The Tucson Roadrunners professional hockey team is on track to qualify for the American Hockey League’s postseason for the second consecutive season, should they continue their current trend.
The squad, currently the second seed in the AHL Pacific Division with 66 points, is looking to one-up last year’s postseason berth and first round playoff victory, both of which were firsts for the franchise.
The Roadrunners set off on a busy 2019 schedule next week that includes six home games through the month, with two straight against the Chicago Wolves at 7:05 p.m., Friday, Jan. 11 and Saturday, Jan. 12. Catch the home games at Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Ave.
Roadrunners President Bob Hoffman recently sat down with Tucson Local Media to discuss the team’s hot start, their growth through the first three years, what it’s like running professional hockey in Tucson and what the future holds for the sport in Southern Arizona. The following is edited for clarity.
From your perspective, how’s year three going for the Roadrunners?
It’s going really well… I’m really, on the ice, very pleased with our team. We’re playing very well. There’s always a great effort. Third coach in three years. You wonder where the challenge comes in there, potentially. But I don’t think our guys have missed a beat. I think the effort’s there, every single game, every single night. They’re as prepared as they’ve ever been. [Head Coach] Jay Varady is an amazing teacher and is really getting a lot out of this team, and growing them with the number of call-ups. It was funny watching the Coyotes, their starting line that they played, forget the team who they were playing, it was Mario Kempe, Conor Garland, Michael Bunting who started the game for them. Adin Hill’s at net. You look at it. Those are four of our guys that are up there, huge contributors for the Coyotes right now. It’s good to see that.
When we sat down a year ago, we talked about how much of an impact a possible playoff run could have on the franchise. Have you seen that translate into greater fan support this year, or the energy you’re seeing from the community?
Absolutely. Where we saw that impact probably the most was in our season ticket sale pickup. First of all, people have an interest in getting excited, and getting behind a playoff team. But then you have those other dates and opportunities. People come and have a great time, and they want to be a part of it, and join the family. We definitely saw a big uptick in our season tickets, which was a great push. We’re one of the highest-rated teams in the American Hockey League right now in that increase in season ticket base. Another thing that really jumped out to me was to see where that momentum kind of stuck with our Fan Fest that we had back in September. We lost in the second round to the Texas Stars, who ultimately went on to play in the Calder Cup Finals.
You have all that time to where that momentum could die, where it could really slow down. You’re not sure how the summer might have impacted that interest, and that excitement from fans. Our Fan Fest in September had more than 2,000 people that showed up here on a Saturday afternoon with a lot going on in Tucson. You’ve got college football, including the U of A playing that day. Having 2,000 or more people show up here, that really made me see it, because in years past that Fan Fest had several hundred people show up. That really showed me that that momentum was there, and then the big crowd on opening night was fun to see.
What was it like for you during that playoff run last year? What was that atmosphere like? Not just in the arena, during those games, but the buzz around town?
The atmosphere in the arena gave me chills, it was unbelievable. It was as loud as I’ve ever heard in the arena. The “White Out” certainly took hold. You weren’t sure, again, being new that it was something people would jump on to, but it was great to see that “White Out” and see people really start rallying to the team. What I saw, though, in the community outside of that was unbelievable. I mean, we saw signs around town of “Good Luck Roadrunners.” You have all of the media that was covering us so well, doing such a nice job all year. They all picked it up a level. You had the folks on the TV wearing our White Out T-Shirts while they were giving the sportscast, showing the traffic or showing the weather. It was really great to see that support from Tucson, which really gives you that vision of things to come, and to sit there and say, “We know this is a hockey market now.” We did our best in year one to make sure we planted those seeds to try to generate as much fan support as we could. Year two with that playoff run, we’ve shown this is not only a great sports town, but it’s a hockey market.
It’s been four years since the American Hockey League’s westward expansion. How would you assess how that’s gone?
How did the move work? It’s worked exactly how the division saw it. We’re in close proximity to teams and can leave today and head over to California. That’s a lot different, and a lot better, than if a team regularly had to get a plane and head to Milwaukee, or to Cleveland, or to Cincinnati, Chicago, wherever they may have to go.
Have the Roadrunners Give Back community service efforts, including the DEK rink at Doolen Middle School and a couple of other projects around town, helped to established the team brand?
It’s huge, that’s a big part of that branding piece, of course. But, it’s branding to a different audience as well. We want to be a part of the community, in every way, shape and form. There are so many good nonprofit groups here, and so many great causes in Tucson that if we can fly our flag with them, that’s fantastic, and we try to do that. But then you mentioned a DEK hockey rink, and some of our hockey development initiatives, Dusty’s P.E. Program. It’s in full force. We’re in schools weekly teaching kids how to play hockey. They’re not putting ice skates on because we don’t have the ice here for it yet, but they’re putting their sneakers on and they’re going into the gym, or they’re going outside onto the pavement, and they’re playing street hockey. It’s the same concepts. The same team work applies. All of the good things that we feel go into our sport—we can start teaching at a really young age.
How would you assess the Roadrunners’ efforts in the community?
That part of “Roadrunners Give Back” in our hockey development side of things is really helping, because we’re showing the kids this is something that you grab onto. You’re always going to have UA basketball and UA football, and they do such a great job. There are a lot of heroes for the kids to look up over there. But take a peek over here with the Roadrunners, and there’s a lot of great heroes, and great stories with our crew. Yesterday we were out in the community with a clinic we were putting on and showing kids how to play at the DEK Hockey Rink. Some of our players joined the Junior Roadrunners on the ice last night. Those kids all went home with a new hero. Those are the people that they look up to. Our guys love carrying that banner, to be that role model for people. As long as they keep doing that great job, we’re going to keep growing that fan base, because 20 years from now, it’s those kids that are going to be bringing their kids out to the Roadrunners.
From the team’s side of the table, how are talks of getting additional sheets of ice in town? What about other parts of the city for the team to practice at if the Tucson Convention Center is booked?
There has been more public progress, which is good, through recent Rio Nuevo meetings, board meetings as well as through the City Council. A lot of the improvements needs to happen within the campus of the TCC, and there’s been a plan for years, and years of putting together what those fixes need to be. Some of it is simple maintenance, but some of what we’re looking at additions. There is a lot of things within those meetings that get discussed, and now seemingly over the past probably 60 days, it’s been very vocal as to the need to put in a community center here, a community rink that will provide opportunities with some extra ice not only for the Roadrunners, but for the U of A and their club team or the Junior Roadrunners, figure skaters and just the community to come out and have that extra sheet of ice.
As to when that will actually happen, or when that will get here? We’re closer than we’ve ever been, but I don’t know an exact time frame, I just know that the numbers are there. They’ve put together drawings. They put together some great progress, in seeing what that next step may be.
Rio Nuevo recently announced a potential multi-million-dollar renovation of the entire property. What could those improvements mean to the Roadrunners?
This was something that had been in the cards, that it would need to be done sooner than later, once the team came in. It’s critical, because that could be the most devastating thing not only to us, but to the U of A team if the ice plant, if the chiller, if the coolers, if the coils or whatever might break within it. If something like that breaks, it takes months to fix. You’re down. If something like that, God forbid would happen during the course of either of our seasons, it really would impact that arena. We’ve talked about it, and there’s no other place to go. There’s no other ice here.
To be proactive and jump on that, before it becomes a problem, I think is really great for Rio Nuevo, and for the city, the foresight they’re seeing over at the arena. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of cases around the country where people wait a little bit longer to save a little bit of money, and when the problem happens, they always look back and wish they would have taken action and fixed it. I’m thrilled to see that this is moving forward, and that there is such great interest to make sure that it’s a high priority in the repairs, and in some of that maintenance that’s happening within the projects…For our livelihood, it’s critical.
What’s the relationship like with Rio Nuevo, and the board that oversees the TCC?
They couldn’t be any more supportive. I see how much they jumped behind us and pushed us in so many ways that really aren’t public, in ways that people don’t know about, just to grow the fan base. To open some doors for us that maybe wouldn’t have been there. I think that not being from Tucson, to see in the last two and a half years the impact that Rio Nuevo has on the downtown district, I think Tucsonans are very lucky, because there are a lot of cities out there that I think should follow this blueprint and see the model that is done to really grow this downtown, to improve it. To me, this is one of the best downtown’s in America. I love being here. Rio Nuevo is the catalyst on an awful lot of that. For us to be a part of what their vision was, we’re lucky. And to continue to have that support, and really do the job that we can do to live up to what their expectations, and to in some ways exceed those expectations, I think we’re happy with that, too.