If it feels as if the Tucson Roadrunners’ home schedule is starting late, that’s because it is.
Well, sort of.
The Roadrunners open their 2019-2020 home slate Friday night against the San Antonio Rampage. The Tucson debut comes on the AHL’s third weekend of play.
While the club’s inaugural year in the desert technically didn’t see a home game until Oct. 28, that’s in part because the AHL season started two weeks later than it does now. In that campaign, it was the third week of the AHL schedule, too, which Tucson returning home with a similar 2-1-0-0 record as the club carries into this weekend.
“We’re really happy to be back. Two weeks on the road to start the season isn’t necessarily easy, but to be home now for three weeks is awesome,” Tucson forward Lane Pederson said. “It’s going to be great to soak up some sun and we’re just excited to get some meaningful games here at home.”
That home facility, the Tucson Arena, is part of the expansive downtown Tucson Convention Center campus. Built in 1971, it’s the eighth-oldest among the AHL’s 31 home rinks.
AHL All-Star forward Michael Bunting, the Roadrunners’ all-time leader in goals and points, said Tucson Arena — like any seasoned hockey barn — has charm that’s hard to replicate elsewhere.
“I like the way we come out from the locker room right into the fans,” Bunting said of the arena, which received upgrades of approximately $8 million in 2014 and another $3.6 million in 2016 as part of the deal to secure the Roadrunners’ move to Tucson from Springfield, Massachusetts. “Even when it’s not packed, it’s upbeat. It never feels quiet. It’s a fun building to play in.”
Pederson, Tucson’s leading scorer so far again this season with four goals, agreed with his linemate.
“I think I can speak for most guys — we love playing here,” Pederson said. “It’s really got the home ice advantage. … The fans are always amazing. They’re loud and it’s kind of like they’re right on top of the ice.”
The AHL’s oldest home ice, now called Coca-Cola Coliseum, opened in 1921. The home of the Toronto Marlies seats about 8,000. The newest arena is Place Bell, home of the Laval Rocket near Montreal. It opened in 2017 and seats roughly 10,000. Tucson Arena currently holds 6,521.
Club brass expects packed house Friday
Roadrunners executives haven’t wavered in their belief that Friday’s home opener will be a sellout — or close to it. And Saturday, a game in which kids under 14 get in free, might push the attendance envelope, too.
Last season’s opener, a Saturday night game against the San Diego Gulls, may just be the most telling barometer.
That night, more than 6,300 at Tucson Arena watched a wild 6-4 come-from-behind win in which the Roadrunners trailed 4-2 after two periods.
Barely two miles away, the UA football team defeated Cal in front of with 44,000-plus at Arizona Stadium.
Roadrunners, Cats overlap more often
Last season, Tucson’s highest drawing sporting events — home games for the UA’s football and men’s basketball teams — overlapped with Roadrunners home games once apiece.
This year, the Roadrunners and Wildcats football team may overlap once — Nov. 23, when the UA faces Utah. Whether it actually will depends on kickoff time.
Hockey will go head-to-head with two home men’s basketball games: the Jan. 4 Pac-12 opener against ASU and a Feb. 22 game against Oregon.
Multiple big-ticket sports days in Tucson are happenstance. Scheduling for the next AHL season begins as early as January, and while teams have some input, college basketball schedules don’t become entirely solidified until into the summer. Football kickoff times, as UA fans can attest, can go week-to-week depending on TV contracts.
Worth noting this year, too: The Arizona women’s basketball team, fresh off winning the WNIT title, has sold nearly 3,000 season tickets. Home games for the UA women’s team and Roadrunners overlap three times this season: Nov. 8, Jan. 24 and Jan. 31. They both also play on Dec. 21, but the Wildcats tip off at 1 p.m. while the Roadrunners and Ontario Reign don’t drop the puck until 7:05 p.m.