The Tucson Roadrunners are building a strong hockey community in a basketball city

The Roadrunners will never compare to the popularity of University of Arizona basketball in Tucson, but the organization engages the city’s hockey community in its own way. (Picture by Rudy Aguado/Cronkite News)

TUCSON – The sound of skates clicking on the ice. The crash of bodies hitting planks around a skating rink. The crack of a knocked blow.

These are familiar sounds in places like Montreal, Minneapolis, Toronto or Chicago. But this time they were in Tucson, a desert town better known for the pounding of basketballs than the sound of hockey players slamming glass.

The sounds of hockey were present at practice for the Tucson Roadrunners, the minor league affiliate of the Arizona Coyotes who have been carving out their own space since moving to town in 2016.

“You could hear the buzz in the air,” Tucson Roadrunners coach Steve Potvin said. “There is a lot of energy in this city.

A basketball city at heart, Tucson embraced the Roadrunners in their efforts to create a strong hockey culture while expanding the reach of the hometown Coyotes more than 100 miles away.

With only a few rinks in all of Tempe, a professional hockey team located in the city is an odd sight. But Tucson’s deep basketball roots haven’t stopped members of the Roadrunners organization from working to take the game of hockey to unexpected heights.

“It’s a unique opportunity when you’re in a market that’s not traditional in hockey in terms of the population that lives there,” said Roadrunners strength and conditioning coach Parker Poore.

“I think we’ve done a good job of getting people out there and getting people involved. We’ve had a lot of exposure and I think you need to have that because hockey can be a weird sport to get into unless you know what’s really going on with it. So giving people a chance to find out and see what it’s all about really helps develop it and they’ve done a really good job of that.

Attendance for Roadrunners games last season at the Tucson Convention Center (3,564) is a fraction of University of Arizona basketball games at the 14,655-seat Mckale Memorial Center. However, Tucson is less focused on numbers and more concerned with creating an entertaining environment for fans.

So far this season, it’s working. The average attendance is 4,086 people.

“I think it gives families and kids a fun and safe place to go,” said Tucson resident Kaylea Rayleigh. “I think it’s had a huge impact on player activity in the community. It’s a great addition to our city for adults and kids alike.

Taking a unique approach has helped the Roadrunners meet the challenges of playing in a smaller hockey market. The Roadrunners host themed nights including Military Appreciation Night, Kid-Free Wednesday, College Night, and Faith and Family Night.

The Roadrunners are not just looking to build a strong hockey culture in the city of Tucson, but a stable foundation for the entire Coyotes organization.

“Adhering to the culture here is also adhering to the culture from above,” Potvin said. “It’s important to us.”

Starting at the top, the Roadrunners’ management and coaching staff are responsible for ensuring the next generation of young players in the Coyotes system are ready to jump into the NHL if needed.

The Roadrunners entered a new era after John Ferguson was hired as general manager in September 2021. Ferguson has experience as a former NHL player and as a former Maple Leafs general manager of Toronto from 2003 to 2008.

One of Ferguson’s first tasks was to promote Potvin as Roadrunners coach after serving as an assistant coach since 2017.

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Potvin now has the opportunity to create a new identity for the team.

“I think right now we’re at our peak,” Roadrunners goalkeeper Ivan Prosvetov said. “We have a good group of coaches here. I think the whole organization is rebuilding at the moment and we are moving in the right direction. I think management knows what they are doing. It shows that the whole organization is growing.

Potvin has always preached growth and wants to ensure his team is made up of players who will put everything on the line to help the team succeed.

“Culture is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but culture is literally what we value the most,” Potvin said. “So we value high-character players, and we value players who love competition, and we value guys who are going to be part of a brotherhood and build relationships internally. We want a team that is more than just a hockey team. They face more than just opposition. This is, for me, what we are looking for and this is what we are trying to build.

As part of Potvin’s “culture”, the Roadrunners embrace a friendly competitive mentality. Although they seem to be having fun together on the ice, there is a restless, physical style of play that is rarely seen.

“We’re all brothers,” Roadrunners forward Ben McCartney said. “We are all very close to each other and we really like playing together. Obviously there’s going to be a bit of a choppy game in training, but that’s because we care about each other and try to push each other every day. I think it’s a good way to be in a team.

They may seem like two completely separate teams playing two different sports with two different levels of interest in the same city, but the Roadrunners and Wildcats have the same goal in mind: conquer the city.

About Jefferey G. Cannon

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