Tuesday night, the Tucson Roadrunners will play in front of their home fans for the first time in more than a year. Dusty, the team’s mascot, will no longer be alone in “meep meep” chants as 650 fans return to the cold air of the ice rink.
Roadrunners forward Michael Bunting can’t wait to see fans in the stands once again.
“When the crowd is going, they are the seventh man on the ice — I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I always like hearing those cowbells and hearing the fans cheer. When the fans are there, it definitely helps us and our momentum.”
Tuesday’s game against the Ontario Reign will almost be like a second home opener for the franchise that took root at the TCC in 2016. Bunting has been a member of the team since it first moved to Tucson from Springfield, Massachusetts.
So far this season, Bunting and his linemates Kevin Roy and Lane Pederson are all posting over a point per game through the first 12 games.The on-ice performance for Bunting in 2021 has been a success even as off-ice life has changed as a result of the pandemic. A season typically kicks off with a big team dinner followed by further road trip bonding over dinners while playing away games.
Because of the need to minimize contact during this season, none of the routine activities are taking place away from the rink.
Instead of spending time together off the ice, the team has shifted its focus to staying after practice doing additional drills and shootout competitions to make up for the lost time.
“While we are at the rink, I feel like we make up for that, and you can see guys spending more time at the rink, and they’re there longer because when we go home, we don’t really have much to do,” Bunting said.
“Our practices are the same length, but you can notice guys are staying after practice and working on little things, or just being around the guys and playing fun games on the ice after practice is really noticeable this year.”
Change is a constant during the pandemic, but after all of the uncertainty that took place before the start of the season on Feb. 7. Not knowing was mentally tough for Bunting, but after 12 games, he is thankful to have the opportunity to continue to play in Tucson.
“I love it here. It’s been a great ride for me, really: You go to the rink with shorts and a T-shirt that was the first thing I loved, and just being able to play hockey in the desert and just see the atmosphere that a lot of people wouldn’t think that this is a hockey town and I think we are turning it into a hockey town.”
Bunting is the type of player who loves the crowd’s energy and uses the game’s physical side to focus mentally.
Throwing a solid hit or receiving one is his way of tapping into the thrill of competition. Bunting embraces the physical side of hockey, and when he does throw his next big hit at the TCC, there will be in-person fans cheering with approval.
The Roadrunners (6-6-0-0) lost five straight games before winning Saturday against San Diego. They’ll try to build a winning streak starting Tuesday night, when they take on Ontario at 6:30 p.m. The teams will meet again Wednesday night.
Bunting recalled another opening night — Oct. 28, 2016, the team’s first-ever game in Tucson — when talk turned to fans’ return.
“The fans came out and were cheering loud, it was a great atmosphere, and I still remember that night,” he said. “The atmosphere gets better and better, and it seems like it’s growing even more here.
“I think it will definitely feel like the home opener, and guys will have a boost just knowing that fans are in the stands. It’s been a while.”