Thursday, March 2, 2023

Calgary Wranglers 3 at Coachella Valley Firebirds 1 (AHL) - March 1, 2023

The AHL has been a league that I have been ignoring over the past couple of years, waiting for a bunch of new arenas to open. Over the past two seasons, five teams have either built new rinks or moved into existing ones, with every one on the west side of North America. Sadly, schedules would not allow me to see all of them this season, so I chose the three that were geographically proximate, and planned a trip around the beginning of March. The first stop was Coachella Valley, where Seattle's new AHL affiliate started playing this season in the town of Palm Desert. The biggest city in the valley is Palm Springs and surprisingly Southwest has a direct flight from LaGuardia. Direct does not mean non-stop, but you don't have to leave the plane so you won't miss the connection. I had some Southwest points still after they canceled a flight over the Christmas holiday, so booked a three-leg trip with stops in Denver and Las Vegas. It was a clear day in NYC and I got a great shot of the entire airfield at LGA, whose new terminals have changed it from a hellish dump to a modern wonder.

Our flight was delayed somewhat as we had to de-ice, but I was not concerned as the same plane would be making its way to Las Vegas. Or so I thought. Turns out that Southwest swapped the planes, and my flight from Denver to Vegas would be leaving as scheduled on a different aircraft, about five minutes after I landed. How did I find out about this? By checking my boarding pass somewhere over Omaha (below), where I learned that I was now supposed to board a non-stop flight from Denver to Palm Springs. At first, this seemed like a better option, though it would get me into Palm Springs about an hour later. When we landed, however, the flight attendant said that Vegas-bound passengers should head over to Gate C47 as that flight had been delayed, likely due to snow flurries in Denver. We were at Gate C29, and after I got off the plane, peed, and raced to gate C47, it was too late. Not that I could have boarded, as my boarding pass had changed. Again, without anyone actually telling me.

Still, I didn't have to wait long, as my new flight was scheduled to depart in just over an hour. But of course, as it was coming in from Colorado Springs (much, much different than Palm Springs), there was that little bit of snow. And of course, that little bit of snow caused a ground stop in Colorado Springs. I was unable to get help from a Southwest agent, not that they could have done anything. I could only wait and hope that the snow passed. I paced the airport, cursing at the weather gods, who eventually pitied me and allowed the snow to clear. The plane arrived from Colorado Springs, I boarded, and off we went. The view below calmed my nerves somewhat.

Coming into Palm Springs, I was amazed at how narrow the valley really is, particularly the northern part. The picture below doesn't show this, but Palm Springs is literally surrounded by mountains. It was one of the few larger cities I had yet to visit in the United States and I was quite impressed.

Having landed about four hours later than scheduled, I did not have time to head to my hotel. Instead, I picked up my rental car and drove straight from the airport to Acrisure Arena, home of the Coachella Valley Firebirds. Acrisure is an insurance company, and I guess the arena is taking a page from the industry because this is a gouge from start to finish. Parking is $25 prepaid and $35 otherwise. This is for the AHL! Minor league hockey! Most NHL rinks don't charge this much. You can try rideshares, but they seem few and far between here. You can also try leaving the car about 30 minutes away and hoofing it, but that is not recommended. The good news is that you can prepay even in the lot, just download the ParkWhiz app and follow instructions to save $10. A fellow sports traveler who warned me of this felt that they cannot actually check every license plate, so perhaps try not paying and see what happens. After the day I had, however, I was not willing to take the risk.

Anyway, tickets here are also stupidly overpriced, with some seats in excess of $100. Did I mention this is minor league hockey? Of course, there are no hard tickets either. I found a much cheaper option on the secondary market, but it still cost me $30 after fees. So that's $55 before you've even stepped in the door.

Once you have done that, you should be impressed with the outdoor plaza that has a number of food options, including Shaq's Big Chicken. Until you see the prices. A beef bacon Smashedburger at Tanner's is $18, which is what you would expect to pay for a freshly made burger at an upscale restaurant. See that little window to the right of the menu? That's where the food is. Premade, wrapped, and you pick it up and checkout yourself. It's fast food at slow food prices, with zero ambience thrown in. Having not had time to eat, I paid $16 plus tax (they even had the audacity to ask for a tip) for a prime rib sandwich and it was quite disappointing. We are now up to $71 and the puck has yet to drop. In case you have missed the main point, this is the American Hockey League, the second-tier of professional hockey in North America. 

I did find solace in one spot, thankfully it was a Wednesday.

So $76 poorer, I toured the rink. I want to be grumpy, but at least the building itself is rather nice. It opened in December 2022, and seats 10,000 for hockey; legroom seems more than sufficient looking at the photo below.

The seating bowl is a horseshoe, with the single main scoreboard at one end, so don't sit below it if you want to see some highlights. You can walk around the entire concourse, which has more overpriced concessions. As the franchise is completely new, there is no history to be seen here.

At the scoreboard end, there are a couple of small sections (111 and 117) that are not facing any part of the ice and should thus be avoided.

There are drink rails above much of the seating bowl and I ended up spending most of my time here, as it gives you a bit more freedom and you can stand near center ice. There are also drink rails at a couple of corners that provide a different view and are better than the seats behind the goal.

Despite being prompted to Get Geared Up, I did not visit the team store, because I was already broke.

The pregame is nice, with a dark arena and the Firebirds coming out as fire rages around them. 

Overall, Acrisure Arena is an anomaly in the minor league sporting world and cannot remain so insanely expensive for long. Minor league baseball prides itself on being affordable, and despite the area being home to many wealthy individuals, I can't imagine local fans are going to keep coming to games once the novelty has worn off. It is no exaggeration to say that this quickly became my least favourite venue in the land and I certainly won't be back.

The Game

The Calgary Wranglers, who had moved from Stockton this season and are playing in the Saddledome, were the visitors, so I got to hear O! Canada, always a welcome experience when in the United States. The Wranglers lead the Pacific Division, with the Firebirds hot on their tail.

After a scoreless first period, which saw the Wranglers manage just a single shot on Chris Driedger (who I saw in Seattle last season), Brett Sutter (who I saw in Charlotte in 2010) got the visitors on the board, beating Driedger in close.

In the third, Driedger tried to play the puck, but Matthew Phillips stole it from him and scored on the wraparound to add some insurance. The Firebirds pulled Driedger, but Ben Jones managed a very impressive empty netter from his own goal line to seal things. It was so impressive that the AHL highlights didn't even capture it.

The only question was whether Calgary keeper Dustin Wolf could maintain the shutout and unfortunately for him, the answer was no as Jimmy Schuldt scored a bit of a fluke with 1:13 to go to make the final 3-1. That is Wolf below, the first star, with second star Sutter walking back to the dressing room behind him. Not a particularly thrilling game, but at least I did not fall asleep despite having woken up 20 hours before.


Radim Zohorna assisted on the first goal and for his efforts was traded to Toronto two days later, where he promptly got a misconduct penalty in his first game with the Marlies.




  1. I didn’t notice the outdoor food concessions when I was there. I wonder if they are newer. - Kevin

  2. Don't understand these arenas that place a large video screen at one end (Toledo Huntington Center is another; not sure if there are others) thereby depriving several thousand fans of an easy view of a screen. Why no 4-sided hanging board?