Arizona Rubber

Arizona’s and New Mexico’s Authoritative Voice of Ice and Inline Hockey

Tucson’s return adds to inline excitement

 

PAGE 15 -- IHAAZ Tucson HP photo1

By Christopher C. Wuensch

The Inline Hockey Association of Arizona (IHAAZ) is returning to Southern Arizona this season – and it’s to a familiar location no less.

After a lengthy hiatus, the state’s premiere roller hockey league will add two – potentially three – Tucson-based teams for the upcoming season.

There’s an air of excitement about the return of IHAAZ to Tucson Indoor Sports Center, said Dustin Toone, owner of the facility located a few miles west of the University of Arizona, near Grant Road and Interstate 10. And already, coaches are getting down to business.

“It was a bit of a culture shock the other day,” Toone said of one of the first practices. “Some kids were a few minutes late to practice and were forced to do wind sprints and didn’t see a puck for the first hour of practice.”

It’s been five years since the IHAAZ last laced them up at Tucson Indoor Sports Center. The organization attempted to field a team last year in Tucson, but — while the turnout was encouraging — there wasn’t enough players in each age group to field a squad.

Flash forward a year and Tucson Indoor is adding an 8U and 10U program for the coming season. There is also hope that IHAAZ can field a high school-caliber squad out of Tucson, as well.

The sport is slowly regaining the swagger it had in the mid-90s and early 2000s. But there’s a long way to go before the state’s first-ever fully-dedicated inline arena returns to its previous status.

Inline hockey once thrived in Tucson. Around the turn of the decade, TISC — previously known as Bladeworld — boasted upwards of 635 members. The IHAAZ’s Tucson representatives had enough players to field 8U, 10U, 12U, 14U, 16U and 18U squads competing in A, B and C divisions. It was common for tournament qualifiers to require two weekends to complete. The facility was also home to several prominent traveling squads.

The best part? All the kids came from Tucson, former Bladeworld hockey manager Dan Maxwell said.

But the sport then fell on some hard times and interest in inline hockey in Tucson not only waned, it plummeted.

But now inline hockey is making a comeback, with familiar faces like Maxwell key contributors to making that happen.

These days Tucson Indoor Sports Center has 130 families. Its adult roller leagues are flush with 18 adult teams and 40 recreational teams. The 21,000-square-foot facility also is home to the UA’s D2 and D3 inline programs and will play host to Western Collegiate Roller Hockey League event on Jan. 24, 2015.

In addition to adding the IHAAZ squads, Tucson Indoor Sports Center will also play host to one of the league’s four festivals. IHAAZ annually holds four weekend qualifying tournaments leading up to the State Finals May 2-4 at the Barney Family Sports Complex in Queen Creek. Tucson will take center stage from March 20-22 with the AZR Festival.

Other festivals will be held Jan. 9-11 in Lake Havasu and Feb. 6-8 in Yuma before heading to Prescott from April 10-12.

One of six inline facilities in the state, Tucson Indoor has a distinct advantage of having the only public-use rink – ice or inline – in Southern Arizona. That puts it in a beneficial spot to corner a niche of the state’s market in its efforts to grow the game in the state.

Word of mouth has been instrumental in building up support, said Toone.

“You need people and rinks to drive the sport,” said Maxwell, recently AZR’s inline director who now serves as the youth coordinator for The Rinks in Huntington Beach, Calif.