Ice Hockey in the Heart of the Sonoran Desert


Located in the arid Sonoran desert, Tucson is not a city that pops into your mind when you hear people speak of ice hockey. But hockey exists here in the form of a successful youth hockey organization known as Tucson Junior Roadrunners. The kids in this program get as much ice time as they can in a city where ice seemingly can only be found in electric freezers. I know because I was one of them.

I began playing in this newly inaugurated hockey club during the back-half of the 2011-2012 season when it was called the “Wildcat Youth Hockey Association.” Back then, there was just a handful of practices per week and little to no games to speak of. However, the program has slowly grown since then, especially after the arrival of the American Hockey League’s Tucson Roadrunners.

As an 8-year-old who had recently moved from Manitoba, Canada, I had no idea the impact this once-small program I enrolled in would have on my life. I will also never forget the words spoken years later by my coach, Ryan DeJoe, as my teammates and I waited anxiously for the puck-drop at our championship game. I was a high-school sophomore then. Coach DeJoe told us that regardless of the outcome of the game, he was immensely proud of us for having come this far. Hearing that expression of pride put me at ease. I understood that this game, this season, the fact that I even played hockey, would not define me; rather, my character and the values I had learned from the game of hockey were what mattered.

Side-by-side image of Ranon, the author, as a very young hockey player and as a high school hockey player

I once had the opportunity to play in a filled Tucson Arena between periods of a University of Arizona College Hockey game. I remember how this immense crowd erupted when I scored. It was thrilling. A few years later, my dad told me that all he could think of when the crowd was cheering was that was as close as I would ever get to playing in the NHL. He was right! It was a great moment that I’ll never forget.

The coaches, teammates, and lifelong friendships I have made as a result of playing in this program have changed my life for the better. The knowledge of the coaching staff here is top tier, and the people who play and volunteer are resilient, hard-working, and truly care about making this program the best it can be. This hockey community is incredibly supportive and tight-knit.

I am currently an assistant coach for the 14-and-under travel team, and I also help coach 8-and-under practices as they come right before the 14U skate. I’d like to share with you a typical day in my life as coach in this wonderful program.

A day in the life of this hockey coach

I arrive at the Tucson Arena about 30 minutes before practice. As I approach the escalators that lead down to the rink, I begin to feel the crisp cold that one would associate with a hockey rink – a sharp contrast from the southern Arizona heat outside.

Down at the rink, I find a seat where I can put on my skates, gloves, and helmet in preparation to coach. I sit next to one of my former teammates and we chat for a bit before heading onto the rink. The relationships and the time spent with teammates talking about hockey, and many other things, are what I cherish most.

As the zamboni finishes its final run down the rink, I can see the faces of the kids light up as they realize it is almost time to hit the ice. After the coaches, including myself, get the nets and all the other equipment into place, we let the kids onto the ice. It’s like releasing water from a dam. They have packed themselves tighter and tighter against the gate, and once it opens they pour out and fill up the rink within seconds.

Once all the kids get onto the rink we do skating drills to warm-up before breaking them up into small groups where they will work on several different skills from shooting to passing to skating. The groups work their way through the different drills, going from station to station. Before you know it, their hour on the ice is over.

Views of a filled ice rink, along with an image of a young goaltender receiving coaching

I would describe the practices as somewhat of a controlled chaos. There is ample planning and organization, but when 50 or more kids are on one sheet of ice, there is only so much a coach can do to keep them in line. I had the chance to get some pictures of the 8U Junior Roadrunners skating during their practice and it is awe-inspiring to see these young kids playing in a professional hockey stadium at such a young age.

The real “mission” of the Junior Roadrunners

I think what really sets Tucson youth hockey apart from other hockey programs is not its enormous arena, but rather the coaching staff and the overall mission of the program. “The goal has always been to improve the person first,” says Coaching Director Ryan DeJoe. “Obviously we want to make better hockey players, but I think it’s more important to use hockey as a medium to make them better people.”

While the program emphasizes skills development, in the end the vast majority of these kids are not going to play high-level hockey. The biggest win isn’t so much making them great hockey players but effective team players with strong characters. When I was a kid, I often let my emotions get the best of me. If it wasn’t for hockey, and this program in particular, it’s possible I would still have emotional outbursts today. Hockey didn’t teach me to repress my emotions, but rather control them and use them in a positive and productive manner.

14-and-under coaches and players by the bench discussing the ongoing game

Coach DeJoe expresses a commonly stated objective among youth sports organizations that this program truly puts it into action. The coaching staff wants to see — and expects — effort and hard work from the kids. They want these young players become leaders who uplift others through team work. All of these traits can help them with whatever they go on to pursue in life, whereas focusing exclusively on hockey skills alone will do very little for their post-youth hockey lives. Obviously, we want to win as many games and tournaments as we can, but this program takes far more pride in helping kids develop into successful adults.

Throughout this 2021-22 hockey season, I had young athletes express frustration with opposing players, referees, even their own teammates. While I understood their feelings (as I also felt those things as a youth hockey player), I encouraged them to be the best they can be, regardless of how the people around them were acting. This lesson was one I was taught as well: while no one can ever be perfect, the ups-and-downs that come with playing hockey allow for a lot of practice in character building.

Future of youth hockey in Tucson

The success of the Tucson Junior Roadrunners was almost halted entirely by the COVID-19 shutdown in March of 2020. There was no ice in Tucson from March 2020 until October 2021. According to Coach DeJoe, there was a total of around 570 days without any ice hockey in Tucson. The recovery of the program is largely thanks to many players returning despite the long break, and several new skaters who came through the Little Howlers program – a learn-to-play development program in youth hockey associations throughout Arizona. Coach DeJoe had his doubts about the ability of the program to come back from such a long hiatus, but the organization is once again approaching pre-COVID numbers of kids.

With the first season since the COVID-19 break coming to a close, both the program and hockey fans in Tucson have a lot to look forward to. Pima County has approved the addition of a new ice complex with three sheets of ice to the Kino Sports Complex. This would allow the program access to ice year-round. The multiple sheets will further allow the program to split up by skill level, which allows everyone to challenge themselves against others with similar skill sets.

With this new rink “the sky’s the limit,” says Coach DeJoe. As an active member of the program, I agree. One glaring problem in Tucson hockey has always been the lack of ice time, and with that problem solved, I believe this program can reach new heights both in terms of skill development and character development of these young athletes.


Ranon Plett is an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona studying Physiology and Medical Sciences. He is also a writer for Takes on Tucson.