They are among the sweetest five words for any sports team: The game is sold out.
Those words are rare at the highest levels of sports, but they are particularly rare for minor league sports, generally played in smaller communities. And that’s what made Saturday night’s sellout for the first-year Coachella Valley Firebirds hockey team so special.
The Firebirds have had one sellout before Saturday’s playoff game against the Milwaukee Admirals, that coming in the team’s debut in the Coachella Valley in December. But as the snowbirds who were expected to be a large part of the Firebirds fans base have left the area, the crowds at Acrisure Arena have actually grown. From a near-sellout in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals series against Milwaukee to a sellout of 10,087 fans in Game 2, the Firebirds and their playoff success have lit a fire in the sports-rich Coachella Valley.
“It’s awesome,” said Firebirds head coach Dan Bylsma. “Tonight you come out to a white out. It’s an NHL building. It is an NHL playoff atmosphere. It is pretty remarkable.”
Maybe the vagaries of icing and offsides are still lost on some desert fans who are new to hockey, but the fans are finding out that hockey is perhaps the one sport that needs to be seen in person to be best appreciated. And Coachella Valley fans are certainly showing their appreciation.
When Alexander True scored for the Firebirds just 61 seconds into Saturday’s game, the roar was equal to any thrilling Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadel rally at the BNP Paribas Open or any hole in one at The American Express PGA Tour event. Those roars only grew louder with ensuing Firebird goals. The chants of “Joey! Joey! Joey!” for Coachella Valley goalie Joey Daccord echoed through the arena throughout the game with each stellar save.
“I had never been to a hockey game in my life, but I’ve been to seven or eight games this year,” said Ramon Gutierrez of Indio, wearing a Firebirds hat and a white out t-shirt provided to all fans Saturday. “It’s fast and it’s physical. I don’t understand all the rules, but I’ve getting there.”
Louder and louder
When captain Max McCormick scored the empty net goal with just two minutes left in the game to clinch the victory, Acrisure Arena shook. A minute later, when Carson Twarynski scored his own empty-net goal for the last home goal of a 5-3 Firebirds win, the sound was somehow even louder.
A beach ball was bouncing around in the crowd. A guy in a luchador mask with an American flag wrapped around his neck was walking through the arena. So was a guy in a bear costume. In many ways, Saturday’s game was less a playoff matchup and more an event, a social gathering for desert residents who may or may not understand a two-minute boarding penalty.
The surprise, if there is one, is that way back in round one of the playoffs, the Firebirds drew just over 4,000 fans for their first home playoff game. Saturday that number was more than doubled, which also proves that a winning team will always outdraw a losing team.
What the Firebirds are proving is the desert has been ready for an expansion in sports for a long time. A professional team with a regular schedule of home and road games might not have worked in the desert in the 1970s or even the 1980s. But as the desert population has grown, often with people from big cities where the NHL plays, there was a hunger for sports that the Firebirds are filling.
“I know that we have a sick crowd even in the regular season. I was kind of hoping that they would be even better in the playoffs,” said Jesper Froden, who scored a goal Saturday and who has spent some time with the Seattle Kraken this year as well as with the Firebirds. “They have been unbelievable. They have been amazing. Way better than I was even expecting. They are definitely helping us to get energy and keep pushing when the games are tough. Big up to them.”
For Bylsma, big crowds were only a hope when he got the Firebirds job.
“I thought there was a chance for it. There are a low of snowbirds, a lot of transplants here,” Bylsma said. “I’ve bumped into a lot of people who are Kings fans and Sharks fans and Ducks fans and finally they are excited about having a hockey team of their own in the desert.”
Who would have thought that in the land of the golf ball, the tennis ball and even the pickleball, it would be a hockey puck that would take sports to the next level in the Coachella Valley.
Larry Bohannan is the golf writer for The Desert Sun. You can contact him at (760) 778-4633 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter at @larry_bohannan. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Desert Sun.