Roadrunner Rebirth

Arizona Hockey Returns To Its Roots With Addition Of New AHL Team

From the rim of the Grand Canyon it is possible to peer into the depths of history displayed in layers of rock that make up the stunning view. In short, what you see at the top of the canyon is built upon years of layers below.

When the Arizona Coyotes christened their new American Hockey League franchise in Tucson the Roadrunners, they were doing more than putting a name on a jersey. The name was a nod to layers of hockey history in the Grand Canyon State that dates back farther than most realize.

“The Roadrunners name was chosen to build on the great traditions of hockey in Arizona dating back to 1967,” said Arizona Coyotes Executive Vice President Rich Nairn.

When the Coyotes announced a fan contest to pick the name of the AHL franchise, the leader in the clubhouse and really throughout the promotion was the Roadrunners.

“Roadrunners was the overwhelming fan favorite during our ‘Name the Team’ contest,” Nairn said. “It’s a great name that creates a strong connection to the city of Tucson, reflects our state pride and extends the reach of the Coyotes brand.”

Arizona hockey fans of the diehard and snowbird varieties will remember the Roadrunners brand from multiple leagues, buildings and affiliations.

While the window dressing often changed, the brand never did and along the way the Roadrunner logo did more than entertain; it laid down roots for hockey that are bearing fruit today.

Sean Whyte stepped off a plane in Phoenix in 1991 as a Los Angeles Kings prospect chasing the NHL dream and woke up to a future in Arizona that continues to this day.

“Being called up to play in the NHL is the dream come true,” said the Sudbury, Ontario, native. “But I said then if I play my whole career in for the Phoenix Roadrunners I’ll be happy.”

Whyte played 198 games in a Roadrunners jersey and also achieved his NHL dream with 21 games in the show. But it was those days with the Roadrunners that left an indelible mark.

“The three plus years I was a Roadrunner were some of the best times of my life,” he recalled.

Whyte joins other former players and coaches who came to the Valley as Roadrunners and stayed to grow the game far beyond what they could have imagined.

The overall support was something that any hockey player going to any market, traditional or non-traditional, would feel completely at home and want to play their hearts out,” he said.

When he retired and was looking to re-invent himself, Whyte turned to the region that had given him so much as a player.

Whyte became a fixture in youth hockey, serving as director with a small-ice facility in Scottsdale called Ozzie Ice for eight years before moving on to Tempe-based Oceanside Ice Arena and Desert Youth Hockey Association.

One player who spent formative years skating at Ozzie Ice and other rinks around the Valley of the Sun was recently selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs as the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft.

Auston Matthews has become the face of Arizona youth hockey and is an example of what the history laid down by the Roadrunners is producing in present day.

“I think if Auston Matthews grew up in Australia he’d probably still make the NHL because he’s a phenom,” Whyte said. “But the fact he was part of Arizona hockey is something we can be very proud of.”

What started as a semi-pro group of minor league players at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, has grown into a thriving hockey community that stretches from Tucson to the Grand Canyon.

“When I first started coaching in the Valley we were very fortunate if we made a national tournament,” Whyte said. “Now it’s a reality. Kids are growing up in the sport that want to put in the time and effort and have the passion running through their blood.”

The AHL franchise landing in Tucson is perfect according to Bruce Urban, who is a director with the Arizona Amateur Hockey Association.

“[Tucson] believes it’s going to be a big boon for their association and the growth of hockey down there,” Urban said. “A few years ago they couldn’t get together a Squirt or Peewee team, but now they’ll be able to put those kids out there and start playing games.”

The AAHA will take up a vote XXX INSERT RESULT HERE XXX in November to add the Tucson Youth Hockey Association to its fold. The position on the state’s affiliate to USA Hockey and the relationship with the Roadrunners is crucial for the young organization and its future growth, said president Isabelle Simard-Caulfield.

“A lot of people down here don’t know we exist,” Simard-Caulfield said. “A lot of kids play up in Phoenix teams because of the lack of ice.”

Her own son was one of those players making the hour-plus drive to a Phoenix metro area rink to skate. With the Roadrunners in town and a rumored community rink planned in the near future, the current 75 registered USA Hockey players are sure to find new linemates from around the Old Pueblo.

“A lot is happening here right now so I can’t imagine how [hockey] would grow with a new rink in town,” Simard-Caulfield added.

Those signs of growth continue to pop up around the state with the Coyotes celebrating their 20th season, the addition of an AHL franchise and the Arizona State University hockey program entering its second season as a NCAA Div. I program.

“We are very excited to celebrate 20 years in the Valley this season. It’s amazing to see the incredible growth of the game since 1996,” Nairn said.

The state’s signature attraction, the Grand Canyon, is something you must witness in person to believe. Once a visitor stands at that rim and realizes the depth and breadth of their view it’s something they’ll never forget.

Arizona hockey hopes to make a similar impression across the country.

“There’s some great coaching here in Arizona that is producing a high-level hockey player,” Whyte said. “We travel to Canada or back east and teams are somewhat baffled by what they see from us.

“But now that Matthews has done what he’s done I don’t think they’ll be caught off guard anymore.”

Cameron Eickmeyer is an Arizona native and the director of USA Hockey’s Internet Content and Development department.

Issue: 
2016-12

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