Written by Judd Spicer
Be it proximity or eventual playoff positioning, the Ontario Reign will have a lot to say about the CV Firebirds’ inaugural season.
Starting with the Firebirds’ 7-6 comeback home win over Ontario on December 28, the Ontario opposition represents a whopping 17 percent of Coachella Valley’s remaining schedule; eight of CV’s final 46 games will be played versus the new highway rivals, whose home ice is located a mere 80 miles west of Acrisure Arena.
Adding fervor (and some fun) to what the team has dubbed the “Ice 10 Showdowns,” Firebirds President Steve Fraser came to his desert post after serving as vice president of business operations for the Reign.
“The rivalries do mean a lot, and when you get that rivalry going, you get your community going to another level of support,” said Fraser before the Firebirds’ late December win. “That can be very special; you can see it, feel it. And players pick up on it and feed off of it, too. To be able to have this rivalry with the Reign presents a completely different level for a lot of people in both organizations. For me, coming here from that organization, moving just an hour down the road and having a few people who I worked with in Ontario come with me to the Firebirds – that all creates a different dynamic.”
The new feud isn’t limited to the front office. From the vantage of the stands, the December 28 game presented more than a mere sprinkle of Reign gear, along with no shortage of black-and-silver L.A. Kings’ sweaters, representing Ontario’s NHL affiliate.
“There’s a big chunk of their fans who are coming here, and, similarly, the rivalry also means that we’ll have some of our fan base traveling to Ontario to cheer on the Firebirds in Toyota Arena,” added Fraser.
The opposing Ontario fandom will no doubt find an enhanced Acrisure presence come the Reign’s second visit, slated for the Pride Weekend festivities on Sunday, January 8; according to both organizations, Ontario season tickets holders have a planned trip of approximately 500 fans eager to attend.
“That’s all going to create a dynamic which our arena hasn’t yet experienced. It’s gonna’ be real,” Fraser enthused. “When there’s a section of fans cheering for the opposition, we haven’t seen that yet.”
The on-ice perspective found further seeds of skate skirmish.
“I’d say it was a good start to the eight games we play them,” said Firebirds’ center Andrew Poturalski, who scored the seventh and game-winning goal in the debut clash. “In a back-and-forth game like we had tonight, you definitely want to come out on the right side of it. I’m sure they’ll remember that, and remember the lead they gave up.”
As for the view from the bench:
“We didn’t like the way the game went, and they had a lot to do with that; and I’m sure they didn’t like some points of the game that we had a lot to do with,” Firebirds’ head coach Dan Bylsma said after the win. “I think the tensions rose a bit, with some verbal and physical exchanges. But that’s the way we need to play, and the way they (Reign) need to expect us to play.”
From sweaters to suits: Amid former co-workers, a mesh of respect and good-natured ribbing should only add to the rivalry recipe.
“I think it’s gonna’ be a natural rivalry, based on how close our markets are,” said Nate Downer, V.P. of Sales & Marketing for the Reign. “We have fans that will go to games at Acrisure and the Firebirds’ fans will travel to our home games. The two teams play each other a bunch, so it will be exciting for both fan bases. And the fact that both teams are off to strong starts will make the games even more meaningful down the stretch.”
Said respect between Downer and Fraser has been earned, not gifted.
Along with hosting the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic, since Ontario’s AHL debut in 2015-16, the organization has proven among the league’s leading draws, ranking in the top-10 in per game attendance every year and charting among the AHL’s top five fans-per-game on three occasions.
“Having worked there for the better part of seven years, working together through the pandemic, we do have a bond,” said Fraser of his former home. “That allows and lends itself to a little more of a ‘familyish’ feel, where I can give them a hard time and I can say things where, yeah, I know it’s not going to escalate into anger. It’s playful banter that keeps things fun and fresh.”
Not that the Firebirds’ frontman doesn’t aim to set an even higher bar with is new gig.
“It’s great to have those people cheering me on; but there’s also something inside you that wants to prove yourself with a new team in a new building,” Fraser said. “It’s a good energy, a good nervousness, but that drives me to push forward and to try and outdo what I helped create with the Reign.”
In concert with planned sales and marketing contests between the organizations, Fraser and his former co-worker aren’t sticking a fork in further, lighthearted wagering.
“Steve and I have a friendly side bet for dinner,” smiled Downer. “I owe him after the first one, so I think we’ll have to go double-or-nothing for the next game.”