Written by Judd Spicer
A debut season flown upon feathers of destiny came to a close on Wednesday night, as the Hershey Bears beat the Coachella Valley Firebirds 3-2 in overtime in Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals at Acrisure Arena.
After the ‘Birds took a 2-0 lead early in the second period, Hershey battled back with a trio of unanswered goals, culminating with the Cup title winner by Bears’ winger Mike Vecchione at the 16:19 mark of the extra session.
The series featured a trio of overtime games, all of which were captured by Hershey.
The Cup win was the 12th all-time for the Bears, extending the franchise’s AHL-best championship mark. No other team in league history has won 10 titles.
Even as the Bears mobbed in concert after the game-winner, the sold-out Acrisure crowd of 10,087 rang loud the familiar hymns which oft-narrated the Once-in-a-Lifetime season, appreciatively chanting, “Joey! Joey! Joey!” along with the cadence of “Let’s Go Firebirds!”
Post-game, an emotional Dan Bylsma took some time to address the outcome, and the season.
“Speaking from experience, this loss will not leave me for a long time,” Bylsma said. “But, the work, the commitment, the sacrifice, the effort and the compete that this group has put in throughout the whole year will stay with me for a long time.”
Part communal phenomenon, part AHL nationwide darling and part once-in-a-lifetime wild ride, the Firebirds’ inaugural season proved as historic as it was thrilling, despite not winning the season’s final game.
“I think it will take some time to appreciate that,” said Bylsma of the excitement and pride his squad brought the desert in the captivating, if not improbable season . “I said to the guys post-game that there’s nothing at this point and time I’m going to say to them that going to assuage the bitter disappointment of losing this game. But I remember back to summertime, and talking about bringing hockey to the desert, to Acrisure Arena, and I don’t think there could have been a better result in that regard. And that’s kind of all on the guys; we talked about bringing a team that the valley could be proud of, that people could get behind and that would mean something to this area, and the guys couldn’t have done more in that regard; in that way it was a remarkably successful season.”
En route to the Calder Cup Finals, Coachella Valley became the first-ever AHL team west of Texas to make it to the title round, while also becoming the first team since the Texas Stars of 2009-10 to make it to the championship series in their inaugural season.
Since the American Hockey League debuted in 1936, only on first-year expansion franchise, the 1977-78 Maine Mariners, has ever captured the Cup in its inaugural year.
Wednesday’s Game 7 was the 98th contest of CV’s campaign, the heftiest game tally in AHL history; in addition, the four winner-take-all games the ‘Birds played across their 26 postseason games also set a new AHL mark.
After debuting the franchise on October 16th and breaking maiden on Acrisure Arena on the 18th of December, the Firebirds’ debut year ultimately lasted until the Summer Solstice, played nine days longer than the NBA season and eight days following the conclusion of Stanley Cup Finals.
Such length only made Wednesday’s overtime session seem befitting, as the extended dual proved just the second Game 7 in AHL history to go to OT and the first such overtime contest in seventy years.
Playing with early pace, the ‘Birds got the scoring underway early, taking a 1-0 lead at the 4:41 mark of the opening period when an Andrew Poturalski right-to-left wraparound skate resulted in a patient find and ensuing Ryker Evans rocket over the left shoulder of Bears’ goalie Hunter Shepard.
Taking the one-goal edge into the first intermission, CV wasted no time tacking on another score in the second frame. A mere 24 seconds into the period, Kole Lind found Max McCormick with a stellar centering pass across the right circle which the CV captain then pumped past Shepard’s weak side for his 14th goal of the playoffs.
With just over six minutes left in the second and Hershey playing with the man advantage for the second time on the night, the Bears got on the board with a power play goal from Connor McMichael, who scored for the second consecutive game. Less than four minutes later, Hershey tied the game at 2-2 with a lengthy rip from the right side by center Hendrix Lapierre.
Following seven consecutive home wins in the Calder Cup Playoffs, Wednesday’s loss for the ‘Birds first on their home ice since falling to Calgary in Game 4 of the Pacific Division Finals on May 17th.
“The winning team, the team that holds the trophy, always gets the bounce, gets that one play. That’s the story of the winner,” Bylsma said. “This came down to the 98th game, to overtime and to a puck bouncing around in front of the net and a backdoor tap-in for Hershey to win the Cup.”
In closure, the Firebirds’ frontman offered the wisdom of Hall of Famer “Freddy the Fog,” two-cup Cup championship coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. “Freddy Shero once said, ‘You win today, and you walk together forever,’” quoted Bylsma. “We didn’t win today, but this group of guys is a special group, and they will walk together forever.”