By Alex Kinkopf | AHL On The Beat
“It’s a fun place to play, a fun place to get up in the morning, see the sun, come to the rink, work hard, and go home at the end of the day.”
General manager Doug Soetaert knows a thing or two when it comes to analyzing new territory, feeling out the aspects of a fresh relationship between a team and its city, knowing where things lie, and foreseeing what’s to come.
After all, Soetaert’s resume, one of which is saturated with a 12-year professional hockey career topped off by almost three decades experience in organizational front offices, provides a pretty solid gauge of knowing good when he sees it.
And, for the Roadrunners, oh boy, have things been good.
Tucson, both the team and town, are just over a month into their inaugural American Hockey League campaign, one that required a quick turnaround and a rapidly built foundation once the Arizona Coyotes officially announced the move to the ‘Old Pueblo’ in June.
Fast-forward five months, and what you see is downright phenomenal.
“It’s been quite amazing,” Soetaert said of the transition and progress made both on and off the ice since June. “From the time they announced the franchise was going to be operating in Tucson, the work and commitment from the Coyotes, the city, and Rio Nuevo development has been unbelievable.”
Soetaert spent parts of six years playing in the American Hockey League with the Providence Reds and the New Haven Nighthawks prior to serving multiple executive roles in the IHL, AHL, and WHL.
The Edmonton, Alberta-native and 1986 Stanley Cup Champion has seen the process and the necessary groundwork needed to start, maintain, and successfully direct the operations of a developmental organization time and time again.
Since his hiring in July, Soetaert’s seen a first-hand account of what he’s referred to as an ‘all hands on deck’ effort, one that saw the city of Tucson commit $4 million worth of renovations to the Roadrunners’ home rink to ensure the team had a base they could be proud of.
“It’s a feather in everybody’s cap to be able to pull together, to be able to put all of that work into it,” exclaimed Soetaert. “The mutual working arrangements were obviously made to make sure this thing was on time and on budget to have it up and running, and it’s amazing.”
On the ice, the Roadrunners boast a 7-1-2-0 record, and are without a regulation loss since their regular season opener on October 14. They’ve spent some time atop the American Hockey League standings, and have claimed first-place in the Pacific Division since the second week of the season.
“You don’t go into a season in the American Hockey League looking to win a Calder Cup Championship, you look to go and be competitive and make sure you have a balanced organization with regards to development and winning, and so far we’ve been able to succeed there in the early going,” said Soetaert.
Commitment is a strong word, and it’s one the team’s brass stresses as one of the focal points for the roster’s eye opening start. When a new relationship is being constructed between a group of foreign players and their new host city, the engagement off the ice is just is important as it is on.
“Our players are very committed to the community, they’ve been very active so far in getting out, visiting people, and that’s something that will continue on throughout the year. I know our players are excited to be here and happy to be part of the fiber in the community, so it’s a good situation for everybody right now.”
This is the fourth team Soetaert’s overseen start anew; it’s a challenge he’s no stranger to, and one he knows has no stake without the unwavering support group that’s footed much of the hospitality for the transition to Southern Arizona.
“People are always a little skeptical of hockey in a new market, but for us to be able to catapult off of the Arizona Coyotes’ wherewithal, and the commitment they’ve made to the marketplace, along with the commitment from the city of Tucson and the Rio Nuevo investment group, everything is pointing in the right direction for this franchise to get off to a great start.”
One of the telling points of a successful launch are the turnstiles; through five games on home ice, and still ever-familiarizing themselves with the city’s population, the Roadrunners have averaged just shy of 4,000 fans each night.
“It was so nice to have a sellout opening night, and you could see the fans warm up to the team. What it does, is it gives you an extra man, as you would say, in the stands when the fans are behind the team like they are. The fans here are aware of hockey, they’ve been able to have the exposure from the Coyotes, so it’s rubbing off on everybody, and everybody seems to be jumping on board.”
Some may tab the Roadrunners’ early success as beginners’ luck, some may argue the team’s still floating through their honeymoon period. Some, though, may point to thorough efforts balanced with one of the most undervalued aspects of the sport – fun.
“To have success, you’ve got to win, and you’ve got to have fun doing that, and right now our guys are having fun competing, from our goaltenders to our defense to our forwards, everybody has chipped in and been part of this little run that we’ve been on so far. “
To keep this memorable start churning, this group of players – along with the city, the front office, and the fan base are going to have to push forth with the same ‘no quit’ mantra the team’s applied to their game thus far.
But hey, if you don’t enjoy it now, you never will.
“With the start that we’ve had, with the success so far and the feeling in the community, well, it’s an exciting time.”
That it is, Tucson. That it is.