Mix of skepticism and excitement in Tucson over potential move of Coyotes’ minor-league team to city

The proposed AHL team would play at the Tucson Convention Center, the current home of the Arizona Widcats club hockey team. (Photo by Justin Emerson/Cronkite News)

Hockey in the desert may be continuing to grow.

On Tuesday, the Arizona Coyotes announced plans to purchase their American Hockey League affiliate, the Springfield Falcons, and move the team from Massachusetts to Tucson, pending approval of the league’s board of governors.

The announcement said the relocated team would play at the Tucson Convention Center, the current home of the University of Arizona club hockey team.

But the convention center would need to be upgraded for the professional team, a prospect that not everyone in Tucson is thrilled with.

Tucson City Council Member Steve Kozachik, whose ward includes the convention center, said he has a “philosophical issue” with teams coming in and asking taxpayers to pay for their facilities.

“It’s not as if they can, with a straight face, sit and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to be a long-term, permanent client, anchor tenant for you,’ when the way we’re getting them is by them jumping ship from another jurisdiction,” Kozachik said.

He believes the Coyotes should pay for necessary improvements.

“If the Coyotes really want to indicate that ‘Hey, we’re in this for the long haul,’ then let them pay for the weight facility and let them pay for the locker room upgrades,” Kozachik said. “Let them get their checkbooks out and say, ‘This our good faith. We’re going to spend our own dollars and not ask the Tucson taxpayers to fund our pro franchise.'”

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Coyotes President and CEO Anthony LeBlanc said there’s “no way Tucson doesn’t make sense” for the team, according to a Coyotes’ news release on the call.
“It’s a great market with a large population of a million people, and it’s the largest market in the U.S. that doesn’t have a pro or semipro (sports) organization,” LeBlanc said.

Kozachik, citing the Arizona Constitution’s gift clause, said Tucson cannot directly pay for any improvements to the arena. The gift clause prohibits cities, counties or the state from subsidizing any company.

Tucson will turn negotiations over to Rio Nuevo, a facilities district inside the city that owns the Tucson Convention Center and leases it back to Tucson. The city would then sublease the arena to the AHL team.

“It would have to be a three-way agreement,” City Manager Michael Ortega said.

Ryan DeJoe is the coaching director at the Wildcat Youth Hockey Association, a group aimed at promoting hockey in Tucson. DeJoe said the team relies on the University of Arizona club hockey team because the Tucson Convention Center does not have a permanent sheet of ice. It is only put down when the Wildcats are home.

“They’re everything,” he said. “We get the ice because they’re there. Without them, there would be no reason for the TCC to have any ice whatsoever. You can’t overstate their importance to us.”

University of Arizona officials declined to be interviewed for this story, citing a desire to gather more information about how the AHL team would impact the university’s club hockey team before commenting publicly.

DeJoe said Tucson needs a permanent sheet of ice and expects one should an AHL team come to the city. It would give the new team, as well as the Wildcats, a place to practice. It would also give more ice time to amateur skaters and the WYHA.

City leaders are not opposed to the idea of a new ice facility.

“A lot of it is going to depend on the needs of the team,” Ortega said. “We’re still in the very early stages of our conversation. So just it’s going to be a matter of how we work through that. Clearly practice time and needing the facility will be part of the conversation.”

Adding an AHL team to Tucson would continue the trend of hockey’s growth in Arizona.

Last season, Arizona State University’s club hockey team began play at the NCAA Division I level and announced the creation of a club women’s team to begin play later in 2016.

The projected first overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Auston Matthews, is a Scottsdale native.

And the leading scorer in the North American Hockey League, Todd Burgess, is from Phoenix.

A Tucson team would play in the AHL Pacific Division, which formed before last season. It features five California teams and two from Texas. A name for the new team has not been announced, and LeBlanc said on Wednesday’s conference call there will be a fan contest to name the club, according to the Coyotes’ news release.

If the move is approved, it would be the first professional sports team in the Tucson since the city’s Triple-A baseball club, the Tucson Padres, departed for El Paso in 2013.

Jeff Beamish, a Tucson resident of nine years who grew up in hockey-wild Minnesota, said he is excited about the prospect of having a team in Tucson.

And Beamish believes the combination of cheap ticket prices for AHL games compared to those of other sports and a growing Tucson downtown will allow the team to thrive.

“Something like this coming to Tucson is so unique, and presents so many opportunities for the youth in this community,” Beamish said. “This could do really, really well if it’s done right.”

As for going to the games?

“Let’s just say the hockey team potentially coming here to Tucson was a huge topic of conversation last night with my wife,” Beamish said. “It’s definitely part of the plans.”