Thirty young men wearing coats and ties walked together to the A gates at Tucson’s airport early one winter morning. I wondered: who could they be?
Many were unshaven and had beards. Some were missing teeth. They couldn’t have been Mormon missionaries departing for worldwide destinations.
Most looked like they could turn you upside down and shake the lint out of your pockets. So I asked one: Who are you guys?
The Tucson Roadrunners.
On each of the team’s 16 flights from Tucson this season, the Roadrunners, their coaches and support staff each put on a coat and tie and added some hockey class to coach class.
So it wasn’t a shock on Monday when Roadrunners president Bob Hoffman, general manager Steve Sullivan, coach Mike Van Ryn and captain Andrew Campbell walked into the Graham Room at the Tucson Convention Center in — what else? — coats and ties.
Hockey is the toughest, bloodiest, most ungentlemanly game on the planet, but off the ice, the Roadrunners let you know one thing: they are professionals.
“We want to exude professionalism,” Hoffman said.
Tucson’s stirring rise to first place in the American Hockey League’s Pacific Division is not a remake of “Slap Shot,” with a bunch of hockey goons throwing empty beer cans from an old bus.
It is the best story going in Tucson sports and the seduction is that it could get much, much better over the next six weeks.
The gentlemen in coats and ties begin the American Hockey League playoffs Thursday against the San Jose Barracuda and the pot at the end of the AHL rainbow is the most coveted trophy in minor-league sports: the 81-year-old Calder Cup.
“You should see how excited our room is,” said Roadrunners captain, 30-year-old Andrew “Soupy” Campbell, using hockey vernacular to shorten the term locker room to a more intimate “room.”. “This is when boys turn into men. It’s going to be more intense, faster, harder and more physical than anything so far this season.”
How did this happen so quickly?
The Roadrunners have only existed for 22 months, yet they have drawn just a bit under 300,000 people to the Tucson Arena and this season rang up the third-best winning percentage in the beastly difficult 30-team AHL.
A lot of it comes from the parent NHL Arizona Coyotes, who decided their best route to the Stanley Cup playoffs was to develop talent at their AHL affiliate in Tucson rather than buy available stock the way the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys do it.
And the best way to develop the men in coats and ties in Tucson is to surround them with a developmental staff that knows how playoff hockey works.
Van Ryn, who played in 353 NHL games, goes to work each day with assistant coach John Slaney, who appeared in 128 playoff games in the NHL, AHL, OHL and even in Czechoslovakia and Germany. Slaney was part of the 2005 Calder Cup champion Philadelphia Phantoms.
They are further assisted by Steve Potvin, whose playoff experience includes the ECHL, CHL, IHL and win-or-go-home hockey in Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark.
Van Ryn insisted on three things when the season began in October: dedication to development, a positive culture, and winning. “I think we’ve been able to accomplish all three,” he said Monday.
Proof? Eleven Roadrunners were recalled to the Coyotes during the season. The club improved from 29 wins to 42.
They even turned the cheek, which isn’t often done among combatants in any level of hockey. Gentlemen all the way, right?
After clinching home-ice advantage in the best-of-5 opening playoff series against San Jose, the Roadrunners had to decide whether to open at the Tucson Arena or at the Barracuda’s SAP Center.
Ultimately, they approved a schedule that opens Thursday and Saturday in San Jose. It might’ve been the most difficult decision in six months of hockey.
“We debated it, we called in our analytics people and took a look at some playoff history,” said Sullivan. “It’s obvious a gamble.”
Sometimes it’s just a flip of the coin, but because the Roadrunners were so good on the road, winning 24 times (No. 3 in the AHL), it doesn’t seem as risky.
Two things help to determine the playoff rotations: the availability of each team’s arena and geography.
Because the AHL’s Chicago Wolves and Rockford IceHogs are separated by just 85 miles, that series will rotate game-by-game, on a 1-1-1-1-1 basis. And because the Syracuse Crunch and Rochester Americans are barely 100 miles apart, they will play a 2-2-1 series rotation.
Both are more fair than what the Roadrunners face by playing two opening games in San Jose.
But because the Tucson Arena is available next weekend, the Roadrunners would play Games 4-5 on Friday and Saturday nights. That’s when as many as 6,000 people might squeeze into the old arena each night and make it a hostile environment for the visiting Barracuda.
Other AHL playoff teams aren’t as fortunate: if the Texas Stars get to a fifth game, they’ll have to play on a Monday night after waiting six days for home ice to be available.
The Manitoba Moose might have it worse; they play two games at defending Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids, and subsequently were only able to schedule home games on Wednesday, Thursday and Monday.
Tucson has avoided that trap.
“The Coyotes want us to build a fan base and we’re doing that,” said Hoffman. “They want us to grow a corporate presence and we’ve been fortunate to do that, too. And they want us to win.”
So far, so good.