Hockey News

For McCormick, the Firebirds' captain is 'a huge honour'

Patrick Features Writer

Life for the Coachella Valley Firebirds feels familiar these days.

It's the middle of May, and they're still playing hockey in the southern California desert. They just survived a challenge from the stubborn Calgary Wranglers. Their loyal fans packed the Acrisure Arena. And the captain Max McCormick helps lead the way.

Last year McCormick accumulated 27 points, including 14 goals, in 26 postseason contests as the Firebirds reached Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals before a heartbreaking overtime loss to Hershey. McCormick, a 10-year champion, returned this season ready to run again in the competition, scoring a career-best 32 goals and ranking second on the club with 60 points.

Coming off of last year's championship and after winning the Pacific Division title in 2023-24, postseason expectations were understandably high as the team prepared to face Calgary in the semifinals.

But the Firebirds might not be playing if not for McCormick. Down 1-0 in the series and trailing 3-2 late in Game 2, McCormick scored the tying goal with 5:27 left to force overtime, where Devin Shore's game-winning goal gave Coachella Valley a much-needed win. The captain also came through in Game 3 with two goals in the third period to win 7-5, and the Firebirds went on to close the series in four games.

The head coach Dan Bylsma relied heavily on McCormick for leadership in the franchise's first two seasons, since the team had to spend the first two months of its first season on the road while Acrisure Arena finished construction.

But the relationship between the two was formed even before the Firebirds took the ice. In 2021-22, the Seattle Kraken's first season, the organization sent its AHL staff to the Charlotte Checkers for a one-year deal with the Florida Panthers. Bylsma was hired to represent the Kraken in an appointment as an assistant coach in Charlotte, while McCormick, signed as a free agent by the Kraken on September 30, 2021, was named captain by one of the Checkers.

Bylsma quickly became a fan of McCormick's game.

“He's a true professional in the way he works,” Bylsma said. “He is a true master in his determination and tenacity. He is the leader of everyone.”

It's easy to point to McCormick's output and conclude that puck skills define his game. But it was the unwavering consistency that stood out the most for Bylsma. McCormick plays a tough, rugged game, and he always does. He can play in all situations and is an easy plug-in when needed.

This season's Firebirds club is shaped differently than the one that took their fans on a ride to the Calder Cup Playoffs last year. Loaded with talent last season, these Firebirds are lean, low and dirty. Some of that is the staff; some of which could be lessons learned from last year's five rounds of Calder Cup Playoff hockey.

He can still score so much that he led the league with 3.50 goals per game in the regular season. But it's a physical team now.

“We just found different ways to win all season,” McCormick said.

McCormick is also proof that development is not limited to players in their first or second season. Drafted by Ottawa in 2011, he began his professional career in 2014-15 with the Binghamton Senators in a third- or fourth-line role, scoring double-digits in goals and triple-digits in penalty minutes in his first three seasons. He developed into a solid two-way player, adding power play and penalty-killing responsibilities.

And regardless of his role, McCormick has been a reliable recall option, playing 94 games in the National Hockey League with Ottawa, Carolina and Seattle.

It's a resume that serves as a role model for anyone on the Coachella Valley roster. There is a reason why the club made McCormick their first captain last season.

Any AHL club, especially a dangerous Calder Cup contender like the Firebirds, needs leadership. McCormick provides it.

“Wearing the 'C' is a huge honor,” McCormick said. “It's a role I don't take lightly.” features writer Patrick Williams has covered the American Hockey League for nearly two decades at outlets including, Sportsnet, TSN, Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM ! Sports, and most recently was the host of The Hockey News On The 'A' podcast. He was the recipient of the AHL's James H. Ellery Memorial Award for the league's top scorer in 2016.

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