One thing that I didn’t make entirely clear in my last article about the Tucson Roadrunners building DEK roller hockey rinks in Tucson is the current state of high school hockey in Tucson. While there are currently no teams directly affiliated with a Tucson-Area high school, there is a club team, the Tucson Junior Roadrunners, that competes in Division III high school hockey.
Despite being located in the largest American City without a public ice rink, the Junior Roadrunners played competitive hockey in their game against Glendale’s Mountain Ridge High School. Though they were slow out of the gate, going down 5-0 at the end of the first period, the Junior Roadrunners outscored their opponents 3-1 in the final two periods of the game.
It should also be noted that as of the writing of this article, the Junior Roadrunners currently sit in first place in Arizona DIII varsity high school hockey and have the league’s leading scorer in Ranon Plett. Having many high school aged players from different high schools across Southern Arizona, the Junior Roadrunners are what is referred to as a mixed team. According to Daniel Lusher, head coach of the Junior Roadrunners’ high school club hockey team, two of his players are from as far away as Casa Grande.
But for Tucson youth and high school hockey to grow and move towards teams directly affiliated with high schools, several challenges all stemming from the lack of a public ice rink must be resolved.
Although the Junior Roadrunners’ excellent leadership does a great job delivering quality youth hockey programs, considering the constraints they operate under, it is clear that the current situation is not ideal.
First and foremost, because they are based out of the Tucson Convention Center, the Junior Roadrunners have to compete with the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners, the ACHA’s Arizona Wildcats and City of Tucson events for ice time. In fact, according to Scott Perger, former Junior Roadrunners board member, the Junior Roadrunners are forced to travel and play games up in Phoenix when the Roadrunners are in town.
As with other teams, including the Roadrunners and Wildcats, the Junior Roadrunners do not have ice for nearly one month of the season when the gem show is in town. Also, since the City of Tucson installs and removes the ice from the Tucson Convention Center before and after every Roadrunners season, the Junior Roadrunners’ programs can only run from September through April.
As a result, the Junior Roadrunners cannot operate during the summer, and young Tucson hockey players have to make a two-hour road trip up I-10 to Phoenix if they want to practice during the offseason. The effects of the TCC not having ice in the summer also spills over into several other areas of the Junior Roadrunners’ organization.
According to Scott Perger, due to the lack of a public rink and available ice time, much of the enrollment in the Junior Roadrunners’ programs come directly from learn-to-skate programs. Although there currently is not a better alternative, having players go straight from learn-to-skate sessions to organized leagues is far from ideal because it takes years to master skating, hockey’s most important fundamental skill. In addition, the seasonal nature of the Junior Roadrunners’ programs does not allow players to practice skating in the summer even if they wanted to.
Scott also mentioned that while spots are currently available, the Junior Roadrunners are nearing capacity. As a result, it is obvious that the expansion of the Junior Roadrunners’ programs is impossible without a real public rink in Tucson.
After attending the Junior Roadrunners’ high school hockey game, the need for an actual public ice rink in Tucson became even more clear. Considering all of the challenges they face, the quality of the Junior Roadrunners’ programs is remarkable. This is mostly due to excellent leadership, management, and commitment from the people running the organization; I would recommend anyone with any interest in hockey to contact them.
The fact that the Junior Roadrunners even exists given all of the constraints the organization has to operate under is a testament to both hockey’s greatness, and the interest Tucsonans have in playing the sport. Youth and high school hockey is alive and well in Tucson, but for it to take a step forward, a public rink needs to be built.