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Coyotes likely to move AHL affiliate to Tucson next season

Arizona Coyotes' Martin Hanzal (11), of the Czech Republic, celebrates his goal with Sergei Plotnikov (61), of Russia; Anthony Duclair, second from left; Boyd Gordon (15); and Jordan Martinook (48) during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Dallas Stars on Thursday, March 24, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. Hanzal scored two goals on the night, his 100th and 101st in the league, as the Coyotes defeated the Stars 3-1. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Coyotes will likely have an American Hockey League team playing in Tucson next season. Two sources familiar with the talks confirmed that officials with the City of Tucson had multiple meetings recently with the Coyotes to discuss an AHL team playing its games at the Tucson Convention Center beginning in the 2016-17 season.

The Rio Nuevo district, where the Tucson Convention Center sits, funded nearly $8 million in upgrades to restrooms, concession stands, new seats, lights, a sound system and a new entryway two years ago. Neither Rio Nuevo District Board Chairman Fletcher McCusker nor city manager Michael Ortega would comment on the recent meetings with the Coyotes.

“What I can tell you is we have looked at what it would take to renovate the facility,” Ortega said. “There were some discussions on what it would take to potentially recruit or respond to a request from a potential pro sports team.”

Both said previous discussions touched on the need to improve the team areas of the facility in order to bring it up to AHL standards.

“We would not meet current league requirements for the back office areas including the locker room, training rooms, weight rooms and medical areas so that would be part of any conversation,” McCusker said. “We’ve always been interested in finding a pro team but we really don’t know the status of what the Coyotes want to do.”

McCusker said the Tucson Convention Center’s arena seats about 6,700 for hockey. No improvements are necessary for the ice itself.

With the other renovations complete, the only remaining hurdle for the Coyotes would be purchasing their own AHL franchise to move to Tucson. Coyotes president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc declined to comment on the entire topic, but a well-placed source told Arizona Sports the Coyotes are in the process of finalizing the purchase of an existing franchise. The identity of the franchise has not been disclosed.

LeBlanc has long coveted Tucson as the site of the team’s AHL franchise because it is the second-largest market in Arizona. The proximity of Tucson would make it far easier to call up players in the event of injuries. The team also hopes to expand hockey’s footprint across the state and this move is seen as a step in that direction.

The City of Tucson has no ice sheets for youth hockey other than the part-time ice available at the Tucson Convention Center, but this move could spur the construction of rinks for a local youth program to continue hockey’s growth in Arizona.

Pat Wilde, the sponsorship director for the Wildcat Youth Hockey Association in Tucson, said WHYA has more than 100 families involved despite the fact that they only have access to ice a fraction of the year at the Tucson Convention Center when the University of Arizona’s club team isn’t using it. The ice is melted after the Wildcats’ season ends in the spring.

The Coyotes new affiliate would compete in the AHL’s Pacific Division. That division was created last season when five NHL clubs moved their AHL affiliates west. The AHL is the top-level farm system for NHL clubs.

The San Jose Sharks’ affiliate also plays in San Jose at the SAP Center where the Sharks play. The Calgary Flames’ affiliate plays in Stockton, California; the Edmonton Oilers’ affiliate plays in Bakersfield, California; the Los Angeles Kings’ affiliate plays in Ontario, California; and the Anaheim Ducks’ affiliate plays in San Diego.

All of five of those NHL Pacific Division teams also own their affiliates.

The Coyotes signed a three-year affiliation with the Springfield (Massachusetts) Falcons in August 2015. The Falcons’ regular season ends on Sunday with a home game against the Coyotes’ previous AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates. The Falcons will not make the AHL playoffs.

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