Tucson is closer than ever to getting a new professional sports team.
The Arizona Coyotes announced Tuesday morning that they plan to purchase the Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League and move the team to Tucson. The deal is contingent on league approval and an agreement with both the City of Tucson and Rio Nuevo.
The yet-unnamed team would play at Tucson Convention Center starting next season. Tucson hasn't had a professional sports franchise since 2013, when the Triple-A Padres baseball team moved to El Paso.
"They want to skate in October," Fletcher McCusker, chairman of Rio Nuevo, said Tuesday. "We need that approval, then we've got to get busy."
The move would allow the Coyotes, who play in Glendale, closer access to their minor-league affiliate; players called up or sent down would be a 2 1/2-hour drive away from the team's headquarters.
TCC arena underwent a $7.8 million renovation in 2014, and needs a few million in upgrades to be suitable for minor-league hockey, McCusker said. Rio Nuevo would pick up the bill; the city would then negotiate a lease with the minor-league team for 35 home games per season. TCC seats 6,700 fans for hockey.
Local officials will meet with the AHL soon to determine the upgrades and their costs. McCusker called the upgrades "back of the house" improvements. The league could vote on relocation as soon as May 10, its next scheduled board of governors meeting.
"To have a pro hockey team here, we have to have locker rooms, weight rooms, training rooms — all the things associated with a pro hockey franchise," McCusker said.
TCC is the longtime home of the Arizona Wildcat club hockey team, previously known as the Icecats. McCusker said the UA is on board with a potential minor-league team, and that both sides have shown a willingness to schedule around each other — and, if possible, scrimmage each other.
The TCC recently purchased an ice cover, eliminating the hassle of melting — and then re-freezing — the surface. The arena hosted a Juanes concert and monster-truck derby with the ice still intact.
Rick Small, chairman of the Tucson Convention Center Commission, said Tuesday that the potential move is “absolutely a good thing for TCC, a good thing for Tucson and a good thing for downtown.”
“The challenge for the TCC is entirely logistical,” he said.
Minor-league hockey has been part of the Tucson sports landscape off and on for decades: The Tucson Rustlers, Icemen and Mavericks all played there in the 1970s, and the Gila Monsters briefly occupied the arena in the late-1990s.
City councilman Steve Kozachik is leery of another tenant given the previous teams' failures. The Coyotes' past issues in Glendale give him pause, as does the potential events TCC would have to turn away so the team can both practice and play games. The arena, which is in Kozachik's district, is the city's only facility with ice.
"There's nothing to bind them here," Kozachik said of the potential new team. "I've asked the city what kinds of protections the taxpayers have so these guys don’t just come in and bail — or fail. … To say its Rio Nuevo money and not the city’s money is a distinction without a difference because it still comes out of the taxpayers' pockets. We have longstanding contractual relationships with the gem show, the SAHBA Home (and Garden) Show, the Icecats. Are we going to buy these commitments out because professional hockey goes September through May?"
Kozachik, who works in the UA's athletic department, counts himself as a hockey fan. He grew up in Michigan watching "Hockey Night in Canada," and attended Tucson Mavericks games in the 1970s.
"I still have my Tucson Mavericks t-shirt," he said. "(But) we've seen this play out before. (The Coyotes) are looking for best deal they can get. When a better opportunity comes along, they'll take it."
The AHL is, by all accounts, a step above the old Central League. The 30-team league serves as the top minor-league affiliate for the NHL. A record 6,693,526 fans attended regular-season games this year, an average of 5,982 per game.
The new Pacific Division is responsible for much of the boost. Five teams in California — Bakersfield, San Jose, San Diego, Ontario and Stockton — and franchises in both San Antonio and Cedar Park, Texas, brought fans (and revenue) during the regular season. Five of the franchises are first-year teams that play close — or, at least, closer — to their parent club.
The NHL's Anaheim Ducks purchased the Norfolk (Virginia) Admirals a year ago and moved them to San Diego. San Diego, like Tucson, is roughly a two-hour drive from the NHL club.
The proximity is invaluable for both sides, AHL spokesman Jason Chaimovitch said.
"Take San Diego. For Anaheim's folks to hop in the car and watch practice one morning and be back in the office by lunchtime, it's convenient," he said. "It's more convenient than having to fly across the country to watch practice and then watch them play one night."