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AHL Presence in Tucson Takes Youth Hockey to New Heights

By: Alexander Kinkopf
 
Photo: Amy Jones            
 
 
Here come the Roadrunners. The Little(r) ones, that is.
 
The Tucson Youth Hockey Program numbered only 12 registered players under the age of eight when the Arizona Coyotes relocated their American Hockey League franchise to Tucson in April 2016.
 
It now boasts 82.
 
At that time, the program registered only six girls. Now, there are 34.
 
The season prior to the Tucson Roadrunners’ arrival, 2015-16, the youth hockey association as a whole competed in 15 games. This past season –- 122.
 
They skated a grand total of 13 teams this year, enormous expansion from the two they had in 2015.
 
And to really showcase the strides that have been made? In early February, Tucson’s inaugural high school team played in the Arizona High School Hockey Association’s D3 State Championship Game.
 
Photo: Amy Jones            
 
A program that once handily put its few players on a seemingly cavernous expanse of ice now finds that sheet overcrowded and anxiously seeks a second surface.
 
A program that previously might have been tabbed as humble but proud now is, well, just pretty darn proud.
 
It’s experiencing levels of unprecedented growth and exposure, and most of the change can be traced to the 2016 inception of the AHL franchise, a product of the league’s continued westward expansion.
 
Photo: Amy Jones            
 
“The program here has grown immensely since (the AHL franchise arrived),” said Ryan Dejoe, the coaching director of the Junior Roadrunners’ youth hockey program. Indeed, youth hockey registration has increased by more than 200 percent since the Roadrunners’ inaugural AHL season in 2016.
 
“Pro hockey here, the approach that was taken — it all started when they connected with our program on day one,” said Dejoe. “The Roadrunners’ increasing visibility in town, coupled with the tireless effort and dedication of our parents, players, and coaches who are all doing this on a volunteer basis, has led to a large increase in participation, especially at the 8-and-under and girls hockey levels.”
 
Photo: Amy Jones            
 
In fact, the Junior Roadrunners girls will enjoy a real treat –- and another potential boost –- when Olympic silver medalist Lindsey Fry hosts a free hockey clinic for girls in March.
 
Fry joined the Coyotes in November as an ambassador and advisor to President and CEO Ahron Cohen.
 
“Our identity as a program now is tied to theirs,” said Junior Roadrunners president Jeremy Bow, when discussing the Roadrunner impact. “Our kids are proud to wear their jerseys to school and around town. It’s really inspiring to see that kind of passion from our players. Tucson hockey is starting to really turn some heads. It’s exciting to see what the future could be for this program and these players.”
 
Photo: Amy Jones            
 
He added: “The growth we’ve seen here would never have happened without the anchor of a local AHL franchise, without the Coyotes’ vision for the positive (things) this move would do.”
 
And you can take it from the players, too -– and, of course, from the parents:
 
AJ Miller, 8, says: “It’s amazing when the Roadrunners players come to our practices, and then when we get to play during intermissions during their games, it makes me feel famous.”
 
Photo: Chris Hook            
 
Kyla Barleycorn, also 8, said that skating at the intermission of a Roadrunners game offers a special treat. “It’s really exciting because if I score a goal thousands of people cheer and that feels amazing!”
 
John Weir, father of 7-year-old Keoni and 5-year-old Kanoa, says: “As a parent, I can easily describe our interaction with the Roadrunners as like a family reunion. Every game, every practice, every public function feels like we are always welcome. As a parent and as a family we are always excited to spend time in the barn with our Roadrunner family.”
 
This is not to forget, of course, those Tucson youth hockey pioneers who were hit by the hockey bug long before the Roadrunners arrival, but who also have enjoyed the impact of the presence of the AHL franchise. Those are the skaters who participated a few weeks ago in a high school state championship game.
 
Photo: Shane Bailey            
 
“It was incredible, watching these kids come together and form this solid team and really put Tucson on the map for youth hockey,” said Corrina Eklund, whose sons Max and Lucas played in that title game.
 
“It’s exciting to go watch the team play and to hear other kids from Phoenix teams talking about Tucson and ‘how good they are.’ There were times, it seemed no one wanted to play against us. When the AHL came to Tucson, it was such an exciting time for youth hockey. One day the seniors who just played their last season will understand how they showed Arizona that Tucson, even with our limited ice, is a force to be reckoned with.”
 
And it’s been merely a start, for a youth sport and program that once could be generously described as niche.
 
Now? Niche no more.
 
The Roadrunners -– big and small -– may be the hottest thing in the Tucson desert.
 
Photo: Amy Jones