More than 10,000 dejected hockey fans, including many from Palm Springs, filed out of Acrisure Arena on Wednesday night after the Coachella Valley Firebirds lost to the Hershey Bears 3-2 in overtime of Game 7 of the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup championship.
“I actually teared up,” one fan said as she made her way to the parking lot, mirroring the feeling that many leaving the arena and watching at home were experiencing. “I didn’t think I’d get this emotional.”
Though the Firebirds didn’t cap off their historic inaugural season with a championship win, the team effectively introduced the California desert region to the sport of hockey. The Firebirds made diehard fans out of people who had never cared about hockey six months ago.
This journalist was one of those people — someone who had never cared about sports, let alone hockey. But 15 minutes into overtime on Wednesday night, I found myself unable to sit down, muttering to myself and gnawing on my fingernails in anxiety over the outcome of a minor league hockey game, something previously inconceivable to me. And now, I can rattle off penalty kill statistics and confidently talk about the height of the opposing team and how that will impact the team’s strategy.
Derek Evan and his husband Mike Marron feel the same. The Palm Springs residents attended their first game in late December, just 10 days after the first official home game. They remember it vividly; the game was a dramatic come-from-behind win that was tied until the last minute.
Neither one of them cared for sports before the Firebirds. When I sat down to speak with the two of them, the Firebirds had just started the third period against the Hershey Bears in Game 3.
“Do you know if True is okay?” Evan asked, referring to forward Alexander True, who had to be helped off the ice at the end of Game 2. Moments before we sat down, I had been listening to the play-by-play coverage of the game in my car, and I assured him True was playing.
I asked if Evan thought that he would be the type of person to anxiously inquire after the health of a minor league hockey player. “The fact that I even know the names and can recognize eight or nine players is amazing,” he said, laughing.
“Before this, it was all Broadway stars,” Marron chimed in.
Now, the two have been to so many games that they have their favorite seats and a pre-game ritual of watching the warmups.
When trying to articulate why they love the game and the team, they come up with many reasons. “The arena itself is perfect,” Marron said. “It’s so beautiful and easy to get in and out of. The food is good, and everyone that works there is so friendly. The crowd is so fun and excited and happy to be there.”
They also love the speed and excitement of the game, and how it’s always moving. Every game they’ve been to has been exciting. “I think because they’re in the minor leagues, they’re hungry to get into the NHL, so they take more risks and put on a good show,” Marron said.
An “authentic and organic” fandom
But there’s more to the game than just the players. Walking into the arena is a sensory overload, with thumping music and bright lights. As the puck drop nears and anticipation heightens, slick hype videos featuring highlights from previous games flash on the screen, set to music that feels like it belongs in an action movie trailer.
By the time the players come out to strobe lights and pyrotechnics, it’s impossible for fans not to be on their feet and cheering at the top of their lungs.
“It’s so well-packaged,” said Marron. “The first game we went to, it felt like they had been doing it forever.”
There are already traditions that feel like they’ve been around for years, like the singing of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” but with on-screen graphics changing the lyrics to “Rink of Fire.” Gina Rotolo, vice president of marketing and communications for the Firebirds, said she and her team pay close attention to the fans.
One tradition, for example, grew out of the way the announcer draws out the names of players Alexander True and Cameron Hughes. The crowd shouts out “Truuuuuuuue” or “Huuuuughes” every time one of their names is mentioned. Now, whenever either one scores a goal or assists, graphics that encircle the whole arena spell out “Truuuue.”
Perhaps the most treasured tradition is singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver during the third period. The song’s opening chords will play, and the crowd sings every word, swaying back and forth, often still singing once the game resumes.
“That was all authentic. The fans created that,” Rotolo said. Even she was surprised by the fans’ enthusiasm. “You hope for this reaction, but you can’t manufacture it. It has to be authentic and organic.”
Of course, winning helps, but Rotolo says there is something special and intangible that made the sport and the team connect with so many people in the desert. It proves that the region was ready to have a professional team to support, she said.
This is Rotolo’s fourth time launching a professional team and her second hockey team. “There are some fair-weather fans in other teams, but I think win or lose, our fans are going to stay,” she said.
At the forefront of everyone’s minds is the potential loss of fan-favorite players. Because the Firebirds are a development team for the Seattle Kraken, the team will cycle through players every year as they move on to other AHL teams or move up to the NHL.
“No one likes to think about that part of the conversation,” Rotolo said. That’s why it’s important, she said, to build the brand around the Firebirds, and not any one specific player, no matter how much love they get.
“When Joey leaves, of course, we’re going to miss him,” she said, referring to star goalie Joey Daccord. “But what about the next Joey?” If the fans can form a bond with this year’s players so quickly, she said, that means they can do it again next year and discover new favorites.
Evan agrees. “I’ll be there next year no matter what,” he said. “I’m curious about the new players, and I think it will make it more interesting to learn about them.”
The Firebirds have altered Evan’s life. He may never have started ice skating lessons without attending that first game. Now, he has his own pair of skates and attends private lessons twice a week, and practices throughout the week on and off the ice.
Inspiration for young hockey players, adult leagues in the desert
Jeff Larson, the director of hockey for the Coachella Valley Junior Firebirds, thinks the team is sparking an interest in hockey for young people. There are hundreds of kids, he said, who signed up for learn-to-play hockey camps.
Over the years, the desert has been without an ice rink for years at a time. When the rink at the Westfield Palm Desert Mall closed in 2001, there wasn’t another rink until Desert Ice Castle opened in Cathedral City in 2011. That rink didn’t last a decade before closing in 2020.
Unsurprisingly, the desert didn’t have a built-in fan base for hockey because there was no way to play the game. Larson said that when Desert Ice Castle closed, young hockey players either quit, moved away or commuted up to two hours away for practice.
Now, with the Berger Iceplex, the future of hockey in the desert is looking strong.
“We had to rebuild from the ground up,” he said. “Most of our new players are in the five to nine age range.” As those players improve and move up the ranks, the Junior Firebirds Team will evolve with them.
Adult hockey is thriving, too, with dozens of adults signed up to learn how to play and amateur leagues forming all over town.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in the Coachella Valley,” said Paul O’Kane of Coachella Valley Pride Hockey. “It has unified the nine valley cities.”
O’Kane founded Coachella Valley Pride Hockey, an adult league for LGBTQ+ players and allies, last year. He met his husband 25 years ago at a gay hockey tournament in Toronto, and has been organizing LGBTQ+ hockey tournaments and teams ever since.
When they heard the arena was coming to town and that there would be a public skating rink, O’Kane sprang into action, quickly putting together the hockey group and LGBTQ+ tournament.
“By November of last year, we were able to get a booth at Palm Spring Pride to generate interest and recruit members,” he said. In March, he hosted the inaugural Palm Springs International LGBT Hockey Tournament, which welcomed teams and players from across the country and Canada.
Firebirds fans go above and beyond, break attendance records
The Firebirds have united brand-new and longtime hockey fans alike. Even if it’s someone’s first game, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the speed and ferocity of the relatively simple game.
As long as the fans know when to cheer, when to gasp and when to boo the referees, the finer points would come later, either from listening to NHL Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr’s color commentary, frantically Googling what “high sticking” means in the midst of a penalty kill, or asking the longtime hockey fan next to them for an explanation.
That’s how Kyle Garman met David Givot. They’re both from Indio, and Garman knew nothing about hockey, but he sat next to Givot at his first game, who introduced him to the sport.
In less than six months, Garman went from knowing nothing about hockey to becoming a mainstay in Firebird promos and social media posts, thanks to his flashy custom suits in bright orange and teal that he and his wife spent hours sewing patches onto.
Garman isn’t the only one. Walking outside the arena before the game, you’ll see wigs, homemade t-shirts, custom Firebirds shoes and elaborate costumes rigged with lights.
“You just see the creativity explode, and the fan base has really made it their own,” Garman said.
The players are inspired by the fandom, too. Daccord, the team’s goalie, remarked in a press conference that friends who tune in to watch the game have been amazed by the volume of the crowd.
“It’s never happened before in my career, and it will probably never happen again the way I’ve been supported this year,” he said. “The support has blown us all away right from the beginning, and now these playoff games have been bananas.”
During intermission of one recent game, Daccord’s girlfriend, Lexi Dickinson, spoke with Gino LaMont and said Daccord, “Feels like he’s in the NHL because it’s always a full house.” Forward Andrew Poturalski’s wife, Haley, added, “I get chills from the fans and how loud they are. Andrew says it’s unreal and unlike any other place he’s been.”
The fans are so enthusiastic that they’ve broken records; the Firebirds had the highest attendance in the history of the league for post-season games.
Rotolo, the team’s vice president of marketing, said the Firebirds also crushed AHL streaming records. “It actually turned into a problem because, with so many people streaming [Wednesday night’s game], the transmission and the feeds started having problems because they weren’t expecting that level of engagement,” she said.
When the games were broadcast on TV, the ratings were huge. Rotolo thinks back to the triple overtime game on a Monday night that started at 7 p.m. and went until almost midnight.
“By the night’s end, our rating numbers were bigger than any other primetime show, local news or late-night show,” she said.
Much has been written about the Firebirds’ Cinderella story: They’re the youngest AHL team, and they were playing the oldest team in the league for the championship. They’re also an ice hockey team in the middle of the desert. It’s a quirky story that sports writers found ironic.
What’s never captured in all these stories is what it feels like to be a local and to experience hockey in the desert for the first time. The Firebirds are the valley’s first professional sports team, and they’ve united the region in a way that no one saw coming.
This journalist is a local, born and raised in Indio, and the arena and the team feel like they’re a hometown favorite now. You can feel that people have pride in the arena and the team. Walking around the concourse between periods, it’s impossible not to run into someone you know, like former high school classmates, coworkers, neighbors and even doctors.
And I’m not alone in that. I’ve seen many unexpected reunions and squeals of joy when two people grab each other in the crowd, embrace, and start chatting about the game and their families.
“This is just the beginning,” Rotolo said. “This is something special that we’re not going to take for granted, and we’re just getting started.”