TUCSON – After he retired from the NHL, Wayne McBean moved to Phoenix and started skating once a week with other former professionals as a way to keep fit and stay connected to the sport that he loves.
McBean couldn’t help noticing that the rink where he skated was bustling with young players, a sign of the game’s tremendous growth in the Valley. He and another ex-NHL player, Greg Adams, hatched an idea: What if they quenched their thirst for competition by organizing charity games, with the proceeds helping to fund up-and-coming players and programs?
It seemed like a win-win proposition no matter the final scores of the exhibitions. Thirteen years after organizing their first charity event, their fundraising efforts and zest for competition are still going strong. Recently, the past staved off the future when an Arizona Coyotes Alumni team that included McBean and Adams skated to an 8-7 victory against the men’s club team from the University of Arizona.
The Wildcats gained much from the loss. They enjoyed the thrill of competing against their childhood heroes, got a crash course in advanced hockey and generated $5,000 for their hockey program.
“I mean it’s everything, it’s no secret we’ve got a lot of challenges here as a program sharing this building with an AHL team,” University of Arizona coach Chad Berman said. “The whole thing they are doing is great. Not only to honor the NHL players of the past, but to support the current hockey groups in Arizona.”
The exhibition game took place on Arizona’s home ice at the Tucson Convention Center, and the money raised will help defray the considerable costs for a Wildcats club program that has aspirations of some day joining Arizona State as an NCAA Division I participant.
Hockey is one of the most expensive sports to play at any level. Between the equipment and travel, costs add up quickly. The money the team received from the game is important to a program that is looking to continue to improve. Few opponents are available in the West so the Wildcats have to travel to places like Minot State in North Dakota to find competition, which is not cheap.
“It costs a lot to run a program like this and to compete at a high level,” Berman said. “To play the top teams you’ve got to travel.”
Then there’s the cost of ice time and equipment and meals for the players. “It takes a lot so it’s critical to the program to establish itself to the level it is,” Berman said.
As beneficial as the money raised was the opportunity for the Wildcats to play and learn from legends of the game that have played at the highest level. It is not often that members of a club team are able to share the ice with former NHL players.
“There is so much they can learn (from) them just from their hockey IQ and the way they play on and off the puck,” Berman said. “Every guy in this room always dreamed of playing in the NHL so we’re just jealous and trying to watch and take it in. It’s a strange game because it’s so casual yet competitive. It’s a strange balance, but at the end of it, it’s really a celebration of hockey and that’s what makes it so fun.”
The former professionals – no matter how old they are – get as much out of the games as their younger opponents.
“As an ex-NHL player, you’ve been on the ice your whole life so right when you retire you might retire from the NHL, but you never retire from hockey,” said McBean, who added, “We just love being on the ice.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the alumni team is the fact that it has never lost a game in 13 years. While there have been close calls, including against the University of Arizona, the ex-pros continue to rely on their years of experience to find a way to prevail in the end.
“It’s been awesome,” former American Hockey League player Zac Larraza said. “It’s been so fun being around these guys. I played in Tucson my last year for the Road Runners so it’s nice to get back here and see some familiar faces from when I played here.”
Each game the alumni team plays generates revenue that benefits different hockey programs in the state. The team plays a big role in growing the game and entertaining the fans all at the same time.
“Over the last 13 years, we’ve donated $1.3 million back to hockey, from Flagstaff all the way down here to Tucson,” McBean said.
The impact the alumni team has extends beyond the state borders. The players have traveled to New Mexico to teach children about hockey and create a new generation of fans that will fall in love with the game the same way that they all did when they were younger.
“We had 805 kids go through the (New Mexico) program,” McBean said. They get free equipment from skates, all the way up to their helmet, to sticks, equipment bags, everything. The alumni go on the ice for seven different ice times with all 805 kids and we teach them right from the beginning how to stand up, skate, pass and shoot the puck.”
This expansion beyond the state of Arizona makes a lot of sense considering the recent growth of hockey in the Valley. More parents are getting their kids involved with the sport at a young age, increasing the sport’s popularity.
McBean said, “When you see the minor hockey levels growing in the numbers of registrations of five, six, seven, eight-year-old kids playing the game, you’re going to see your fan base at the NHL level rise as well because if dad’s sitting at home and his little seven-year-old son wants to go to a hockey game, he’s going to drive to the hockey game.”
In Tucson, especially, this has been the case. More children than ever before are picking up a hockey stick, putting on pads and a helmet and lacing up skates. The limited number of ice rinks in the area were becoming a concern. But fortunately, the University of Arizona is currently working on building a new hockey arena for the team that will open to the public in 2024.
“The new arena couldn’t come at a better time,” Berman said. “We’ve got over 900 kids here playing hockey and there’s more kids than there’s ice available so it’s crowding the opportunity for growth here. I’ve met way too many families moving up to Phoenix just because they’re commuting six, seven days a week already so their kid can play hockey. That breaks my heart because I want to see the talent stay in Tucson.”
Arizona’s home-grown talent includes the NHL players Sean Couturier and Austin Matthews. Larraza is another professional with roots in Arizona.
“I was born and raised in Scottsdale and played for the Jr. Coyotes so it’s awesome giving back to the players that are within the state,” Larraza said. “It’s a great charity and I’m glad to get to come out here and play for all these guys and girls.”
The future of hockey continues to get brighter every day because of support groups like the alumni team and the different universities throughout the state that provide kids with a chance to play the game they love. McBean notices parallels between Phoenix and LA.
“In 1988 I was [the] 4th overall draft pick to the LA Kings,” said McBean, who recalled that the team’s fan base then was small but loyal. That all changed in August of 1988 when Wayne Gretzky, the Michael Jordan of the NHL, was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Kings.
“Wayne Gretzky came down and it all changed the whole world,” McBean said. “Changed hockey in the United States and in your non-traditional hockey markets. Phoenix when I came down here 13 years ago there was a small minor hockey base. Now it’s starting to grow. You have a huge hockey base here in Tucson, all the way up to Flagstaff.”
With the help of the Arizona Coyotes Alumni team, the University of Arizona, other universities in the state and all the junior hockey programs, the game figures to continue to move in the right direction.