Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Thunderbirds set to return to the ice for 2021-22 season

By Zachary Baru

The Springfield Thunderbirds of the American Hockey League announced last week they will return to the ice to play in the 2021-22 season this fall.  

The target start date will be October 16, and the team is hoping to be able to allow full capacity at the home games this season according to Nate Costa, President of the Thunderbirds.  Built in 1972 and renovated in 2005, the MassMutual Center, the Thunderbirds' home venue, seats 6,663 fans for hockey games.

The news comes with great relief to local businesses in the downtown area who have been suffering throughout the entire pandemic, but also hit even harder by the loss of 38 hockey events that bring fans into restaurants, bars, hotels and shops in Downtown Springfield.  

Local businesses - the ones that are fortunate to remain - are hoping to pick up where they left off before the pandemic, typically welcoming patrons before and after Thunderbirds games.  Away teams, coaches, staff, and media support local hotels, along with occasional fans traveling for away games.  The restaurant and bar scene in Downtown Springfield were arguably impacted the most, as many downtown establishments see a noticeable difference between nights when there are Thunderbirds home games and nights when the team does not play.  

Aside from the local business owners at these restaurants and stores, all staff including servers, bartenders, bar-backs, managers and cooks have lost a tremendous amount of tips and hours without downtown events brining in customers on a weekly basis.  

As the country continues to become vaccinated, and life slowly moves closer to normal, the local economy in Springfield will soon get a much needed shot of life pumped into the downtown.  As the Thunderbirds are set to play a key role in Downtown Springfield's revival, the relief for all employees at local businesses cannot come soon enough.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Basketball Hall of Fame to hold enshrinement at Mohegan Sun Arena, continuing partnership with resort

By Zachary Baru

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will be holding their enshrinement at the Mohegan Sun Arena, marking the first year the museum will hold the ceremony at the resort casino in Uncasville, Connecticut.

The Enshrinement Weekend, taking place May 14-15, 2021, will continue a partnership the Hall of Fame has had for many years with Mohegan Sun.  This year, however, the Hall of Fame will hold their enshrinement in the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena, an arena that has has 9,323 fixed seats and expandable to 10,000 for concerts.  The arena has won numerous awards, most recently winning Casino of the Year award for venues at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 2019.  This is the seventh time in 12 years the Mohegan Sun Arena has won the award at the ACMs.

Aside from being an intimate yet rather large arena, and a modern venue, holding this year's enshrinement at the resort casino also allows the other events of the weekend to all be held on the same property.  Whether this is COVID-related has not been mentioned, but it does add to the case of making the Mohegan Sun property a good choice to host the weekend event.  

The weekend events begin on Friday, May 14 with media availability at 2:00 p.m.  Later that afternoon at 5:00 a Tip-Off Celebration and Awards Gala will be held.  The following day on Saturday, May 15 there will be a VIP Reception at 2:00 p.m., followed by the 2021 Enshrinement Ceremony at 5:00 p.m. at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

With two luxury hotels, 50 restaurants, bars and eating options, and two separate convention and exposition centers all connected on the same property, Mohegan Sun allows the Hall of Fame to host the entire weekend event inside the resort casino.  The ability to have all of the weekend events within walking distance and inside the same resort is an interesting concept, one that makes for a good case to hold the event outside of Springfield, the location of the Hall of Fame.  While this plan will undoubtedly see some criticism from the Springfield-area, during a global pandemic, there is a level of safety that this provides.  

This year's enshrinement will be yet another example of a long-time partnership between the Basketball Hall of Fame and Mohegan Sun.  The resort casino and its arena have hosted numerous tournaments and one-day showcases for both men's and women's college basketball.  The Mohegan Sun Arena hosts the annual Tip-Off Tournament, and Mohegan Sun is a key sponsor of the museum in Springfield.  Having the enshrinement at the resort casino will continue to strengthen this partnership, while offering a location that can conveniently host all weekend events all in one property.  

Sunday, March 7, 2021

With the loss of a Thunderbirds season, Western Mass. Zombies set to become Springfield’s only team this spring

By Zachary Baru

Like many cities, the City of Springfield and it’s downtown entertainment district has been hit hard by COVID-19.  The Springfield Thunderbirds of the American Hockey League announced in 2020 they would sit out the 2020-21 season due to the coronavirus, leaving Springfield without sports and entertainment for quite some time.  That is all about to change next month, as another team is about to start its season and welcome fans to downtown.

The Western Mass. Zombies of the East Coast Basketball League have announced they will begin their third season in Springfield on April 3.  The team will return to the South End Community Center for a third season.  Although games typically have a capacity of 200, this season the capacity has been limited to 40 fans.  

The Zombies, owned by Bill and Nichole Bullock, formerly were members of the American Basketball Association, joining the ECBL in 2020.  The Zombies will play teams throughout the Northeast such as Philadelphia and Fredericksburg, in a league that has teams that stretch throughout the East Coast down into the Carolinas.  

The South End Community Center is a modern $10.3 million facility opened in 2017.  The Zombies’ current configuration allows for 200 fans, but make no mistake about it, the court and basketball venue are rather large with a high ceiling and modern touches throughout the facility.  LED lighting, new baskets and new scoreboards make watching the game enjoyable, especially in such an intimate atmosphere where fans can get very close to the action.  

Located in Springfield's South End, the venue and the Zombies will be welcoming fans back to Springfield to watch live professional sports for the first time in nearly one year.  While the Zombies will only be starting the season with a limited seating of 40 fans, it is a start to slowly bringing entertainment-based economic life back to the downtown area.  

The cancellation of the Thunderbirds' season may have been a blow to business in Downtown Springfield, but that isn't the only shot to Springfield's economy during COVID.  The loss of events such as concerts and conventions at the MassMutual Center has had a major affect on the downtown economy.  

Countless restaurants, hotels and shops have been hit with a major loss of revenue.  The addition of events such as basketball and other sports can provide an opportunity for the downtown economy to begin to recover.  Having teams such as the Western Mass. Zombies return to the city is a positive sign for an economy that has felt the affects of COVID-19 for twelve consecutive months.  Fortunately, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel, a light area businesses have long been waiting for.

Zach Baru can be followed @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Thunderbirds opt out of season, plans to resume play in 2021-22 season

By Zachary Baru

Hockey fans in Springfield will have to wait until the fall for the return of professional hockey, as the Springfield Thunderbirds announced that they will be voluntarily opting out of the 2020-21 American Hockey League season.

Not only will this be a major loss for hockey fans and families seeking entertainment in the area, but this impacts the already-hurt restaurants and other businesses in the city's downtown.  Economics aside, with a rise in cases and a concern for the safety of fans, the numbers show that this was most likely the right choice made by the team.

The Thunderbirds aren't alone, the team is one of three AHL franchises choosing to opt out of the season. Since joining the AHL in 2016 after the Springfield Falcons left for Tucson Arizona, the Thunderbirds have achieved a quick and large amount of momentum in the city.  There is no question COVID-19 has affected this momentum, but the impression the Thunderbirds have made on the city and its fans has been extremely positive, a sign the momentum could easily continue once play is resumed in the fall.

Without significant television revenue, a minor league team like the Thunderbirds depends on its ticket sales for revenue.  Removing this would make a season extremely difficult, a contributing factor to having the Thunderbirds choose to opt out of play.

When hockey returns, the 94-year legacy of Springfield hockey will continue, once again bringing fans into the city and aiding a downtown in need of its team.

Zach Baru can be followed @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.