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Roadrunners add to growth of hockey in Tucson, will benefit local community

 

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After a long wait but a quick turnaround, professional hockey is back in Tucson.

Coming up on Oct. 28, the Tucson Roadrunners of the American Hockey League (AHL) will play their home opener and begin a new era for hockey in the Old Pueblo.

Professional hockey hasn’t been in Arizona’s second biggest city since the Scorch shut down less than 24 hours before its first game in 2000.

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In April, the Arizona Coyotes purchased the Springfield (Mass.) Falcons and in May, the Tucson City Council approved the team’s lease. Then in June, the winner of the name the team contest was unveiled.

“It’s been certainly very exciting, very thrilling, but obviously with the time constraints we had, it’s moving at 100 miles per hour full motion,” said Roadrunners president Bob Hoffman.

The Mavericks of the Central Hockey League and Icemen of the Southwest Hockey League played in Tucson in the 1970s and the Gila Monsters from the West Coast Hockey League in the 1990s.

Roadrunners general manager Doug Soetaert said the previous teams’ failures don’t worry them.

“The guys that tried here in the past have been under-financed and haven’t been able to get things going,” Soetaert said. “We’re owned by a National Hockey League team that is looking to enlarge the footprint of hockey in the state of Arizona.”

Their logo closely resembles that of the Phoenix Roadrunners, except in the Coyotes’ colors and wearing a sweater that features the NHL team’s logo.

In 1967, the Phoenix Roadrunners joined the Western Hockey League. After the league disbanded in 1974, the name continued in the World Hockey Association, the Pacific Hockey League and the International Hockey League until 1997. The Phoenix Roadrunners returned in 2005 in the ECHL and lasted until 2009.

“Roadrunners ran away with it,” Hoffman said about the team naming contest. “We weren’t quite sure when we saw that as one of the finalists how that would resonate down in Tucson and in Southern Arizona, but I think that that name is just synonymous with what hockey was and the history is so important to this sport, so I think that even in Southern Arizona, that name really symbolizes the history of hockey here.”

Ryan DeJoe, coaching director for the Tucson Youth Hockey Association, said his program’s excitement level is at 10 on a scale of 1-10 about the Roadrunners’ season starting.

“Right from day one, the first employee that was down here, made immediate contact with us,” DeJoe said.

tucson_roadrunnersWhile the Roadrunners’ home, the Tucson Arena opened in 1971, it underwent a $7.8 million renovation from the Rio Nuevo downtown redevelopment district in 2014 and then there was an additional renovation of about $3.7 million in the summer and early fall to bring it up to AHL standards.

The Roadrunners are estimated to bring in about $30 million to the local economy.

“For us, part of it was that we were looking for a really strong anchor tenant for our recently renovated Tucson Convention Center arena and secondarily we were looking for somebody who we can grow a program with,” said Mark Irvin, Rio Neuvo secretary and vice chair. “We hit a home run with these guys because they sure seem to get it.”

Setting down roots

While past minor league hockey teams have had contentious relationships with the highly successful University of Arizona club hockey team, the Roadrunners have taken a different approach.

On Oct. 9, the Roadrunners made their public playing debut with the Red-White Scrimmage. The exhibition with the Coyotes was free, with a suggested $5 donation to Wildcat hockey.

“The Arizona Coyotes looked at the situation here and just felt that obviously, we’re coming in as a new organization and we’ll be a prominent factor in the community for a long time and they just felt that the proper thing to do was open the doors and take a donation type of game that would benefit university team here,” Soetaert said. “I think it’s a great olive branch of showing people that we’re here long term and we’ll try to help these guys out as much as we can.”

Rio Nuevo voted to waive its normal $2-per-person user fee so all the money could go to the Wildcats.

There are a few times where the Wildcats and Roadrunners have conflicts as UA only plays home games on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The Wildcats have three two-game series and a single game against Northern Arizona that will be at 2 p.m. instead of their usual 7:30 p.m. puck drops as those days the TCC has day-night hockey doubleheaders, with the Roadrunners playing at night

Hoffman, who worked for the ECHL’s Quad City Mallards in Illinois last year, said the Tucson hockey community was bigger than he thought it would be.

“From a youth hockey standpoint, we really want to grow that part of it and I think with the Wildcat Youth Hockey organization, they’ve already done some really good things,” Hoffman said. “Ryan DeJoe has got a great program going there to where he’s teaching the sport.”

DeJoe said he thinks parents and kids will want to get involved in hockey after seeing the Roadrunners or realize there is youth hockey after seeing WYHA at the games after not realizing it because there isn’t a full-time rink in town.

“I think it’s going to be huge, it’s going to raise the profile of hockey throughout the whole city,” DeJoe said.

Go west, young man

Like the Roadrunners name, the Tucson Roadrunners are repeating another successful idea.

The Roadrunners continued the trend of NHL teams moving their top affiliates west.

Soetaert said Coyotes management can easily come and watch games now that their AHL affiliate is in Tucson and he expects Las Vegas to have an AHL team nearby.

Hoffman added the AHL’s westward movement is great for the sport.

“It’s not just the boys in Minnesota that are able to get drafted and get college scholarships, it’s people from all over the United States that have that opportunity and I think from what the National Hockey League is doing with the American League movement coming out west, that’s just going to open up time for rinks,” Hoffman said.

The Roadrunners’ debut in Tucson continues an upward trend for hockey in the southwest after ASU moved up to the NCAA ranks, Scottsdale native Auston Matthews was picked first in the NHL draft this past June and Las Vegas was awarded an NHL expansion team.

“It’s great, to me, hockey is the greatest sport that there is,” said DeJoe, who is from Northeast Ohio. “There’s just nothing like it. Hockey is for every kid, everywhere, and the Southwest is now starting to fully discover what the rest of the country has figured out.”

The next step for Tucson hockey is getting a dedicated hockey rink, which the city hasn’t had since the last one closed in 2007. The Roadrunners could help Tucson get a new one.

Soetaert said they’re hoping to have more ice sheets in a year or two.

“I think there’s really good buzz,” Irvin said. “I’d love to prove how successful this is going to be and I’d love to see us go and build another sheet of ice in Tucson to accommodate what I think is going to be pretty strong demand.”

PHOTO: Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, IceArizona’s Anthony LeBlanc and Fletcher McCusker of the Rio Nuevo District are just three of the key figures in Tucson responsible for bringing the Roadrunners to the city and to the American Hockey League this season. Photo/Norm Hall Photography

— James Kelley