FLINT — Seventeen months have passed since the Flint Firebirds last took to the ice at the Dort Financial Center.
But come this fall, the Firebirds will be back in front of fans and launching a new era of junior league hockey in their newly renovated home arena.
With Ontario Hockey League (OHL) play set to resume, Flint will kick off its regular season at home against the Erie Otters on Oct. 9 and Oct. 14 and the Saginaw Spirit on Oct. 20. The Firebirds will also play four preseason games, including home contests with Erie on Oct. 2 and Saginaw on Oct. 3.
Terry Christensen, President of Hockey Operations for the Flint Firebirds, said that new and returning players are chomping at the bit to show their skills on the OHL stage.
“Taken together, we’ve got basically two whole draft classes that haven’t played an OHL game yet,” he said. “They can’t wait to hit the ice.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, the OHL was forced to cancel the remainder of its 2019/2020 season. At that time, the Firebirds were positioned to make the playoffs and potentially secure the best finish in franchise history.
Despite efforts to get play restarted, the OHL also cancelled its 2020/2021 season due to COVID-19 and travel restrictions and scrapped a return-to-play plan in April.
“The shutdown of the season was difficult on players, the fanbase and ownership,” Christensen said. “For the players…their dream is to get drafted, showcase their talents in the OHL and someday play in the NHL. But that was taken away because of the pandemic.”
With regular season play back on track this year, the Firebirds added defensive skill and size to their line-up in the 2021 U-16 draft, including the selections of defensemen Tristan Bertucci (first round) and James Petrovski (second round). Flint will also have a completely new coaching staff with first year OHL head coach Ted Dent and assistant coaches Jared Nightingale and Kris Sparre.
“This is arguably one season where someone is going to come in and really surprise the coaching staff,” Christensen said. “We have a lot of talent, and it will be interesting to see who emerges from training camp.”
Fans will get to experience the return of Firebirds’ hockey in a revamped arena, complete with new seating and LED banners that will display advertising and other messages.
Starting last Thanksgiving, Dort Financial crews installed nearly 4,000 seats from the Palace of Auburn Hills, which were donated by the Detroit Pistons after the Palace was demolished in 2019.
LED banner lighting that once circled the Palace has also been installed inside the Dort Financial Center, wrapping around the lobby and ringing the main arena from faceoff circle to faceoff circle and around the upper tier seating.
Other additions with the nearly $3 million renovation project include new concession stands, locker rooms, a video scoreboard, a press box and parking lot lighting. A new ice rink surface is also being completed for the main arena and will be ready in time for hockey season.
“Fans are going to get a significantly enhanced game experience,” said Jeremy Torrey, President of the Flint Firebirds. “The LED lights, in particular, create a more exciting environment and will make a much more impactful job of supporting our sponsors.”
Promotional events are also being lined up for the season, including an opening night ceremony on Oct. 9, Military Appreciation Night, First Responders Night, Whaley Superhero Night and an Old Newsboys fundraiser night.
For more information on tickets and promotions, visit flintfirebirds.com.