Bob Hoffman has a ritual for the first Saturday in February.
The Tucson Roadrunners president starts his night in front of the Tucson Arena box office, waiting to greet some international visitors in town for the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. For the past three years, several groups of businessmen from far-flung places like New Zealand and Japan have made the Roadrunners game a part of their annual visit.
Hoffman said it’s fan experiences like this one that make Tucson unlike any of the six other hockey markets in which he has lived and worked. And the Roadrunners’ biggest fans, their season ticket holders, have exceeded his expectations in more ways than one.
The Roadrunners had 1,082 season ticket holders for the 2016-17 season, their first in Tucson. That number has grown steadily each year and now sits at 1,519, Hoffman said, a 50% increase from Year 1.
Hoffman and the Roadrunners have a marketing and sales staff, but it’s the season ticket holders, he said, who deserve the credit for growing the Roadrunners audience.
“They come to the games, they come each and every night and are passionate about it. They live and die with our players and our team and they want to see us succeed,” Hoffman said. “They’re talking about us, whether it’s at work or in the neighborhood or to friends, and they’re our best advocates because they bring people to games — and many people for the first time.”
During the Roadrunners’ first season, Hoffman conducted a 90-day review to determine who the team’s fans were. Hoffman and his staff targeted everyone with promotions and marketing, and soon learned that the largest group was families. The team responded accordingly, keeping the games affordable for families in terms of ticket and food pricing, offering giveaway and promotional events geared at kids and teens and providing in-game entertainment that’s family friendly.
Attendance on promotional nights is always strong, Hoffman said, but it kicks up to another level on the team’s annual youth jersey giveaway. Hoffman said that for that game, a line starts to form outside the box office 30 minutes before the doors open and by the time people are allowed in, it’s typically 100 fans deep.
“That loyalty and that affinity to us, you can’t gauge it when you come to town and you can’t beg for it,” Hoffman said. “It’s amazing, and we’re certainly grateful that it happened.”
Hoffman said that when he meets people who have never been to a Roadrunners game, he issues them a challenge: Come to a game (sometimes on the house) and try not to love it.
“I truly believe if you’ve never seen it before and you come and try it once you’re going to love it, and if you come back a second time, you’re addicted,” Hoffman said. “That’s what we’re trying to do: Come back that second time.”
Some of the Roadrunners’ season ticket holders were all-in on the team before it even arrived. Others needed a game — or maybe two — to fall in love. Here’s a look at the Roadrunners’ loudest and most loyal fans:
“It’s unlike any other game that you’ll watch in person”
Katie and Steve Ferencik purchased season tickets on a whim at a June 2016 event announcing the name of Tucson’s soon-to-arrive AHL team. The couple was attending a home show at the Tucson Convention Center and accidentally stumbled upon the event.
“It was a little like fate,” Steve said. The couple had heard Tucson was getting a team, but didn’t know much more at the time. “We got our seats and never looked back.”
Steve, 51, grew up in North Dakota and Minnesota, where, he says, “they start you on skates when you’re a toddler.”
He says he was never really dedicated to a professional team growing up, but adopted the Colorado Avalanche as an adult.
Katie, 36, lived in Michigan for six years, and was a Red Wings fan by default.
“There was a rivalry when we first met,” Steve said.
“But now, we’ve united over the Coyotes,” Katie chimed in, laughing.
“Since we started going to the Roadrunners game, you watch the players go from the Roadrunners and up to the Coyotes, and you kind of naturally become a Coyotes fan,” Steve said. “It’s so much fun because you remember watching them down here in Tucson and they’re so accessible at the (Roadrunners) games.”
Katie also played ice hockey growing up, but hasn’t been on the ice since she returned from a deployment in Afghanistan about eight years ago. A tech scout in the Army, Katie is in her 18th year of service. Steve retired from the Army a few years ago following 28 years of service.
The couple lived in Las Vegas during Steve’s last tour of duty. They made the decision to move back to Tucson after he retired, shortly after which it was announced that Las Vegas would be getting an NHL team, the Golden Knights.
“All of our friends are buying season tickets and we were just completely devastated because we were leaving,” Katie said. “But, when we got here, the next year they announced that they were getting a professional team and we were so excited.”
The Ferenciks initially went to the games by themselves. Last season, they added two more seats and started taking Steve’s granddaughters to the games. The couple formally adopted 4-year-old Dani and 7-year-old Olivia in September. Steve says the girls are now hockey lovers.
“The little one is crazy about it,” Katie said. “She wears her hockey gloves to the games. It’s so cute.”
The Ferenciks took their places behind the visiting team’s bench Friday night, both girls wearing bulky ear protection and Dani (as promised) sporting her hockey gloves. The family’s enthusiasm did not waver, with Kate and Steve lifting the girls on their shoulders to celebrate the first goal of the game.
Steve says it’s been great to be in with the team from the very beginning.
“It’s really fun to see our friends or strangers who have never been to a game before come and discover hockey,” Katie said. “Tucson is a super-small town … and I think that’s one good thing we have, is a really strong community. I think (the Roadrunners) have positioned themselves really well as community partners and it’s just going to grow from there.”
Steve and Katie agree that it’s better to be a hockey fan in Tucson than in Phoenix because of cheaper parking, easier access to the arena and better seats.
“Everywhere you sit (at Tucson Arena) is close to the ice,” he said.
The perks for Roadrunners’ season ticket holders, which include player signings, blankets, jerseys and more, are icing on the cake for the Ferenciks.
“I love sitting at the bench and watching the changes, watching the coaches and players get heated,” Katie said. “I just love the intensity and fire in these young guys who are just really going for it.”
Tickets “work wonders all over the place”
Daniel Butler was raised on the Chicago Blackhawks, but is quick to say that Roadrunners games are hockey at its best.
“The first year, I went to maybe seven games. I was buying them through Ticketmaster and I was buying two tickets at a time and it was costing me so much money that the next year, I just bought season tickets,” Butler said. “I’ve bought them for the last three years.”
Butler is a member of Dusty’s Force, a season ticket membership group that’s 175 fans strong, and he says, the perks from the club pay off. Members of Dusty’s Force get Coyotes tickets and extra giveaways.
“My favorite part about the Roadrunners is that they’re a bunch of young kids trying to make their dreams come true,” Butler said. “They always have a great team, they’re always a bunch of great guys. They’re right on the cutting edge and it’s great hockey to watch.”
Butler goes to most of the season’s 34 home games, taking hockey-fan family members and friends. On occasion, he’s even given his tickets to clients of his home repair business, saying, “they work wonders all over the place.”
“Even when I give them away, I still just buy myself tickets and go,” Butler said. Like many Roadrunners fans, Butler is still a fan of former Roadrunners forward Conor Garland, who was called up to the Coyotes last December. Garland returned to the Roadrunners at the end of last season to help the team in an unsuccessful bid to make the playoffs. Now that Garland’s gone, Butler says his favorite player is right wing Nick Merkley.
“I like his enthusiasm. He’s young, he’s a good guy,” Butler said.
At Friday night’s game, Butler sat in the stands with his niece, daughter and his daughter’s friend. Wearing a throwback “Roadrunners Fight Cancer” T-shirt from a previous season, Butler served as an informal concierge for his guests, making the trip up the steps to buy snacks and stopping to chat and exchange high-fives with other season ticket holders seated in his section.
Butler’s advice to Tucsonans who’ve never been to a Roadrunners game?
“You’ve got to go: it’s hockey at it’s best,” Butler said. “The NHL has calmed down a lot and it’s more of a skills game, so for the folks that like to see full-style hockey, the AHL is where it’s at. They still bring all the flair, and these players are on the cusp of making their dreams come true.”
“You get to know them on a personal level”
It’s easy to spot Jana Salcito at Roadrunners games. She sits right on the ice, next to the penalty box, and always holds a posterboard sign with Tucson’s kachina logo and all the players’ names. Last year, she got 95% of the team to autograph the sign. This year, she’s hoping to get everybody.
Jana, 47, says her love of sports started when she was a 3-year-old child living in Maine. She played floor hockey in elementary school; it was decades before she attended a professional game.
In 1997, Jana met her husband Dwayne in New Hampshire. After they got married, they began following the AHL affiliate in their town, the Manchester Monarchs.
Dwayne, 55, had also been a lifelong hockey fan, having been born in Connecticut.
The Salcitos moved to Tucson in 2007. They said they were “thrilled” when the Roadrunners came to town.
Despite their love for hockey, the couple admits it took them a little while to get to their first game. They’ve made up for their tardiness with nearly two years of loyalty as season ticket holders and unofficial ambassadors for the team.
“I remember seeing people wearing the jerseys the first season and I thought, ‘that’s cool, we need to go to a game,’” Jana said. “Well, we never got out to a game that season.”
The next season, the Salcitos’ church held a hockey night — and they went.
“That got us hooked,” Jana said. They went to another game, then a third and then the playoffs.
“We started talking to the reps at the Roadrunners. Our son was still living at home at the time and he wanted to enjoy it with us, so we decided to do it and we haven’t looked back,” Jana said. “It’s been the best thing.”
Jana hasn’t missed a home game since they signed up for season tickets and Dwayne says he’s only missed one.
Jana paused to show off her customized jersey autographed by center Lane Pederson, her favorite player.
“He’s a fan player, he loves his fans. He’s always approachable,” Jana said. “But they’re all like that. They’re so humble, they love their fans and they appreciate their fans coming out.”
Between the two of them, Jana and Dwayne own nine jerseys. Jana wears a Roadrunners hat to work every day and has enough team T-shirts to wear every day for two weeks straight.
Jana and Dwayne are planning a hockey room in their new house for all their Roadrunners memorabilia. They’re collecting more than just gear: A person who was sitting several rows back two seasons ago moved next to the Salcitos this year, as did another couple. Jana has also made some friends that she lovingly refers to as her “hockey sisters.”
At Friday night’s game, Jana and Anna Jones, one of the hockey sisters, exchanged impromptu gifts: a jersey for Anna and a custom-made eyeglass holder adorned with Dusty the Roadrunner for Jana. The two talked excitedly about plans to attend a Coyotes game in Phoenix later in the weekend, a perk of their Dusty’s Force membership.
Their son is away at college this year, meaning it’s Jana and Dwayne at the games. It was clear Friday night that Roadrunners games still feel like a family affair.
“It’s our second home,” Dwayne said.
“Part of the community”
Cathy Soltero has her very own wall of fame inside her Chandler home. Two walls, actually. The right side of her hallway is reserved for photos and jerseys associated with Roadrunners players. Once a player is called up to the NHL, Soltero moves their stuff to the opposite wall.
“I’ve spent more money on jerseys than anyone,” Soltero, 66, said, adding that her most expensive purchase was a $3,100 Conor Garland jersey that she bought at a charity auction. The purchase price set an AHL record, but for Soltero, the purchase was worth it: Garland addressed his signature to his “#1 Fan.”
“The AHL is special because of the interaction with players,” Soltero said. “They’re people, and you’re people to them.”
Soltero said she’s always loved hockey, but had a minimal understanding of the sport until 2015, when she attended a Coyotes prospect camp in Chandler. That’s where she saw Garland, who she calls “The Conor.” Soltero bought her season tickets after a Roadrunners representative assured her that Garland would be with the team.
“The Conor is what turned me into a total fanatic and student of the game,” Soltero said.
While Garland has since moved on, Soltero’s allegiance to the team has not.
Soltero is a former juvenile probation officer. Never having children of her own, Soltero said that her probationers used to be her kids.
The Roadrunners “have replaced my caseload,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t have pictures of my kids to put on the wall, but I have jerseys.”
She and her husband made the 210-mile round trip from Chandler to the Tucson for games for awhile, then purchased a time share in Tucson so that they could stay in town on weekends with back-to-back games.
During the break between first and second periods at Friday night’s game, Soltero took photos and chatted next to the food vendors with a group of men decked out in Roadrunners jerseys. During breaks in the game, she talked to season ticket holders seated nearby. While the puck was in play, Soltero’s eyes were glued to the ice.
“I love the culture of hockey, it’s unlike any other sport,” Soltero said. “When someone scores a goal, they give accolades all the way down. In hockey, the individual is never as important as the team.”
Soltero said she treasures her relationships with the players. Last year, she had to thin out her jersey collection after it became too large, and decided to send jerseys back to players who had since left the Roadrunners. She could’ve made some money by selling her prized possessions, but opted to give them away.
“The Roadrunners players live in Tucson’s neighborhoods and they’re part of the community,” Soltero said. “With the Coyotes, the likelihood of living next door to a player is slim to none.”
“They mean everything”
The love coming from Roadrunners’ die-hards is felt — and often reciprocated.
“The fans here have been great. I’ve been here for four years now and every year they seem to be getting better and better with more people in the stands,” defenseman Dysin Mayo said. “They’re really invested in us, you can tell. They’re always standing out here after games and talking to us. It’s nice to have that kind of support.”
Left wing Michael Bunting, who is in his fourth year with the Roadrunners, said that he appreciates the dedication of the team’s biggest fans, and that it’s nice to continue to see the same people that were coming to games during his first year.
“They mean everything. They’re like the seventh man out there when we play,” Bunting said. “When they’re going, it kind of gives us a little energy, and it’s good to see familiar faces come back every weekend.”
Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlincschmidt.