Temperatures in the California desert exceeded the 100-degree mark early this week. Not a place you’d expect to find hockey executives, but it’s where Troy Bodie found himself, hopefully with plenty of air conditioning.
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Bodie is the director of hockey and business operation for the Seattle Kraken’s new American Hockey League affiliate, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, and he spent Monday getting a tour of the soon-to-be-completed Acrisure Arena.
The arena is set to be complete in time for the hockey team to begin play this coming season, and the Firebirds will be the first professional sports team in the Coachella Valley.
“It’s a full-on buzz out here about the project and the team, the arena,” Bodie said. “The events we’re gonna have here, it’s a full-on buzz.”
Acrisure Arena will be a 10,000-seat venue, but it’s not the only thing that the Firebirds are in the process of building. They also have to build a team from scratch.
There is no expansion draft for the AHL, and Bodie, along with Seattle Kraken general manager Ron Francis and assistant general managers Ricky Olczyk and Jason Botterill, have to build a roster in time to compete in the fall.
While the minor leagues may not be as glitzy as the NHL, last season showed the importance. The Kraken needed players as injuries happened and AHLers like Max McCormick, Alex True and Joey Daccord, and others were called up to fill in.
The search for players has somewhat begun, and the Kraken have signed a couple of young prospects out of Europe – Finnish forward Ville Petman and Seepo Seppala – that most likely will end up in the AHL for the Kraken. But the real push for players will come in July as the Firebirds will look to build a roster.
“July 13 is when all the contracts expire – it’s free agency day,” Bodie said. “That’s the day in which you’ll know exactly who is available and who can sign.”
That includes players who played in the Kraken system with the Charlotte Checkers last season, when the team split its minor-league affiliation with the Florida Panthers. Most of those players were on expiring restricted free agent contracts so the Kraken will need to re-sign them in order to keep them in the organization.
Those players alone aren’t enough to fill an entire roster, however, so Bodie and his colleagues will be busy this summer.
AHL rosters are a mixture of players on two-way contracts with the big club and those on AHL deals. Bodie anticipates half of the Coachella Valley roster to be made up of AHL free agents that the team signs this coming summer.
The Firebirds exist to develop players and support the Kraken, but that doesn’t mean these free agents will all be young prospects. Many could end up being veterans of hockey’s minor leagues.
“You’re certainly looking for a mix,” Bodie said. “You want some young players to kind of build your prospect pool for the Kraken, but you’re also looking for some veterans that can help lead those younger players and also kind of take the reins in terms of being key players on the team. ”
One area of focus to watch for who the Kraken and Firebirds end up signing is in goal. With the injury that’s going to keep Kraken goaltended Chris Driedger out for seven to nine months, Joey Daccord may end up in the NHL, meaning that the Firebirds will need goalies. Antoine Biebeau was in the minor leagues last season and could fill in for Daccord, but he is one of the players who becomes a free agent in July so the franchise will have to make a decision on him. Either way, they will need to sign at least one goalie who can play in the AHL.
It’s a reminder that what the Kraken do trickles down to the Firebirds. That’s life in the AHL, where you could lose some of your top players at any time if the big club needs to call someone up to cover for injuries. It’s part of the balance between supporting the Kraken while still trying to win hockey games.
Those priorities can be in conflict at times.
“It is a very delicate balance, and I don’t know if there’s a specific formula,” Bodie said. “I always say the job, from a Kraken side of things to the American league team is to develop players for the Seattle Kraken, although you have to win in your market to sell enough tickets to make the team profitable. I think the best way of developing players is in a winning atmosphere and you have to learn what it takes to win. Great experience comes from winning championships and going through playoff series. Winning is always No. 1 but at the same time you are still thinking development.”
It’s with that balance in mind that the Kraken will move forward to build the Firebirds roster and why we could see a mix of younger players along with minor league veterans get signed.
NHL Draft picks aren’t eligible – in most cases – to play in the AHL until they are 20 years old, meaning that the roster will have to be made up mostly of free-agent signees. Last year’s second-round Kraken selection, Ryker Evans, is the only draft pick likely to play in the AHL this season.
Bodie and the Firebirds are in a unique position since the arena will not be complete until December. Francis announced at the end of the season that Coachella Valley will have to hold their training camp and start the season in Seattle.
While not ideal, Bodie thinks there are some positives to that.
“Being around the parent club is always beneficial,” he said. “When we get this facility built, it’s gonna be a world-class facility and world-class development program. Obviously, we’re doing our best to make things happen in the meantime up in Seattle, but we’ll play some games up there and you’ll have the eyes of all the Kraken staff, management, and coaches able to watch the games , and that’s very beneficial.”
The NHL is the ultimate goal for the Firebirds players and they’ll get a taste at training camp and playing in Seattle. They’ll be able to glimpse what life in the big leagues is all about and the style of play they’ll need to reach it.
It’s not just players that Bodie and the Firebirds need to add. They need a head coach, assistants, equipment managers, athletic trainers, and the full staff needed to run a professional hockey team. It makes for a busy summer and Bodie says they’ll have everyone in place before training camp, if not sooner.
The next couple of months will see the roster start to take form, and then Seattle fans will get the first look at the future of the Kraken before they return to the buzz and heat of the desert.
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