| Chris Maza
SPRINGFIELD – While most American Hockey League teams dropped the puck for the first time this season earlier this month, the Springfield Thunderbirds were not among them.
But even though the local team won’t be playing hockey this season, President Nathan Costa has every confidence that next season will be an opportunity for the organization’s continued success.
The Thunderbirds announced on Jan. 4 that it would be one of three teams, joining the Charlotte Checkers and the Milwaukee Admirals, that would opt out of the American Hockey League’s abbreviated season, which began on Feb. 5. Citing “health and safety concerns, travel logistics, new player supply rules, and other considerations” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Costa said the team and its new National Hockey League affiliate, the St. Louis Blues, agreed the Thunderbirds would forego their fifth season as a franchise, marking the first time since the early 1950s that the city Springfield did not have an AHL representative.
The Thunderbirds signed a five-year agreement with the Blues after their affiliation with the Florida Panthers ended with the premature end to the 2019-20 season due to the pandemic.
“We’re kicking off a new relationship with the St. Louis Blues and we were really optimistic that we could eventually get something to work this season,” Costa told Reminder Publishing. “We were really hopeful that we were going to be able to kick off our relationship with the Blues and celebrate our fifth anniversary season in October and obviously things with the pandemic didn’t progress at that point, [the AHL] pushed to December and then again pushed to Feb. 5. We really exhausted every option possible with the Blues. We were down to the finish line, essentially, with them trying to make this work. I think there were just so many issues; it wasn’t just one.”
He added, “There are a number of factors to consider on both sides and we came to an agreement that it didn’t make a ton of financial sense and we weren’t 100 percent sure what the protocols were going to be, what the testing was going to look like, what we were going to have to do with players and how much all of that was going to cost.”
A major player in the decision on Springfield’s end was the state’s restriction that barred professional sporting events from hosting fans. Given the fact that the Thunderbirds have local, independent ownership unlike more than half the teams in the league that are owned by their NHL partners, ticket revenue is essential to their operations.
“We are a gate-driven business; I think that’s pretty well understood,” Costa said. “When you don’t have butts in seats, it affects every piece of revenue that you’ve got … For the long-term viability of the franchise, [opting out] made the most sense and I think at the end of the day, I think that’s what we continue to talk about with ownership – the commitment to the long term and I think everything we’ve done until now in our first four years as a franchise has been done with a long-term view of doing this the right way [and] building it the right way. We didn’t want to deviate from that in this situation.”
Other concerns, Costa also noted, included the fact that the NHL as part of their pandemic response, expanded team rosters, meaning six players who would usually be with AHL affiliates would not be available.
Costa did say there is optimism for a 2021-22 season beginning in October and the franchise is working diligently to prepare for it.
“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The vaccine is out and we’re hopeful that by October we’re going to be able to get back to welcoming the MassMutual Center and get back at doing all of the things we do so well,” he said.
Fan support has been “fantastic” through the uncertainty, Costa said, adding the organization took a proactive approach to addressing this season’s situation with the fanbase and they have responded. In December 2020, before decisions were made, season ticket holders were informed their seats would be secured whenever fans were allowed to watch hockey again.
“We have had 80 percent of our season ticket members step to the plate to support us and have paid in full,” he said. “It’s obviously an important piece for us to be viable, but we also wanted to be proactive ... From the get-go, the best approach was to not hide. We have been completely honest and up-front with our ticket holders. For the most part, I think our ticket holders know the challenges we’ve been going through and have been overwhelmingly supportive.”
Local sponsor support has also been strong, Costa noted.
“We’ve been touching base with all of our partners and the overwhelming response is, ‘You guys are doing the right thing,’ and everybody has given their commitment to us that they’ll be here when we come back, which I think is a testament to the work we’ve done as an organization and trying to do the right thing by our stakeholders.”
Costa also said the new affiliation with the Blues was an exciting development and he was anxious to showcase their prospects on the ice.
“We’re absolutely excited and looking forward to being able to welcome them to the city and really kick this whole thing off,” Costa said. “I think they’re looking forward to that as well. They want nothing more than to have some certainty.”
In the meantime, Costa said the Thunderbirds had been and would remain partners with local communities. In November 2020, the organization sponsored a food drive and also conducted a drive-thru version of its popular Teddy Bear Toss collection for local charities in December 2020.
“That’s been part of our strategy from the start. Over the last few months, we’ve tried as an organization to continue to do the right thing by the community and give back in any way we can,” he said. “There are people in the community who rely on us and we want to be there to support them. That’s been our main focus for the past few months; that’s our main controllable – how we can continue to have an impact and how we can continue to stay visible.”