Carolina Thunderbirds: Better the Second Time Around
By Zak DeBeaussaert
Photos V. Khouri – Carolina Thunderbirds
When the Carolina Thunderbirds arrived in town to bring professional hockey back to the Piedmont Triad last season, they were met with an incredible amount of fan support that saw the team break the league’s attendance record and secure a playoff berth in their inaugural season. Now in year two, the Thunderbirds are thriving, competing for a championship, and becoming a bigger player in the community every day.
As of this writing, the Thunderbirds have never relinquished first place in the 2018-19 standings and feature crowds at their home games that are exceeding last year’s record-breaking numbers. The Thunderbirds have won 13 of their 17 games this season to remain atop the FHL standings and have a double-digit lead over their closest competition. Their average attendance this season is close to 2,500 a night.
While the early success has been great, the team is focused on turning that into long-term sustainability.
“I think the biggest factor of our success is we have players that came back from last year and the new players are buying in and playing for each other,” head coach Andre Niec said. “We have players from all around the world, every player brings something special to the team and I think that’s why we’re successful. When I look at this team, they are brothers that stick together.”
The Thunderbirds are led by their Captain Josh Pietrantonio who, as of games played before December 21, leads the team in points and is a co-leader in goals scored this season. Pietrantonio has history with Niec playing alongside him when the two were part of a team in Berlin, NH before Niec transitioned into his current role as a head coach.
“Playing for Andre in Berlin allowed us to build a lot of chemistry and it’s transitioned over here [in Winston-Salem]. We’re all invested and bought in to the system and it’s produced a winning culture and on-ice product this season.” Pietrantonio said. “With a new team, you have to do a lot of promo stuff in the community and there’s a lot that goes into every game before we hit the ice, but it pays off when we play in front of a full barn and that’s fun for everyone, fans and players.”
Pietrantonio, who also serves as Niec’s assistant coach, is also the franchise leader in assists and points as a Thunderbird to this point in the franchise’s existence. He has been a key cog in shaping the Thunderbirds culture into something fans can appreciate and cheer for on any given night.
It’s one thing for a team to be successful on the ice and compete for championships, but the team’s sustainability as a franchise is aided by the work of everyone off the ice.
“We’ve invested a lot in the community, in terms of our advertising and partnerships, and I think it was important for us to ingrain ourselves in the community and that’s what we’ve done right to help get the Thunderbirds name out there” Thunderbirds President and GM Scott Brand said.
The Thunderbirds engage in the community in many ways to not only bring fans into the games but to show that they are a key member of the community and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Whether it be holiday parades, City festivals, school appearances, or just a casual meal in town, the Thunderbirds are becoming bigger in the community every single day and fans are beginning to take notice. The Thunderbirds are one of the only teams in the lower minor levels of pro hockey to have their own radio flagship station (WTOB, 980AM/96.3 FM in Winston-Salem) and they are the only team in the league to have a TV deal to broadcast all their games on tape delay (WSTV Tuesday-Thursday nights).
With both traditional and social media coverage there are more ways than your typical minor league hockey team to follow along as the Thunderbirds chase their first Commissioner’s Cup in the FHL. The Thunderbirds are a great asset to the community and the low-cost family-friendly entertainment they provide is always a good time whether it’s your first hockey game or your hundredth.