. Most people, he believes, understand what it will take to stage a season that won’t have to shut down.

“We are in an industry that relies on packing buildings, getting large gatherings together,” he said. “I think we have a responsibility to do the right thing. And we’ll work through it.”

“At the end of the day, we realize that the last thing we want to have happen is to not have a season again. And everybody recognizes that, and everybody understands that.”

In a wide-ranging interview conducted a few weeks before the season opener on Oct. 16, Costa told BusinessWest what the franchise has been up to over the past 18 months, what fans can expect this season — and why he feels a responsibility to stay connected to the community as more than just its local hockey team.

 

Safety First

But first, he talked about safety, and what it will take to achieve it as COVID continues to be a threat.

“It’s a lot of moving parts, but they’re necessary,” he said. “At the end of the day, we realize that the last thing we want to have happen is to not have a season again. And everybody recognizes that, and everybody understands that. So, internally, it hasn’t been that tough.”

To that end, the entire staff is required to be vaccinated, and everyone associated with the Blues is vaccinated as well. “The AHL has protocols that anybody that’s going to be within six to 12 feet of players is required to be vaccinated, and the St. Louis organization is having their players vaccinated.”

That’s critical, Costa added. “With the close quarters our guys are in, and being on buses together and all that, it’s imperative that we have the guys vaccinated.”

As noted earlier, he’s a believer in the city’s current mask mandate as well. “I’ve been keeping my thumb on the pulse of what’s going on for the last year and a half, and I feel like I’m a de facto COVID expert at this point,” he said, adding that requiring masks at the arena is simply a social responsibility to the city, mandate or not.

During the pandemic, the Thunderbirds partnered with local restaurants

During the pandemic, the Thunderbirds partnered with local restaurants, including Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill, to donate meals to frontline workers

“We want to sell the place out opening night, and we want to be socially responsible. We felt like it was probably coming at some point that we were going to have some kind of mandate, whether that was going to be mask or vaccination, and I think the mask mandate is perfectly acceptable, because then you don’t have to get into conversation of who’s vaccinated and who’s not. Everyone who comes to the rink will wear a mask, except to eat or drink.”

He admitted it’s an extra challenge to enforce that behavior among fans. “We don’t like wearing masks as much as the next guy. But it’s our livelihood. We’ve committed our resources so much to doing this the right way and bringing the sport back. Last year was really such a blow to me personally just because the last thing I wanted to do is not play. So we’ll do whatever we need to do to get back on the ice and get back to some normalcy.”

One change this year is an absence of high-profile promotions like previous years’ visits from the likes of David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez. Those are expensive investments, and with no guarantees all games will even be played, the Thunderbirds will focus on more locally based promotions — and there are a lot of them, including returning favorites like a throwback jersey night (the Falcons this time, instead of the Indians), the Teddy Bear Toss, a Military Appreciation Night, the Pucks ‘N’ Paws pet night, and Pink in the Rink, which supports the fight against breast cancer. Every Friday night brings a Deuces Wild concessions deal, with sodas, hot dogs, and cups of Coors Light selling for $2 each.

“Last year was really such a blow to me personally just because the last thing I wanted to do is not play. So we’ll do whatever we need to do to get back on the ice and get back to some normalcy.”

“While we’re not investing in huge promotions, there’s still a good foundation of promotions and themes,” Costa said. “We want to re-establish ourselves, get through this year, and hopefully have this in the rear-view mirror next year and really blow it out.

“We always want to provide value and not get complacent,” he added. “And I think we’re providing as much value as anyone in the American Hockey League. I’ll put our stuff up against anybody’s; I take a lot of pride in that. But it’s still a fraction of what we normally do. We have a long-term vision, and that means getting back on the ice first.”

Many of the promotions will support causes and groups of people, like Frontline Fridays, in which healthcare workers, first responders, and other frontline workers who serve the public will be honored.

“I wanted to make sure it was a season-long thing, not just one night,” Costa said. “A lot of people in our community stepped up and did the right thing, working through COVID, and we want to say ‘thank you,’ and it’s really on behalf of the season-ticket members.”

That’s because, with seven home dates left in the curtailed 2019-20 season, most season-ticket holders, instead of demanding refunds, donated the tickets back to the team, and that formed the foundation of the Thunderbirds giving those tickets away to the frontline honorees every Friday this year.

“I feel really good about what we’re doing — not only the fun stuff, but we have a community piece to it as well that will hopefully give a break to some people who have been working hard, give them a chance to come out.”

It wasn’t only season-ticket holders that stayed loyal, Costa said. All the corporate sponsors are back as well, and even though they lost those seven games of exposure, he was able to show them that the team overdelivered on attendance for the other 31 home dates. The team has also included sponsors in its social-media and community activities during the pandemic.

29 of 38 home games scheduled for Friday or Saturday night

With 29 of 38 home games scheduled for Friday or Saturday night, the team is hopeful for plenty of sellouts.

“We genuinely feel like people like us and want to support us,” he added, noting that the team ranks at the top of the league, among like-sized markets, in sponsorships and full season-ticket sales. “At the end of the day, that speaks volumes about who you are as an organization. So the biggest thing was doing right by the people who have done right by us for the first four years of our franchise.”

 

Silver Lining

Costa said the goal last year was to stay visible, even for just a few hours a week. That meant donating meals to frontline workers, trotting out mascot Boomer at community events, and teaming up with the Massachusetts Lottery to spotlight first responders.

“It was important to keep the community aspect front and center,” he noted, adding that the Springfield Business Improvement District stepped up with cash, allowing the team to activate more community promotions and just “keep our lights on and keep our people engaged and keep the business moving forward.”

His goal was simply to be sustainable during a difficult time with little revenue. “I didn’t want to go to ownership and ask for cash. Not that they wouldn’t support it, but I felt we had a duty to do our best, and I think we did better than we ever could have expected.”

The silver lining to all this has been growing demand for the activity for which the team exists — actually playing hockey.

“Obviously, we wanted to play last year. But what do they say — absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? I think that happened a little bit,” Costa told BusinessWest. “I think there’s a real pent-up demand for just having fun in an exciting environment, and just doing things again with our friends and family. We’re hearing from people who can’t wait to get out and cheer on the team and hopefully see us have some success on the ice.”

Still, the past 18 months have reiterated Costa’s view that the Thunderbirds are more than a hockey team, and more than a business.

“I invest my heart and soul into this thing. Sometimes people say, ‘it’s just an AHL hockey team.’ For me, it’s much more than that. I feel like we’re the lifeblood of the community. We’re at the centerpoint. Our whole marketing campaign is going to be around ‘we are 413.’ And we feel that. We want to be that type of organization.

“We genuinely feel like people like us and want to support us. At the end of the day, that speaks volumes about who you are as an organization. So the biggest thing was doing right by the people who have done right by us for the first four years of our franchise.”

“The last year and a half, it’s been, ‘how to we get through this and get back to what we do really, really well?’ There’s no playbook to get you through this stuff. You’re doing things on the fly and trying to make the right decisions, but you don’t know the outcome of certain things.”

He called decisions on what staff to keep, furlough, or cut back hours two springs ago were “gutwrenching,” especially because they came so quickly and unexpectedly.

“The Saturday before shutdown, we had our ninth sellout — tied for most ever, and we had three Saturdays left,” Costa said. “The next week, I had to furlough half the staff. And none of it was their fault. I mean, the week before that, we were on cloud nine. None of us thought this would happen. It completely changed our organization. And you just have to work through it.”

That said, “our goal is to get back to normalcy as quickly as possible, but also do it responsibly and do it the right way,” he noted — even if that means wearing masks a little (well, hopefully just a little) longer. “It’s going to take some time, but we’re really well-positioned as an organization to come out of this strong.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Thunderbirds and the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority announced a new lease agreement between the parties that will keep the MassMutual Center as home base for the Thunderbirds over the next four years, with the opportunity for a one-year extension.

“We are proud and excited to keep the MassMutual Center, a/k/a ‘the Thunderdome,’ as our home for the foreseeable future,” Thunderbirds Managing Partner Paul Picknelly said. “The past four seasons have seen the building host some of the greatest nights in Springfield hockey history, and we could not be more excited to create even more memories for our community in the years to come.”

The Thunderbirds, who will be entering their first season of a new long-term NHL affiliation agreement with the St. Louis Blues, will make their return to the ice for the 2021-22 season at the MassMutual Center on Saturday, Oct. 16 against the Hartford Wolf Pack. The opening-night festivities will begin with a pregame block party on Court Square from 4 to 6 p.m. featuring a live music performance from Trailer Trash. The Thunderbirds’ fifth-anniversary season then gets underway inside the MassMutual Center at 7:05 p.m., and all fans in attendance will receive a commemorative rally towel and be treated to a special pregame, full-team introduction. Tickets are available online and at the box office.

“We are proud and excited to continue our partnership with the Springfield Thunderbirds in the years ahead,” said David Gibbons, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. “For decades, the MassMutual Center has been hockey’s home in Springfield, and our partnership with the Thunderbirds continues a tradition of winning on the ice and in the community.”

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Downtown Springfield will be the site for Rally in the Alley, a month-long outdoor ping-pong points league held on Market Street in collaboration with the Springfield Thunderbirds, NOSH Café, and Sweet Ideas Café. The first event of its kind hosted in the heart of the city, it will take place every Thursday from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.

The event is free to participate in, and open to all ages. The matches will be round-robin style, one-on-one. Prizes will be given out each week, including Springfield Thunderbirds game tickets, downtown restaurant gift cards, Springfield merch, and much more.

“Our opening night on Oct. 16 is approaching quickly, and we couldn’t think of a better way to start activating our brand downtown than by partnering with the Business Improvement District on this unique weekly event,” said Springfield Thunderbirds President Nathan Costa. “The BID has been great supporters of ours from the start, including stepping up to support us during this past year when we did not have a season, which we appreciate immensely. Their team has worked diligently on creating a festive atmosphere downtown, and we have no doubt that these events will continue that, along with all of the other great programs planned for the fall, including our block party in Court Square featuring Trailer Trash from 4 to 6 p.m. before our opening night.”

NOSH and Sweet Ideas Café will be open, serving dinner and drinks. Participants can sign up beforehand by visiting springfielddowntown.com or at the event. The Springfield Thunderbirds are the presenting sponsor, and Blue Haus Group is co-hosting the event.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Thunderbirds, in conjunction with the American Hockey League, announced they will host the Hartford Wolf Pack in the club’s home opener on Saturday, Oct. 16 at 7:05 p.m. at the MassMutual Center.

It is the first of 38 regular-season home games for the Thunderbirds in 2021-22 after shutting down play for the 2020-21 season.

The first matchup with the Wolf Pack also marks the second straight season that the Thunderbirds will open their season on home ice. Click here for the full, printable 2021-22 Thunderbirds schedule.

Single-game tickets will go on sale at a later date. For more information or to become a Springfield Thunderbirds ticket member, call (413) 739-4625 or visit www.springfieldthunderbirds.com.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Thunderbirds, in partnership with the Massachusetts State Lottery, teamed up to recognize individuals in the local community. Through the Hometown Heroes initiative, individuals were nominated for making a significant impact in their community. From the beginning of May through the end of June, the Thunderbirds selected nine deserving individuals over seven weeks to be recognized on Thunderbirds social media for their selfless contribution to others.

“The Thunderbirds have consistently demonstrated a strong commitment to the Greater Springfield community, and we are proud to have joined them in recognizing those who played a crucial role in serving others during the pandemic over the last year,” said Michael Sweeney, executive director of the Massachusetts State Lottery.

The Thunderbirds teamed up with the Lottery on multiple community programs, including the recognition of a local educator as part of the Teacher Appreciation initiative, and Feeding the Frontline, where lunch was delivered to various organizations who were instrumental in their community during the pandemic.

“I want to thank the Massachusetts State Lottery for the emphasis that they place on the local community,” Thunderbirds President Nathan Costa said. “We try to align our organization with others that share our vision for community outreach, and we appreciate that the Lottery understands how each individual within the local community can make such an impact on others.”

The deserving individuals awarded as a Hometown Hero include:

• Dan Shaw is currently a sergeant with the Massachusetts National Guard. He enlisted in September 1999, deployed to Iraq in September 2006, and has been a full-time technician for the Massachusetts National Guard for more than seven years in the Westfield Field Maintenance Shop.

• Stuart Strohman joined the U.S. Army in 1989 serving with the 344th Military Police Company, which was deployed to Iraq in support of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He served his entire time with the 344th MP Company before leaving the Army in 1995, and in that same year graduated from Westfield State University with a degree in criminal justice. He began his police career in 1997 and has spent his entire career with the East Longmeadow Police Department, from which he will retire this October.

• Mike Borecki has worked diligently for the last 25 years to raise countless amounts of money for the Jimmy Fund and support those who are currently battling cancer along with those we have lost along the way. His nonprofit, Our Sisters, was started to celebrate the life of his late sister, Marcella Brown. Through the years, Borecki has taken part in numerous walks, participating annually with his daughter, Darcy, who is by his side every step of the way to support the cause.

• Dr. Laki Rousou is a thoracic surgeon, specializing in the diagnosis and surgical oncologic treatment of lung cancer. Through his work, he has been pivotal in establishing a lung-cancer screening program in an attempt to decrease mortality rate of lung cancer by discovering it in its early stages. He is a strong patient-care advocate, ensuring he is able to provide the latest in care, technology, and techniques locally.

• Amy McKay, who has been a traveling emergency-room nurse for the last 12 years, currently works at Baystate Health in Springfield. She has been working countless hours throughout the entire pandemic and has displayed great dedication to the local community through her work, treating each patient with the highest level of compassion and care.

• Springfield Police Officers Luis Delgado, Francisco Luna, and Josue Cruz were called last month to a home where a baby had stopped breathing. They quickly sprang into action, providing CPR to the young child, calmly caring for the 3-month-old for five minutes until the baby started to cry, which was a welcome sound to everyone. “These officers did an amazing job,” Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood said. “Officers are trained in so many different areas, and life-saving techniques are one of them. When a baby is in distress, that can be one of the most difficult calls officers ever respond to, but to know that the baby is on the road to recovery and these officers helped prevent a tragedy, I am just so proud of them.”

• Kim Gorczyca has been a dedicated nurse for more than 20 years, with more than 18 of those working nights at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in pediatric oncology. In recent years, she has worked in Springfield at Shriners Hospitals for Children while still maintaining shifts at Connecticut Children’s.

In addition, Julie Penna, a fourth-grade teacher at Mittineague Elementary School, was selected as this year’s Massachusetts State Lottery Outstanding Educator. When students first went remote, she did everything possible to ensure that they stayed engaged in their work, including producing step-by-step video instruction for parents and students to understand each lesson and did weekly check-ins with students. When school started again in the fall, she even spent time reaching out to her former students to ensure they were progressing through the pandemic. And then she picked up right where she left off, making sure her current students were transitioning well, while remaining in contact with parents and students so everyone was well-informed at all times. And once classes returned to full in person learning, Penna worked tirelessly to get the students who may be having some challenges back up to where they should be.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Each week during the month of April, the Springfield Thunderbirds and the Massachusetts State Lottery teamed up for the “Feed the Frontline” campaign, to thank individuals in the healthcare and service industries.

The Thunderbirds worked with several of their food partners to provide lunch to some deserving individuals throughout the Pioneer Valley. Members of the Thunderbirds front office and mascot Boomer visited staff at Mercy Medical Center, Cooley Dickinson Hospital, USA Hauling, the Springfield Police Department, and the Springfield Fire Department. The Thunderbirds and the Mass Lottery will be collaborating on several initiatives throughout the spring and summer to recognize several individuals within the Western Mass. community.

“Let me start by thanking those on the front line that have worked day in and day out throughout this pandemic. We can never do too much to thank our first responders,” said Thunderbirds President Nathan Costa. “A special thank you to the Mass Lottery for their support of this mission, along with many of our great restaurant partners for joining in on this important cause.”

Meals were provided by a number of local food partners, including Nadim’s Mediterranean Grill, Buffalo Wild Wings, 99 Restaurant, Uno Chicago Grill, and Theodores’.

“We applaud our partners at the Springfield Thunderbirds for their ongoing commitment to serving their community, and we are proud to join them in supporting their efforts,” said Michael Sweeney, executive director of the Massachusetts State Lottery.

The Mass Lottery and the Thunderbirds will continue to promote the outstanding work of those in the community throughout the summer when the Hometown Salute campaign launches in May. Individuals who are currently or have served in the military, or those working in the healthcare or public-service industries, may be nominated to be recognized by the Thunderbirds each week.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Springfield Thunderbirds President Nathan Costa presented a check for $15,000 to the Baystate Health Foundation for Rays of Hope from proceeds raised by the sale of specialty pink jerseys worn at the 2020 Pink in the Rink night in March.

Each year since the team’s inception, the Thunderbirds have held a Pink in the Rink night to benefit Rays of Hope, complete with participation by breast-cancer survivors, pink ice, and pink specialty jerseys. The event has sold out each of the past four seasons, and has become a signature event in the area to raise awareness. This past season’s event took place on March 7, and was again sold out, with a capacity crowd of 6,793.

“We at the Thunderbirds have been a dedicated supporter of the Baystate Health Foundation and the Rays of Hope from inception, and it’s with great admiration for the fight against breast cancer that we are able to make yet another significant contribution to the cause in what has been a very difficult year,” Costa said. “We look forward to continuing this special partnership for years to come.”

The Thunderbirds Foundation has contributed more than $80,000 to the Baystate Health Foundation and the Rays of Hope through the proceeds of specialty jersey auctions from the annual Pink in the Rink night.

During the check-presentation ceremony, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno noted that “we all have family and friends who have battled this challenge. My administration is proud to stand with those affected and Baystate Medical Center in continuing to raise funds to cure and beat this medical challenge.”

Though it may look a little different than in past years, the Rays of Hope Walk & Run Toward the Cure of Breast Cancer will continue in a hybrid model for 2020. Supporters are encouraged to walk or run anywhere, anytime, during the month of the October, ending with a Parade of Hope on Sunday, Oct. 25 for all registered participants.

Coronavirus Features

Unwanted Break in the Action

By Mark Morris

Thunderbirds

Nate Costa says the Thunderbirds were on track for their most successful season when it ended prematurely.

When discussing the impact COVID-19 has had on the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds, team president Nathan Costa doesn’t mince words.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat this — it’s a challenge, and it stinks,” he said, noting that, with seven games remaining in the regular season, the Thunderbirds were close to making the playoffs when the American Hockey League (AHL) suspended play on March 12, then formally canceled the remainder of the season on May 11.

“I’ve been in the pro-sports world for more than 10 years, and none of us have ever seen anything like this,” he told BusinessWest, using that phrase to talk about everything from the sudden end to the 2019-20 season to the prospects for the season tentatively scheduled to start in just four short months.

And those sentiments were echoed by executives with teams in another sport — baseball.

Indeed, in Holyoke, the Valley Blue Sox will not be playing in 2020 as its league, the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL), announced on May 1 it would cancel the entire season.

Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson hopes the Starfires are able to take the field at all this summer.

Meanwhile, the Futures Collegiate Baseball League (FCBL) has not yet canceled its season, but it has pushed back opening day from May 27 to an as-yet-undetermined date, which affects the Westfield Starfires, a team in only its second year of existence.

Chris Thompson, owner of the Starfires, said the student athletes on his roster have already missed the spring college season because the NCAA canceled it due to the coronavirus. He remains hopeful there will be some opportunity for his team to play ball this summer, adding that this will happen only if the health and safety of the players, fans, and staff at the ballpark can be assured.

“From our perspective, we won’t play until it’s safe to do so, but we won’t cancel until we’re told we have to,” Thompson said. “There’s no blueprint for this.”

Taking a Timeout

With that last statement, Thompson, who once worked as an executive with the Thunderbirds, spoke for everyone involved in professional sports. There is no blueprint for how to proceed, but teams can try to plan for the short and long term and adjust for what will certainly be a new normal.

Costa said his team and the AHL are having discussions about what the experience will look like for fans at the MassMutual Center, and other buildings in the league, if and when play returns.

He pointed out that the NHL and the NBA may be able to play in empty arenas because of lucrative TV contracts that provide a great deal of income to the teams, but playing with no fans is just not just not feasible for the AHL because so much of its revenue is from ticket sales, concessions, and other in-arena activity.

“As a league, we cannot play without people in the stands,” said Costa. “It’s pretty much impossible to generate any type of revenue, yet we would have the same amount of expense.”

“As a league, we cannot play without people in the stands. It’s pretty much impossible to generate any type of revenue, yet we would have the same amount of expense.”

Before the season was cancelled, Costa was pleased with the momentum the Thunderbirds had been building in their four years as a franchise. Through 31 home games this season, the team had nine sellouts and anticipated at least three more for their remaining games. By contrast, last year they had nine sellouts in their entire 38-game home schedule. He also cited a promotion that received national attention when the team rebranded for one game as the Springfield Ice-o-topes, in a nod to The Simpsons.

With the beginning of a new hockey season four months away, Costa said the AHL has an opportunity to see how other professional leagues handle reopening for games and get a feel for what might work, or not work, as the case may be.

“The NFL will start its season before us,” he noted, “and that will be a real barometer in terms of social distancing at stadiums and what the experience might look like for people going to games.”

He added that state officials and MassMutual Center staff continue to look at ways to make the environment safe for everyone who enters the building. The AHL is also looking at contingencies such as delaying the start of the season to December or January.

“There’s nothing stopping us from pushing back the start and then playing a little longer next year,” Costa said, “especially if it gives us a chance to get a full season in.”

Costa has good reason to be optimistic for a full season next year as it marks the fifth anniversary of the Thunderbirds and begins a new affiliation with the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. “We’re already deep into planning what the fifth anniversary season is going to look like, and we’re excited about what the future will bring.”

Thompson had similar thoughts on the Starfires and what lies ahead for that team.

While the FCBL has been working on a plan for social distancing at the ballpark — in this case Bullens Field in Westfield — Thompson said working through an unprecedented challenge like this generates more questions than answers. How teams manage ballpark seating and concession operations are just two of the areas where he has concerns. It even affects travel, as the teams play games in three New England states.

“We usually travel on one coach bus,” he explained. “We can’t afford to have fewer people on two buses; it would double our transportation expense.”

Even if summer baseball happens this year, Thompson said coronavirus has already wrecked a special dynamic in the league. Starfire players often come to Westfield from different parts of the country and stay with local host families for the summer.

“Sometimes a family has an 8-year old Little Leaguer in the house who then has a college roommate for the summer, or we have empty nesters who are looking to host a player or two,” Thompson said. “Host families are one of the great things about summer baseball.”

Now, of course, the model of families hosting players is on hold until next year at the earliest.

Rather, Thompson is now looking to have more players from the eastern part of Massachusetts and the Hartford area of Connecticut so they could commute to games in Westfield.

With the Starfires in a holding pattern, it’s doubtful they will get to play their full 56-game schedule. During this time, Thompson has been reaching out to his corporate sponsors to keep them engaged.

“We’re looking at different ways to use our social-media platforms to get our fans involved and to give our corporate sponsors exposure,” he said.

Finding a Winning Formula

The Thunderbirds are also using social media to extend the reach of their sponsors. Costa said one effective technique has been running ‘rewinds’ of notable games from this season on Facebook. In some cases, the potential audience for sponsors can be larger than in-arena exposure.

“Our Facebook presence has grown to more than 22,000 followers, and on Instagram we have 15,000 followers, giving us a core audience of nearly 40,000 eyeballs,” Costa said, adding that many sponsors have already assured him they will be back next year.

When play was suspended, he placed a high priority on reaching out to season-ticket holders about the seven games they would be missing this year. The team provided options such as a refund for the remaining games, or a credit that would apply to tickets for next season. Costa and his staff also offered a third option.

“We’re setting aside some funds to provide tickets to frontline workers next season at no charge and to recognize all their efforts,” Costa said noting that nearly 25% of the season-ticket holders chose that option.

In a similar move, Valley Blue Sox General Manager Kate Avard said the team had planned to dedicate its opening day in 2021 to “honor and support community organizations and first responders who are currently on the front lines of combating COVID-19.”

As the area’s pro sports teams search for some answers concerning the future, they acknowledge they are hard to come by, noting that perhaps the only certainty is no shortage of uncertainty.

But guarded optimism still prevails.

“We have great community partners who want us to succeed for a long time,” said Thompson, speaking, again, for all those in his profession. “Setbacks like this make us more resilient.”

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Thunderbirds, in conjunction with the American Hockey League (AHL) and CEO David Andrews, announced that the league’s board of governors has voted to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 AHL regular season and the 2020 Calder Cup playoffs due to the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.

“After a lengthy review process, the American Hockey League has determined that the resumption and completion of the 2019-20 season is not feasible in light of current conditions,” Andrews said. “The league’s operational focus has turned toward actively preparing for the 2020-21 season. We are very grateful to the National Hockey League and its teams for their support and leadership in navigating through the challenges faced over the past two months. The AHL continues to place paramount importance on the health and safety of our players, officials, staff, and fans and all of their families, and we all look forward to returning to our arenas in 2020-21.”

The AHL’s standings — sorted by points percentage — and statistics as of March 12 are considered final and official, and will serve as the basis for determining league awards for the 2019-20 season.

“These truly are unprecedented circumstances, and though it is not the outcome that we all hoped for, we fully support the decision made today by the American Hockey League to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 season,” said Nathan Costa, Springfield Thunderbirds president. “On behalf of the entire Thunderbirds organization, we would like to thank our great fans for their unwavering support this year, as well as the Florida Panthers for their commitment to our city during the first four years of our franchise. Please continue to adhere to all local and federal guidelines in an effort to stay safe, and I can’t wait to see all of you in a few short months to kick off our fifth-anniversary season at the MassMutual Center in 2020-21.

“Though the final standings will show the T-Birds on the cusp of a playoff berth for the first time in their history, we continued to make an impact in the Springfield community during our fourth season,” Costa continued. “We had nine sellouts through the shortened 20-21 season, the same number as all of last season, as well as eclipsing the 5,000-per-game attendance mark for the second consecutive season with an average of 5,262 per game. Next season will be a special one for the organization, as we begin a five-year affiliation agreement with the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues to coincide with the club’s fifth year of existence.”

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Thunderbirds announced that Paul Thompson has been named the team’s winner of the IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year award for his outstanding contributions to the Springfield community during the 2019-20 season.

In his third season as a Thunderbird and his second as team captain, the New England native has continued to show his commitment to the community beyond the ice surface.

Before the 2019-20 season began, Thompson was a regular sight at a number of offseason functions, including the Thunderbirds’ Street Hockey Tournament, which was born following the untimely passing of a young local hockey player, Alex Blais, two summers ago. Thompson also gave back to the youth-hockey community of Western Mass., starting and running the Paul Thompson Hockey Camp out of MassConn United for beginning hockey players.

In November, in advance of the club’s second annual Hockey Fights Cancer Night, Thompson lent his hand to share a deeply personal story to aid a cause near and dear to his family — his cousin Angela’s cancer battle and #AngelasArmy initiative. Angela’s Army makes ‘care packages’ for patients undergoing cancer treatment, and was born out of Angela’s desire to assist other patients, providing comfort to them even as she was going through her own battle.

In addition to participating in a number of team events, one that shined through the most was during the holiday season. Along with teammates Ethan Prow, Rob O’Gara, and Tommy Cross, Thompson led a selfless journey to brighten the lives of a mother and two young children who suddenly had to endure the passing of their father just weeks before the Christmas holiday. The captain and his teammates spent hundreds of dollars on toys and essential items to make the family feel special during their most trying time.

Thompson is now one of 31 finalists for the AHL’s 2019-20 Yanick Dupre Memorial Award, honoring the overall IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year. The league award is named after the former Hershey Bears forward and AHL All-Star who died in 1997 following a 16-month battle with leukemia. The winner of the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award will be announced by the AHL at a later date.

COVID-19 Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — On April 16, the Springfield Thunderbirds teamed up with two of its local restaurant partners, Uno Pizzeria & Grill and Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill, to deliver more than 50 meals to staff at both Baystate Medical Center and Mercy Medical Center.

“Though we are not able to play hockey at this time, we want to make sure we are doing our part to give back to the community that has supported us since our inception,” said Nathan Costa, president of the Springfield Thunderbirds. “This is just one way we are able to say ‘thank you’ to the men and women on the front lines of this pandemic while also proving some support to our local small-business partners.”

Uno Pizzeria & Grill provided lunch to staff members of Baystate’s Adult Acute Care and Acute Neuroscience departments, while Nadim’s fed Mercy Medical Center’s Intensive Care Unit and Emergency Department.

“We are proud to partner with the Thunderbirds and Uno’s to feed our medical heroes helping to fight the coronavirus pandemic,” said Nadim Kashouh, chef and owner of Nadim’s Mediterranean Grill. “As a business with deep roots in this community, it is important we do our part to help our friends and neighbors get through this crisis.”

Funds for the meals will come from the T-Birds Foundation, a 501(c)(3) public charity established by the franchise to benefit causes in Springfield and surrounding Pioneer Valley communities.

“We are thankful to the Thunderbirds for including us in these special deliveries,” said Uno Pizzeria & Grill owner Michael Hurwitz. “We have a great relationship, and it means a lot for the team to think of us during these times to provide the food for these heroes on the front line.”

The mission of the T-Birds Foundation is to serve the Springfield community and the Pioneer Valley beyond every win and loss through a focus on providing and supporting initiatives in the areas of health and wellness, youth enrichment, and civil service.

“Baystate Health is so grateful for food donations that support our healthcare providers as they continue to serve on the front lines and battle COVID-19,” said the team at the Baystate Health Foundation. “The Springfield Thunderbirds’ generous donation of meals from Uno Pizzeria & Grill for Baystate Health team members is a kind and much-appreciated gesture.”

Sports & Leisure

Raising Their Game

Team President Nathan Costa

When the Springfield Thunderbirds hit the ice for the first time three years ago, its management team heard plenty of skepticism about whether hockey could truly thrive and grow beyond a certain ceiling in the city. While there’s still plenty of room for growth in ticket sales, attendance surged last season to a two-decade high, with Saturday nights in particular routinely selling out. In short, there’s a lot of optimism inside the Thunderbirds offices — and a refusal to get complacent.

If Springfield is in the midst of a renaissance, Nathan Costa says, the Springfield Thunderbirds are a large part of the reason — even if not everyone thought they could be.

“I told the staff recently, ‘I think we’ve been able to do this because we came in with a chip on our shoulder.’ We wanted to prove we could do it here and that, if we did it the right way, it could work,” said Costa, the team’s president. “When we first came in, a lot of people said, ‘teams haven’t always had success here — what’s different about you guys?’”

At the start of their fourth season in Springfield, the Thunderbirds — the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the Florida Panthers — have slowly raised what was, in some eyes, a low bar when Costa and a team of local investors brought hockey back to Springfield in 2016 following the departure of the Falcons.

Perhaps most strikingly, the team averaged more than 5,000 fans per night last season — a number no Springfield hockey team had achieved in more than two decades.

“At first, there were low expectations for the marketplace, and it was easier to meet those expectations,” Costa told BusinessWest two weeks before the team begins its 2019-20 home campaign on Oct. 5. “Now we’ve set a high bar. We need to work with the same urgency we’ve always had to keep this moving forward.”

This year’s squad hits the ice for a practice session last week.

Above Costa’s office door is painted the number 6,793. That’s the sellout number at the MassMutual Center, and it’s a number the team reached on about a dozen occasions last season, mostly Saturday nights. With a friendlier home schedule this year (more on that in a bit), the goal is to record even more sellouts and get that average attendance closer to 6,000 than 5,000 — and Costa thinks it’s reachable.

“In the past, you could always walk up and buy a ticket here. Now, if you don’t get a package, or you don’t get a ticket early on, especially for those Saturday nights in the second half of the season, you can’t find a ticket. And that’s what we wanted to create,” he said. “But it’s not easy to do.”

Last year, preparations to host the AHL All-Star Classic (a significant feather in the franchise’s cap) knocked out home games the weekend before, traditionally one of the league’s busier weekends, cutting down the total number of weekend dates. But for the 2019-20 season, the Thunderbirds will host 15 Saturday-night and 14 Friday-night tilts, as well as four Sunday-afternoon games, in all accounting for 33 of the schedule’s 38 home games.

“At first, there were low expectations for the marketplace, and it was easier to meet those expectations. Now we’ve set a high bar. We need to work with the same urgency we’ve always had to keep this moving forward.”

Still, “we’re continuing to put an emphasis on getting to the point where we’re filling the building every single night,” Costa said, adding that season-ticket sales have increased every year. So have the team’s fortunes on the ice, as it posted a winning record last year, although it has missed the playoffs all three years.

“The Panthers had quite a few injuries, so they called up a number of our players around the all-star break, which was challenging on the hockey side,” he explained. “But on the business side, we continue to do what we’ve talked about from the very beginning, which is focus on the family-fun, entertainment aspects of coming to games.

“People want to see a winning product, obviously — especially in this market, where people are spoiled with winning teams,” he went on. “So we’re hoping that comes with time. But we’re also trying to lay a foundation where we’re providing a professional, awesome experience here in the arena, and I think we’re doing that and creating events and promotions people are connecting with.”

From the start, Costa and his team tackled some common gripes from the Falcons’ tenure, including lowering concession prices, negotiating a deal for free parking in the neighboring garage, building a richer schedule of promotions — even ramping up video production to make sure season-ticket holders are watching fresh videos on the big screens as the season moves along.

Being granted last year’s all-star events was a signal, he said, that the AHL recognized what was happening and how fans were responding. So were a series of league awards last year, from Costa being named outstanding executive to honors for the team’s digital-media presence and marketing efforts.

“The All-Star Classic was an absolute home run — it raised our profile locally and within the AHL,” Costa said. “Springfield wasn’t necessarily viewed as a place where you could see best practices or have a full building, but now, we’ve changed the perception of Western Mass. among the AHL board and really rejuvenated the city from their perspective.”

And the perspective of others as well — about 5,000 a night.

Lacing ’em Up

When the Portland Pirates left Maine for Springfield three years ago, the City of Homes was no doubt on the rise, but pieces were still falling into place downtown, and the MGM Springfield casino was still more than two years from opening.

“That was a challenge, when there wasn’t as much life and things going on,” Costa said. “We really wanted to face a lot of the hurdles that we heard about head-on, much of which was parking, safety, or that it costs too much to come to a game. We were trying to bring people downtown.”

Some of those concerns were more reputation than reality, he added. “I’ve worked downtown more than 10 years, and I’ve never not felt safe. And I think that perception is gone now. We don’t hear it at all anymore. It is a testament to the city.”

Part of that change is the simple fact of more feet on the street, especially at night.

“There’s a lot more going on. Restaurants are buzzing. People are walking around. There’s life, there’s energy. The city was primed for that,” he said, crediting entities like MGM and the Springfield Business Improvement District and efforts in the realms of public safety and downtown beautification.

Still, selling a new team to the public after the Falcons took flight was a challenge initially. “But we were confident in our business plan and stuck to what worked in other AHL cities; we stuck to providing value to ticket holders and in the arena. The league started feeling good about us, and it’s steadily grown over three years.”

The franchise is always feeling out new promotions, although a few have become regular events, including 3-2-1 Fridays ($3 beers, $2 hot dogs, and $1 sodas) and a Friday-night concert series; March’s Pink in the Rink event to celebrate breast-cancer survivors and raise funds for treatment and research; and December’s Teddy Bear Toss, where fans bring stuffed animals and throw them on the ice after the home team’s first goal, to be collected and donated to underprivileged children.

Visits from David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez have proven hugely popular as well, and while the team doesn’t have someone of quite that stature stopping by this year, it has planned four guest appearances, including former Florida Panther goalie Roberto Luongo in November; Mike Eruzione from the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team in February, marking the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice; and Brian Scalabrine from the Celtics’ 2008 NBA championship team in March.

The fourth guest is a little more outside the box: actor Leslie David Baker, who played Stanley Hudson in the hit TV show The Office, will visit in December for what the team is labeling its Office Holiday Party, inviting local businesses to basically celebrate the season at the MassMutual Center, watch a game, and meet Baker.

“We’re trying to provide more value to ticket holders, and letting them know we continue to invest in the game experience,” Costa said.

Another returning promotion is a Blast from the Past night in January, when the team reverts to 1990-era Springfield Indians jerseys, celebrating the 30th anniversary of that team’s Calder Cup win.

“We’re trying to tap into that old nostalgia; that’s a fun part of what we do,” Costa said, noting that the team still owns the Springfield Indians trademark. “We made the decision not to rebrand to that when we purchased the franchise. But using it here once in a while is fun, and we can create an event around it that people look forward to.

“I think we’ve done a good job of recognizing the past but also creating our own brand,” he went on. “We obviously still hear about the Indians quite a bit — there’s a lot of romanticizing around the Indians, and obviously they had some really good, successful years — but it wasn’t all roses during that time. They had their ups and downs.”

The goal with the Thunderbirds, obviously, is to have far more of the former than the latter.

“There’s been a tendency in the past to have a negative viewpoint about downtown Springfield,” he told BusinessWest. “We want create a positive experience. It’s a perfect size city for AHL franchise. Now we have to keep that trajectory moving forward and continue to sell tickets and show value. The minute we take our foot off the gas, our business is going to suffer.”

Community Goals

The Thunderbirds have been equally aggressive about community involvement, Costa said, with Boomer, the team’s mascot, making more than 200 appearances a year at businesses, schools, and organizations, and each player making at least three appearances as well, in addition to team events. The franchise has also developed a charitable foundation and youth-oriented outreaches like a reading program, a kids club, and a partnership that creates positive connections between area youth and the Springfield Police.

“Being here in this marketplace, there’s a duty for us to give back and truly be a part of the community,” Costa said. “So a lot of this stuff is focused on giving back and doing the right thing by our community in general.”

He’s gratified by the growth of the brand and the deepening of its civic roots, but admits he’s driven somewhat by anxiety and fear of failure, and still carries that chip on his shoulder from the early days. He also credits a hardworking staff willing to roll up their sleeves, hit the phones and the streets, and do the often-tedious work it takes to increase ticket sales and awareness of what’s happening on the ice.

“It’s awesome to see how the community has surrounded us and supported what we’re trying to do,” he said. “But we’ve never said, ‘hey, let’s just open the arena and see who comes out.’ We’ve always been proactive about getting out and telling our story. Now, we’re so well-positioned that, if the team has some success on the ice, it’s ready to take off. It’s palpable. If you come on a Saturday night, you can feel the energy.”

With so many entertainment options available — and a deep mesh of TV programming that makes it easier for families to just stay home — Costa and his team certainly aren’t letting up on the gas. In short, that number 6,793 continues to drive them.

“There’s nowhere else to go but up,” he said. “If we keep doing the things we’re doing, it will happen, and I think we’re seeing that now — that doing the right thing and working hard will lead to success.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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