The Big Read: Coyotes' 5-year-old Tucson experiment starting to pay NHL dividends

Roadrunners have impacted Arizona's roster more than any previous affiliate

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In his two-plus seasons with the Tucson Roadrunners, Conor Garland developed a heart-warming, if unhealthy habit. After practices, and on his drive back to the apartment complex north of the city where most of the Roadrunners lived, Garland would stop at Donut Wheel, a local shop with small but highly rated versions of America’s most famous pastry.

Garland’s go-to donut was chocolate with coconut shavings. For the rest of the team, he would take individual orders rather than buying a box and forcing them to battle over the choices.

“I would say, ‘I’m heading to Wheel,’ and they would text either, ‘The usual’ or ‘Surprise me.’” Garland said. “They were cheap donuts, like 60 cents. They were small but they were good.”

Once each player had his donut, many would prepare for an afternoon Fortnite competition. Garland and his roommate, Cam Dineen, would settle into their respective rooms and face off against a roommate-based team of say, Lane Pederson and Tyler Steenbergen. The winners would advance to face another winning team.

“Cam would get yelled at quite a bit,” Garland said, laughing. “I’d kick his door and yell, ‘Wake up in there!’ Poor Cam. I would just bury him.”

When the Roadrunners weren’t conducting those virtual battles, they had their preferred spots in town where they would congregate, most notably Illegal Pete’s on University Blvd. where they would meet for tacos and burritos while chatting, laughing and taking in the sun-baked sights that the University of Arizona had to offer.

“The interesting thing about Tucson was, with it being a new franchise when I got there, we all found the spots where we liked to hang out together,” goalie Adin Hill said. “Sometimes, you can come to a city and the older guys already know the best places to eat or hang out, but we were kind of in the same boat, exploring a city together. 

“You’d find a restaurant and then everyone would go there and try it. We all lived in the same apartment complex, so we’d go to the hot tub or the pool or the movie theater or play cards or whatever. It definitely helped build a bond, I would say.”

That tight Tucson bond is a critical element that many Roadrunners, past and present, cite when recounting their experiences with the team, but it was just one of several benefits that former GM Don Maloney, former coach Dave Tippett and the IceArizona ownership group envisioned when IceArizona purchased the Springfield Falcons and moved the franchise to the Old Pueblo in 2016.

Five years later, the Coyotes are reaping the rewards of that decision. The Roadrunners are a popular draw in Tucson, and when the Coyotes need to recall a player, it is less than a two-hour drive from Tucson to Glendale.

On the ice, the Coyotes are getting production from their homegrown talent. Garland burst onto the scene with a goal-scoring binge two seasons ago. Hill has provided critical performances over the past three seasons with Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta battling the injury bug. Michael Bunting has injected life into a team in dire need of a boost as it chases a playoff spot, and multiple other players have made short-term impact this season.

“I knew this year that we were really going to rely on our taxi squad and Tucson at some point because of COVID and the condensed schedule,” coach Rick Tocchet said. “We’d skate at 11 (a.m.); (the taxi squad) would skate at 1 and I’d go in and talk to those guys and say, ‘I know you guys are separated from our situation but some of you guys, maybe all of you guys will be a big part of helping us win here.

“That’s exactly what you have seen. Chappy (Michael Chaput) played well against St. Louis early in the season and did some valuable things to help us get wins in that series. (Hudson) Fasching had a good game at Anaheim to help us win, Bunts has had a hot stick, Pedey (Lane Pederson) comes up and scores a goal in his first game, and Hilly has obviously done a lot the last few years. That’s what you need from your American league team and those guys have delivered, at different times, for us.”

The Roadrunners won their first-ever game in Tucson by defeating the Stockton Heat, Calgary’s AHL affiliate, 6-5. (Photo courtesy of Tucson Roadrunners)

Sowing the seeds

In the first three years of IceArizona’s Coyotes ownership, Maloney and Tippett implored the group to invest in hockey operations. One of those suggestions was to purchase an AHL franchise and bring it closer to the NHL team.

From 2005-2011, the Coyotes were affiliated with the San Antonio Rampage, which was a better but still not ideal arrangement than the ones that followed. From 2011 to 2016, the Coyotes were either affiliated with the Portland (Maine) Pirates or the Springfield (Massachusetts) Falcons (also an earlier affiliate).

It was a common practice among Pacific Division teams to maintain affiliates back east because those teams could all play one another and limit travel costs and fatigue within the AHL. But that didn’t solve the issue of recalling players at a moment’s notice. If an NHL player was injured in a morning skate, an NHL team might have to fly an AHL player clear across the country and then suit him up that night, jet lag and all.

In 2015, the landscape shifted dramatically when the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames announced the long-discussed formation of an AHL Pacific Division with affiliates playing in five California cities: San Jose, San Diego, Ontario, Bakersfield, and Stockton, respectively, making both travel and recalls simple.

Six years later, Vegas has an AHL affiliate in Henderson, Nevada, Seattle will place its affiliate in Palm Springs, California, and the Vancouver Canucks, the only Pacific Division team without a western-based AHL affiliate, are considering moving their team from Utica, New York to one of three western sites: Abbotsford, British Columbia, Salt Lake City or Prescott Valley.

“Having your affiliate on the East Coast became a big competitive disadvantage when all the other West Coast teams had moved their affiliates out west,” Tippett said.

With those five Pacific division opponents setting the pace, former Coyotes president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc began scouting potential franchises to purchase. The only one that he found initially, the Norfolk Admirals, was purchased by the Ducks, so LeBlanc waited.

“I was in Nashville for the (2016) All-Star Game weekend and (Ducks president) Michael Schulman came up to me and said, ‘I just got out of an AHL meeting this week and the guys in Springfield are looking to sell,’” said LeBlanc, now the president of business operations for the Ottawa Senators.

The next week, LeBlanc met with Falcons owner Charlie Pompea and his daughter, Sarah, the team president, in New York. The talks progressed quickly.

On April 19, 2016, the Coyotes announced that they had reached an agreement to purchase the Falcons (LeBlanc said the cost was about $3.8 million) and relocate them to Tucson for the 2016–17 season. LeBlanc had considered multiple in-state locations including Yuma, Flagstaff, Prescott Valley, Tucson and Gila River Arena in Glendale, but only the latter three had an appropriate facility.

“In the end, it came down to Prescott Valley and Tucson, but Tucson was the location that made the most sense for us,” LeBlanc said. “It’s the second most populous city in the state, with a very friendly local government looking to work with us.

“They were incredible. The city was incredible. The Rio Nuevo (District) folks were great. All of the local partners were great. It was a really pleasant experience. Not to throw daggers at my friends in Glendale, but it came along around the same time that we were having significant challenges in Glendale and it was a really collaborative experience. Tucson was always No. 1 on our list and it never really got jockeyed out of the way.”

Individual and system development

One of the greatest benefits of having a nearby AHL affiliate is the synergy that it creates with the NHL team.

“To have them so close where you can keep track of each other and you watch each other’s games every night, it’s a benefit that with our team on the East Coast, we haven’t had,” Tippett said at the time of the purchase. “Especially when you’ve got young players, sometimes you’d like to flip somebody out for another guy. Sometimes it’s to send a message. Sometimes it’s just to look at a guy. We never had the ability to do that when the American league team was so far away.”

Proximity also makes it easier for the two teams to implement the same systems and drill down to the smallest detail. When a player is recalled to the NHL, he doesn’t have to learn new systems on the fly and he has more reps in the systems that will be required in the NHL.

“(Former Roadrunners GM) Steve Sullivan was big on getting us and the Tucson coaches together where we had those coaching symposiums,” Tocchet said. “They were involved with us for a week and we talked all about systems.(Tucson coaches) Jay (Varady) and (Steve Potvin) and (John Slaney) were there every day.

“I have to give credit to those guys that came before me because they were adamant about making sure there was synergy between the two coaching staffs. That has really helped when a guy comes up, because he knows our system. When it takes a week or two, you just don’t have that time. When (Pederson) came up, we had a real quick chalkboard talk on systems and he was like, ‘Yep, that's what we do in Tucson. Got it.’ He didn’t ask a lot of questions so it’s a credit to Jay Varady and Potsy and John Slaney that those guys show up prepared.”

Garland said that the organization’s systems are hammered home so frequently that it feels as if they are “engraved in your brain” by the coaches.

“It is an advantage and it’s a huge one,” he said. “You can shut your brain off. You don’t have to go in and sit with the coaches for 30 minutes, going over systems and then trying to survive out there. I know where the F1 is going. I know where the F2 is going. The play is moving a little faster but if I’m in the same spots, it’s the same game so it is a lot easier.”

At the same time, Garland, Bunting and others said that they never felt as if they were just being programmed like automatons in a plug-and-play system.

“Tucson is unbelievable with skill development for individual players, too,” Bunting said. “We had development days at the start of the week every week, when we didn’t play for a while. We would have (skating coach) Lars (Hepso) come down, or back in the day, it was Dawn Braid coming down and doing power skating for us.

“We would do these skill sessions of just forwards. Pots was our skill development guy and then when he came on as an assistant coach, he kept it going and it’s still going on down there. We did some crazy stuff. I remember days when we had a whole team stick-handling golf balls around the (Tucson Convention Center). That was fun and it does help your hands, but it was also funny watching all the guys running around, stick-handling golf balls. The TCC is so big that we had a lot of room to work with.”

The development days began under former coach Mike Van Ryn, but Varady put it all down on paper when he arrived in 2018.

“In the American Hockey League, you actually had four development days when you were playing on weekends so we would just label them, Dev Day 1, Dev Day 2 and so on,” Varady said. “We talked about what skills the players needed to be successful in the structure that we were playing and what made sense on each day. Then we tried to break it down to the smallest level of each skill.

“You want to make sure a player does a drill enough to get that muscle memory and comfort level, so we created an environment where players were getting tons of repetitions that they needed to develop to become an NHL player.”

Players were broken into position groups for individualized work with each position’s coach: Potvin for the forwards, Slaney for the defenseman and Zac Bierk (who recently left to become the goalie coach in Ottawa) for the goaltenders.

The defensemen might work on breakout skills, picking a puck off the wall and shooting it in different situations that the staff had seen in games. Wingers might be asked to handle pucks in certain areas, and so on.

There was more individualized work, too, and there was off-ice development that Potvin organized, including that famous story of Garland shooting lead pucks near the loading docks at TCC to improve the strength (and accuracy) of his shot.

“This is such a well-oiled system with our development team,” said Potvin, who also credited development coaches Mark Bell, Alex Henry and Hepso with instituting individualized plans for each player. “The players have spent time with so many people and learned such an immense amount of valuable information that we feel so much pride when they go up and have success in the NHL. 

“It’s our job to prepare them but there is definitely satisfaction when they get called up. It just reinforces the trust in the process and I feel like it is something you can show the players behind them. You can say, ‘There are so many days when you can feel like it's so far away but look at these guys. Just a week ago, they were with us and now they're in a playoff hunt. Now they’re scoring big goals. It may feel like you’re so far away, but really you're not, and here’s what we need to do to get you there.’”

The AHL can become a back-biting environment if the right culture is not in place. There are precious few NHL jobs and most of the players in the AHL will never become regulars while others are battling with their teammates for jobs.

“It’s a weird relationship because you’re very close with these guys,” Garland said. “We would all cook dinner together. We would all sit in someone’s apartment together or watch an NHL game or play Xbox and you might be sitting next to a guy where you don’t know it, but the organization is debating on who to call up, you or him. You’re competing against each other to realize your dream, but you don’t really talk about it. It’s almost like a taboo. 

“I was so close with guys like Nick Merkley, who was a small right winger. You’d have to be dumb not to realize you guys are kind of the same player so you’re probably competing for the same job, but I would also bring him a donut every day and sit and talk to him for an hour while we’re also going for the same job.”

Tucson’s defensemen will say the same thing about Slaney, but Bunting and Garland will both credit Potvin, now the Roadrunners head coach, with creating a collaborative and supportive atmosphere in Tucson. They’ll also tell you that when times got dark and they wondered if they would ever get their NHL opportunity, Potvin was the shoulder that they leaned on for advice and support.

“You would laugh if I told you how many conversations I have had with him asking, ‘How am I ever going to get to the NHL?’” Garland said. “He would just say the same thing. ‘Hey, it’s day by day. I don’t know if you’re going to get called up tomorrow. I don’t know if you’re going to get called up in a month.’ And as I got closer and closer, he would just say, ‘Make sure you play detailed tonight; who cares if you score?’ He knew in five games I’d be in the NHL playing detailed, not chasing offense, because of the role they would give me. Whenever I finished talking with him I felt clear headed, like I was moving in the right direction.

“It’s just in the way he can send a message to players. He makes you buy into being a better player and a better person for the ultimate goal of playing for the Coyotes. Even when you felt like there was no hope, he made you believe there was hope that you could get there if you just did this or did that. Everybody that has come up from Tucson this year has looked good and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I really don’t. Without him, I wouldn’t be here so I have to give him his credit.”

Potvin said own experience chasing an NHL dream helps him to relate to the players that he is coaching. He never made it past the AHL, but that struggle is familiar to him.

“Just having gone through the process myself and having an empathetic view and understanding of what they are going through on a day-to-day basis helps,” he said. “There’s moments where you can have self doubt or loss of trust in the process. Sometimes, you take in the information but you're worried about where it’s coming from. If it’s coming from a staff member, you might think it’s coming from the other side, so to speak, and not trust it, so you try to help them understand that the flaws they have are real and we’re trying to limit them or eliminate them by working with them on a daily basis.

“It’s not easy to sort through those and try to build new habits, especially when they come from such successful junior careers or even success at the American league level, but there are still some things that need to be fixed in order to be a full-time NHL hockey player. They have it in them, but conforming to new habits can take time.”

The payoff

There is a basic worth in the Coyotes owning an AHL franchise that comes in the valuation of the team. Individual AHL franchise values are not readily available, but one source said that the value has likely increased by an average of $2 million in the past five years, and it is instructive to note that the Chicago Blackhawks purchased their AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, from the City of Rockford for $11.8 million earlier this month.

The greater payoff for NHL teams is clearly in the polished products that they produce. In their years with San Antonio, Portland and Springfield, the Coyotes developed a handful of good prospects who spent significant time in the AHL, including Keith Yandle, Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jordan Martinook and Tobias Rieder. Since the move to Tucson, however, the team has promoted Garland, Lawson Crouse, Christian Fischer and Bunting, while Hill has seen significant time and others have provided spot-duty.

The team’s top four prospects, centers Barrett Hayton, Jan Jeník, defenseman Victor Söderström and goaltender Ivan Prosvetov are also developing there and could make an NHL impact as soon as next season or 2022-23.

One thing that GM Bill Armstrong has made clear since his arrival is that he does not want to rush prospects from the AHL to the NHL — a mistake that the Coyotes have made too often with previous prospects including Peter Mueller, Turris, Boedker, Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, and perhaps Hayton last season.

“Overall, you want to make sure you put your kids in situations to succeed where they’re not overwhelmed and they’re not in the NHL too soon,” Armstrong said. “Going way back to my (AHL) coaching days (in the Bruins organization), we had a guy named Jon Girard and the Bruins put him in the NHL for the first year and a half. Well, when you send him down to the minors, it’s not good. It’s just not good because he spends the first six months saying, ‘I should not be here.’ Then he realizes he does belong there and then he starts playing well and then they call him up again. 

“You really want to do it the appropriate way where they spend the right amount of time in the minors, they get overcooked, they’re not happy, their agent is not happy but when they come up, they’re coming up to stay. That’s not always possible in the new NHL with the salary cap the way it is. And with the depth on some teams, you’ve got to use those guys before you’d like to sometimes, but if it’s done properly, in a professional way in a perfect organization, you make sure you’re making that move at the right time.”

The Coyotes have still not decided what they will do about the vacant GM role in Tucson or a coaching staff that is minus one coach after the promotion of Varady to the Coyotes staff to help work with the taxi squad and handle duties previously managed by former assistant/video coach Steve Peters.

The reduced Tucson staff is likely a short-term void brought on by the unique circumstances of a global pandemic. In the long term, if there is an AHL city where players have to spend a significant amount of time, Garland said it doesn’t get much better than Tucson.

“I have so many memories from University Blvd. just sitting there from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., eating lunch and dinner together and laughing all day,” Garland said. “It’s a great city for the American league. The rink is a perfect size where they can sell out and even if they don’t, it still looks full. It’s warm weather all year. Your drive from the rink is like 15 minutes which is a perfect time to clear your head and prepare. There is a college there and we can go sit and eat outside.

“I always tell people, ‘If I was 30 years old and never played a game in the NHL, I would just sign there as a free agent — get me to Tucson. Now I have a bunch of buddies who play in the American league and they’re trying to get there. Everybody is trying to get there. It really is the perfect AHL city.”

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Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter: @CraigSMorgan