Pro hockey’s return to Tucson kicks off in grand fashion
There are plenty of times in sports when numbers don’t tell the whole story.
This – the telling of the start of Arizona’s newest pro hockey franchise, the Tucson Roadrunners – is not one of those times.
A week after notching the American Hockey League (AHL) franchise’s dramatic first win since moving west from Springfield, Mass., this past offseason – a come-from-behind, 2-1 overtime win at Stockton – the Roadrunners took the ice on Oct. 27 at their new home, the upgraded Tucson Convention Center, in front of their eager new fan base.
Some of the numbers to stand out after that fateful Friday evening in Downtown Tucson:
— 6,521 – A sellout crowd for the first-ever Roadrunner home game
— 3:50 – Time left in the third period when Eric Selleck scored the Roadrunners’ sixth goal; it was the game-winner, no less, in yet another comeback win over Stockton
— 3 and 2 – Deficits erased by Tucson after falling behind 3-0 in the first and 4-2 in the second
— 1st – Over the next few days, more wins would pile up and the Roadrunners would enter November atop the AHL’s Pacific Division standings
“The game was pretty entertaining, to say the least,” said Roadrunner forward Henrik Samuelsson, a prospect of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes and native of the state himself, having grown up in the Phoenix area and playing youth hockey at numerous Valley stops. “When I heard it was sold out, I was really excited. It’s definitely been a process here getting everything set up, but it’s starting to feel like home to us.”
Putting a successful product on the ice matters for the Roadrunners, of course; the team is the Coyotes’ primary minor-league affiliate, with the Phoenix-area NHL franchise moving its AAA affiliate to within a two-hour drive this summer.
But for fans – and prospective youth and adult hockey players – in the lower part of the state, calculating the success of an event like that inaugural night goes well beyond the box score.
Case in point: another number, this time 16. Coyotes, Rangers, Bruins, Flyers, Canucks, Blackhawks, Sabres, Canadiens, Red Wings, Wild, Oilers, Penguins, Capitals, Stars, Maple Leafs, Blue Jackets; that’s the (unofficial) tally of NHL club sweaters that could be seen in the TCC Arena stands on opening night, giving a bit of circumstantial evidence that the Tucson region’s nearly 1 million residents know and care at least a little about having the game in their own backyards.
To boot, there was international flavor (like Team Canada and old-school U.S.S.R. jerseys), fans sporting throwback gear (including that of the old Minnesota North Stars, 1990s-era Phoenix Roadrunners, and loads of teal and black Kachina-era Phoenix Coyotes garb) and representation of the local hockey scene (including fans of various ages sporting jerseys of Tucson’s own Wildcat Youth Hockey Association (WYHA) and University of Arizona).
“The proof is in the pudding right here – this is it,” WYHA coaching director Ryan DeJoe – tending to a youth hockey recruitment table on the arena’s main concourse – said literally seconds before Selleck went five-hole for the game winner.
According to DeJoe, the WYHA – which had scores of players, parents and other supporters of its Jr. Roadrunners and Jr. Wildcats youth teams on hand at the opener – sold nearly 650 tickets to the opener itself – right at 10 percent of the total gate.
Tucson native and resident Cody Harris, 22, said he’s never had the chance to play hockey growing up because of the lack of a public-use ice rink in Southern Arizona for much of his upbringing. But that hasn’t stopped him from being an avid fan of the game.
“I’m used to driving two, three hours to get to games (in Glendale),” said Harris, on hand at the opener wearing his NHL Coyotes’ No. 41 Mike Smith jersey. “But this is great. I bought tickets (to this) the minute they went on sale.”
— Brett Fera