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WYHA finding its niche in Arizona youth hockey circles

 

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While Tucson still doesn’t have a regular ice rink yet, the Wildcat Youth Hockey Association (WYHA) has seen marked growth.

The addition of the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Tucson Roadrunners sped up WYHA’s growth spurt.

The number of players in the WYHA had jumped from about 60 last year to 130 this year and the kids in the Learn to Skate program rose from about 50-60 to 70 regulars this year. Plus, the WYHA 12U team joined the Arizona Youth Hockey League and became WYHA’s first travel team.

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“The Roadrunners put everything on turbo charge,” said WYHA coaching director Ryan DeJoe.

He said the Roadrunners’ first employee, Tayler Kern, reached out to them on Day 1 and WYHA vice president Scott Perger said the Roadrunners have helped with marketing the youth association.

The Roadrunners’ help follows the trend started by their owners, the Arizona Coyotes.

“We’ve always worked with the Coyotes a little bit and they’ve always helped us, but because they’re so far north, it’s harder with them,” Perger said. “With the Roadrunners actually being right here, they’ve been very hands on and they’ve been fantastic for us. When we need help, help with the ice, the Tucson Convention Center or equipment, they know who to go to, who to talk to. It’s just been a great resource to have them in town.”

WYHA president Isabelle Simard said Roadrunners’ attendance has confirmed the interest in hockey in the Old Pueblo.

“We knew that there was interest, but now they know better because they come to games, they see us and a lot of people still actually tell us that, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that there was ice hockey here for youth,’” Simard said. “The team makes a big change because they’re supportive of everything that we do.”

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The Roadrunners’ presence also has produced other benefits that are harder to quantify. Perger said the kids were thrilled to see Brendan Perlini move up to the NHL after they had skated with him.

“These kids are watching somebody that they shot around with actually in the NHL and their eyes are lighting up,” Perger said. “It’s fantastic to watch that excitement.”

Perlini led the AHL in scoring when he first got called up to the Coyotes.

DeJoe said WYHA is light years different than when it started a few years ago. In 2011-12 when he first got involved with the program, there were around 15-20 kids and they skated for 1-3 times a week. Now, the WYHA has an 8U team, a 10U team, 12U travel team, 14U team, 18U team, a Learn to Skate program, and the Little Howlers program just started this year.

“We’ve grown exponentially,” DeJoe said.

Last summer, the WYHA was voted into the Arizona Amateur Hockey Association.

Tucson has been without a regular sheet of ice since the last rink closed in 2007 and the University of Arizona, adults, youth and figure skaters all share Tucson Arena (at the Tucson Convention Center), which also hosts circuses, monster trucks and the gem show.

When Simard moved from Montreal, she was nervous about how popular hockey was in Southern Arizona, but was pleasantly surprised.

“When I came here, I was a bit scared of what would I find for my son, who was a player already, and I was very, very well surprised,” Simard said. “It’s amazing, the community here, the people here. They are dedicated so much, they love it. It’s a real family, but I’m not surprised. Hockey is mainly that, that’s what happens, it’s a real family and we do what we have to do to keep it going.”

If and when Tucson gets another ice rink, youth hockey is expected to explode in Arizona’s second largest city.

“The growth is unbelievably untapped,” Perger said. “The huge problem right now is just an ice rink. I think if we had our own ice rink, we’d be fielding team after team.”

Photos/James Kelley

— James Kelley