By Judd Spicer
With the Seattle Kraken’s debut made official, the NHL expansion franchise’s developmental backdrop is readying to rise from the sands as the AHL’s 32nd team.
Christened as the Coachella Valley Firebirds at a Nov. 5 unveiling, the team’s logo, according to the club, takes its inspiration as a “spiritual descendant of the Kraken,” complementing Seattle’s ice and sea with the valley’s fire and desert.
Slated for its own maiden skate in October 2022, the Firebirds will break ground on a host of further unveils next autumn. The first pro sports franchise for the southern California desert pocket located 100 miles east of Los Angeles, the new team arrives in concert with a privately funded $250-million-plus home currently being constructed as the 10,000-seat, multi-purpose Coachella Valley Arena.
“The biggest things we’re working on are brand launching, ranging from web development, merchandise, community involvement and programming for the on-site community rink,” said Steve Fraser, president of the Firebirds and the Coachella Valley Arena.
Fraser comes to the Coachella Valley from nearby Ontario, Calif., where he served as vice-president of business operations for the Reign, AHL affiliate of the L.A. Kings and soon to be Coachella Valley’s closest geographic rival in the Pacific Division. Complementing the brain trust are former NHLer Troy Bodie as director of hockey and business operations, and five-time NCAA women’s championship coach Shannon Miller, hired as Coachella Valley’s vice-president of branding and community relations.
Partnering in the arena with the Oak View Group ownership is global concert promoter Live Nation, which aims to bring in more than 100 music and event dates a year to team with the slate of 30-plus hockey games. Rounding out the mind-meld is internationally renowned, Kansas City-based architectural firm Populous, designer of the arena. Situated on more than 43 acres of unincorporated land adjacent to the mid-valley city of Palm Desert (and located, perhaps naturally, next to a golf course that formerly hosted the desert’s annual PGA Tour stop), the arena broke ground in June.
For the 2021-22 gap year, the Kraken’s developmental players will play as split-squad members of the Charlotte Checkers, AHL affiliate of the Florida Panthers and part of the league’s Atlantic Division. “Some thanks are due to the Panthers and Checkers for allowing our players in development to have the opportunity to have a place to play and grow this year,” Fraser said. “And I believe we’ll be able to post an assistant coach on the bench, so having that will help with the synergy and transition. To me, it speaks to the hockey community, even with the competitive nature, people are willing to lend a hand.”
Fraser, a key figure in a Reign organization that annually draws among the AHL’s top attendance figures (about 8,200 a game), sees the nearby desert as an opportunity ripe for fandom. Though typically regarded as a region for golf and respite, the valley’s heft of high-season guests coming from hockey regions look to round out the base. “We have the locals, and then, of course, a lot of snowbirds, and these fans, now having the opportunity to come here and enjoy pro hockey in an environment that they typically wouldn’t associate with hockey, it’s also a big part of this team,” Fraser said. “Looking at the demographics here, how the population doubles in the peak season months of October through May, the focus of our season, we think that’s going to bode very well for support of the team.”
Already sporting around 3,000 season-ticket deposits for the Firebirds, Fraser eyes the next 10 months as an opportunity to educate the community at large and grow anticipation with ongoing nuggets of marketing. “We’re seeing that interest, taking deposits and interest forms daily,” Fraser said. “And as we roll out more tangible information, jerseys, arena progress, how our players are doing in Charlotte, we expect these numbers to continue to rise.”
Such expectations of ascent extend to the arena, which grows in visibility by the day as the Firebirds’ debut nears.
“I’m not sweating it too much, but I’m also not out there working with the crews,” Fraser said. “But the work is getting done, and, on our end, we’re doing our best to provide answers and insight to help keep the project moving to avoid delays. So, just waiting to see the steel come in and see the structure go up, just like everybody else.”