I’ve always told people that the number one reason why the NHL is clearly the least popular of the big four North American professional sports leagues are the high barriers to entry that exist in youth hockey. It is not the comparative lack of TV and media exposure the NHL gets compared to leagues like the NBA and MLB; it’s the lack of young players playing hockey compared to sports like basketball and baseball.
The fact of the matter is that hockey requires an incredible amount of time and investment from parents if they want their kids to play. Equipment, ice time, and league fees are all incredibly expensive. Hockey’s enormous learning curve is also much larger and more intimidating than most other sports. Everyone knows how to run, but it takes years of practice and patience to even become a mediocre skater.
Recently, at a cost of $250,000, the Arizona Coyotes and the Tucson Roadrunners unveiled a new DEK hockey rink, a dry rink where kids can learn to play roller hockey, at Doolen Middle School. While it is an essential first step for the rebirth of youth hockey in Tucson that will allow young Tucsonans to learn the rules of the game and practice it at a basic level, it is no substitute for an actual ice rink.
A DEK rink reduces significant barriers to entry for young players wanting to play hockey, but roller hockey is and always has been a sport that mimics true ice hockey at best. Although the basic rules of the game are all the same, the overlap between roller hockey skills and ice hockey skills becomes surprisingly small when roller hockey teams play ice hockey teams. I learned this from personal experience. When I was a freshman in high school, I played JV hockey for Desert Vista High School up in Phoenix. The JV division, which had seven teams at the time, all played and practiced ice hockey except for one, Horizon High School.
Back then, Horizon would practice as a roller team and play as an ice hockey team on the weekends; they were by far the worst team in the division for that reason. When we played them, we would regularly beat them by 10 plus goal margins. Although roller hockey taught them enough about the game for them to suit up every weekend and play, they simply could not compete with the real ice hockey teams in the division because of how different the game becomes when it is played on actual ice.
Tucson is still the largest city in the United States a without a public ice rink. Even comparable mid-sized Southwestern American Cities such as Albuquerque, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas have their own rinks, and the Southwest’s two major cities, Phoenix and Las Vegas both have multiple. Even Flagstaff, a city with a metropolitan population only about 14 percent as large as Tucson, has a public rink and thriving youth hockey programs.
My hope for the DEK rinks is that they will show investors that there is enough interest and young players to support youth ice hockey in Tucson. I hope that it doesn’t become a long-term substitute, because young athletes in Tucson deserve the chance to play true ice hockey like their counterparts in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Flagstaff and El Paso. Tucson’s potential for youth hockey is also enormous due to its proximity to these cities, especially Phoenix.
Because youth hockey in Phoenix has enjoyed more than three decades of development, and has become good enough to produce NHL players like Auston Matthews (who was selected 1st overall in the 2016 NHL draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs); young Tucsonans will immediately be able to travel just two hours up I-10 and play well-developed teams in Greater Phoenix. Within a few years of a rink being built, we could see Tucson Area high school and club teams competing with the established high schools and clubs up in Phoenix. Why Tucson still doesn’t have a public rink of its own is genuinely baffling; hopefully the interest in the DEK rinks finally convinces investors to build an ice rink in our great city and continue to grow the game at a grassroots level.