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Roadrunners are Calder Cup contenders in Year 2 of existence

Dylan Strome and GM Steve Sullivan (Tucson Roadrunners on Facebook)

Steve Sullivan isn’t the type to tell old war stories. If he were, the Tucson Roadrunners general manager could offer helpful advice to his team as it begins the American Hockey League (AHL) playoffs at San Jose on Thursday.

Sullivan, who is also the Coyotes assistant GM, won a Calder Cup in 1995 with the Albany River Rats, the New Jersey Devils’ AHL affiliate. On that team were current Coyotes goalie coach Corey Schwab, and current Coyotes senior advisor for business development and alumni relations, Cale Hulse.

The coach was former Phoenix Roadrunner great Robbie Ftorek.

“We were so dominant it was ridiculous,” said Sullivan, whose team lost two games the entire postseason. “New Jersey won the Stanley Cup the same year. We were really deep as an organization.”

It is that kind of depth that Sullivan, Coyotes general manager John Chayka and the organization are trying to build in Arizona. The returns in Tucson have come faster than anyone imagined.

The Roadrunners enter the playoffs as Pacific Division champions and the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed. The Roadrunners will face the Barracudas in a best-of-five series with the first two games on the road and the final three at home.

Tucson’s .662 winning percentage was the third-highest in the league behind the Toronto Marlies (.737) and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (.684). All of this came in Year 2 of the team’s existence.

“They have been so resilient,” Sullivan said. “There have been quite a few injuries and call-ups. We’ve had to adapt and our coaching staff has had to tweak the lines all year to see what will work but they have evolved.”

As the Roadrunners have evolved into a Calder Cup contender, their relationship with the city of Tucson has also evolved. They finished 22nd in attendance in the 30-team league with an average of 4,217 fans, but team president Bob Hoffman said the Roadrunners enjoyed a 6 percent increase in tickets sold over last season. In four April games to end the regular season, Tucson drew almost 21,000 fans.

“Obviously, the success on the ice has had a great impact with the people that maybe would not have given us a look in the past,” Hoffman said. “I think the biggest hurdle that we faced early on dealt with the faith part of it. They had been burned in the past by other professional teams that had come and gone. They needed to know that we weren’t one of those teams that was going to burn them.

“Having the support of the Coyotes solidified it on this end. There are a lot of Coyotes fans down here that make the drive up for games.”

Hoffman and his staff are ramping up plans for the fan experience in the playoffs. The Roadrunners will roll out their first Whiteout on April 25, but they have tried to connect with fans all season by providing season ticket holders with greater access to the team, providing free “buddy passes” to ticket holders to bring friends or family along to discover the game, and allowing people to exchange their tickets for another game if they can’t come to the one they had planned.

Hoffman admitted there was an educational component to the Roadrunners’ arrival in a nontraditional market, similar to what the Coyotes rolled out in 1996 when they moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix.

“Having said that, I was surprised at how many transplants there were down here that grew up near Chicago or in Wisconsin or Minnesota or Ohio,” he said. “This town was excited about getting a pro sports team back.”

The Roadrunners will have to make due without top-six forwards Laurent Dauphin and Nick Merkley, who are both out for the season with knee injuries, but the February trade for center Carter Camper (16 goals, 45 assists), along with the reassignment of center Dylan Strome (22 goals, 31 assists) and defensemen Trevor Murphy, Dakota Mermis and Joel Hanley for the playoffs gives the team the belief that it can make a deep run.

“You can’t replicate experience so that will be our biggest Achilles heel,” Sullivan said of his young team. “How will they react to that?”

Sullivan said the answer would provide another valuable tool in the building of the franchise from bottom to top.

“Every decision we make down here is development based and the ultimate goal is to make our players better here so they can help us win the Stanley Cup in the NHL,” he said. “Playing meaningful games is part of that development.

“I think winning at this level filters to the NHL club and it’s not just about winning, it’s about understanding what it takes to win. To do that you have to have experience and to have that experience you have to play in meaningful games. We’re in the position in Tucson now where we’re playing very meaningful games.”

Tucson Roadrunners vs. San Jose Barracuda

Game 1: Thursday, Tucson at San Jose, SAP Center, 7 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, Tucson at San Jose, SAP Center, 7 p.m.
Game 3: April 25, San Jose at Tucson, Tucson Arena, 7:05 p.m.
Game 4: April 27, San Jose at Tucson, Tucson Arena, 7:05 p.m.
Game 5: April 28, San Jose at Tucson, Tucson Arena, 7:05 p.m.

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