A sea of maroon red jerseys, sweatshirts and shirts swarmed the front doors of Tucson Arena on a cold December night, as the crowd made its way towards the oversized wooden doors.
The men and women, both young and old, were drawn to the lovingly dated facility to watch something that seems asinine on its face—hockey in the middle of one of the largest deserts in North America.
These puck-crazed compatriots made their way to the arena to watch the hometown Roadrunners of the American Hockey League (hockey’s AAA level), face off against the Stockton Heat.
It was a night full of bone-jarring hits, shimmering lights and Star Wars references galore (it was Star Wars Night, after all).
More importantly, it was the type of evening that draws people to the arena, and captivates a generation of youngsters to the game—which is key to the Roadrunners’ long-term survival.
It was a night that team president Bob Hoffman eagerly awaited, as the hockey lifer knows how exciting and intoxicating the game of hockey can be when seen in-person.
“I’m convinced that someone that doesn’t know hockey but comes to watch it in person, they watch it once and they’re hooked,” Hoffman said. “And our goal in here, and what I tell my sales people, is that you want to get them here three times—and once they’re here for that third time, they’re going to keep coming back, because they’re hooked to the speed, the physicality of the sport and just how exciting hockey can be.”
A puck-slapping good time
Last Saturday’s spectacle provided plenty of proof that Hoffman’s pitch was taking hold; 5,316 Tucsonans attended the Saturday night showdown.
It’s safe to say that hockey has grown roots in this sports-crazed oasis. The team’s prospects look brighter and brighter, and sit near the top of the AHL’s Pacific Division.
The prospect of a playoff chase, with the sport’s best teams taking the ice in front of a packed house at Tucson Arena is tantalizing, and music to Hoffman’s ears.
The longtime hockey executive knows how much postseason berths mean to a city, and how critical on-ice success is to building a franchise’s following.
“Well, I think it’d be great for two reasons: To reward our fans, so the ones that have been here since the beginning or that joined midway can have some fun,” Hoffman said. “But then, number two, usually a playoff run and getting that extra exposure might open the eyes of others that maybe have dismissed us, or maybe haven’t had a chance to see a hockey game yet.”
Making the playoffs also goes a long way towards encouraging those who buy season tickets to renew their packages, while encouraging others to join the fray.
A playoff push would allow more and more fans to witness the future of hockey in Arizona, including a star-studded cast of prospects, like Mario Kempe, Dylan Strome and Nick Merkley—before they take the NHL by storm.
The future is bright for the Roadrunners, even after rough nights, like the tilt against Stockton, which the home team dropped 2-1.
The Roadrunners, under first-year coach Mike Van Ryn, offer the fast-paced and dizzying speed that makes the hair on your arms stand and your pulse beat faster and faster as the seconds tick off the big clock.
You can see this for yourself this Friday, Jan. 5 at 7 p.m., when Van Ryn and company return to the Old Pueblo to play Ontario for the first of back-to-back home games.
Fans that flock to TCC on Friday will be rewarded with the team’s promotion de jour—$2 beer—a combination that few can pass up.
Here’s hoping that the libations help create the type of rafter rattling noise that rattles nerves and creates the type of home ice advantage that winning teams so often enjoy.