Written by Judd Spicer
Three years of planning, prep, training and toil came to full fruition on the eve of Sunday, December 18, as the Coachella Valley Firebirds made their much-anticipated home debut at Acrisure Arena.
And the desert will never be the same.
As much as the hockey unveil aptly celebrated the Firebirds’ 4-3 win over the Tucson Roadrunners, the electric night before an eager, sold-out fan base was more about christening a new era for the valley.
For a region which has never-before had a full-time sports franchise to call its own, the maiden skate represented a sense of communal embrace, a tenor of collective pride and ownership and, across the arena — from team to fan to vendor to staff — a first-time valley use of the possessive pronoun, “Ours.”
“The guys were eager to get this win; show these fans, show this arena how we play and what we can do,” Firebirds’ head coach Dan Bylsma said after the victory. “It’s been a long road for our guys and we’ve been in a lot of different buildings for the first 22 games; a couple days ago, we got the win in San Diego, and the players were adamant, everybody’s thoughts were about coming back home here and getting this win on opening night.”
While the desert is no stranger to serving as an international event hub, the annual slate of concerts, golf tournaments, tennis matches and cultural sundries come and go with the calendar.
Hockey is here to stay as a desert staple.
“I love seeing all these people out here; so many of the faces and friends that I see at sporting events in the valley, so it’s great that hockey is able to bring everybody together and that we have something to rally around,” said opening night attendee Casey Dill, a local resident (and manager of the Palm Springs Power baseball club). “I have chills tonight. This is such a cool feeling and something we can all be so proud of.”
As the team began a welcomed stretch of 11 home games in 34 days, the debut made a distinct impression for those unadorned with the sport.
“It’s our first hockey game ever, and just a totally new experience for us,” said Jan, a local retiree, attending with her husband. “This is once in a lifetime tonight. I just love being in the crowd with folks, and the action on the ice is just so fast and remarkable. The desert needed this; we needed a team to bring the valley together.”
Added a fellow fan named Dean:
“Really well done with the arena; there’s a great energy here and it feels like a true pro game. All the seats are great, and ours were really reasonably priced. We’re from L.A., and I got introduced to hockey in the Gretzky era, so this is just very fun to see in our backyard. And it’s not forced excitement. People are genuinely enjoying being here. Just look around at all the swag, all the hats and shirts and hockey sweaters.”
As the Firebirds improved to a stellar 15-5-3 with the debut desert victory, arena employees enjoyed the same degree of heightened pride.
“It’s going well; the arena is packed and people are excited,” said Tina, an Acrisure Arena cocktail vendor and regional resident. “And this is an excellent addition to the community, from the games to the concerts, it’s something this area needed. And it’s great to see all the people dressed up in jerseys tonight; people are really in the team spirit.”
Much of the packed house indeed donned team attire, with Firebirds’ hats and hoodies proving popular sellers and scarves flying off shelves.
“Everybody is so excited tonight, and while talking to fans I know that people came here from all over the valley and a lot of other places, too,” said outdoor merchandise vendor, Andres. “I’ve never experienced anything like this. I’ve never even seen a hockey game until tonight; I went inside for a few minutes to watch and I got hooked on the game.”
The on-ice perspective found a team with its own sense of awe.
“Tonight was amazing,” Firebirds’ goalie Joey Daccord said after earning the win in net. “Even just coming out for warmups and seeing the place packed; just really special to be a part of it.”
The franchise motto of “One Valley. One Team. Rising Together.,” proved more than mere words on the historic eve. Rather, the phrase was experienced, it was enjoyed, it was lived.
And, for the first time ever – it was indeed ours.
“All of the guys had a huge anticipation for getting in here, but I still don’t think we were quite prepared what we were in for,” concluded Bylsma. “From the light show, the fans going crazy, it felt like a playoff atmosphere. It really energized the guys. I thought it was unparalleled; I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an American Hockey League game quite like it.”