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When the Coyotes hired John Ferguson Jr. to serve as the team’s assistant general manager and GM of their AHL affiliate in Tucson, there were some eyebrows raised around the league because Ferguson was not moving to Arizona. He was remaining in New England.
Turns out those concerns were ill-founded. Talk to Roadrunners executives, coaches and media and you’ll find that Ferguson is “always around” when he’s not out on the road scouting or occasionally visiting his family back home in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.
Ferguson brings more than two decades of NHL front-office experience, including five years as the Toronto Maple Leafs GM. Six months into his Arizona tenure, I caught up with him for a Q&A on a variety of topics.
Half a year in, what are your general impressions of Tucson and the Roadrunners organization at all levels?
I have been really impressed. The people that really define the culture are committed professionals and real passionate about the game, about player development, about the city, the league and our players.
What is your evaluation of the coaching staff?
They have been tremendous and so much of what they do happens outside of the games. Their attention to detail, the pre-scouts, the post-game review, the analytics, the individual player development, the skills development, the cadence of the play, rest, training and development rhythm really optimizes the schedule.
I’m really impressed with (coach) Jay Varady, (assistants) Steve Potvin, John Slaney, Charlie McTavish and our player development staff with Alex Henry has been down there regularly. (Director of hockey operations and video) Jake Wagman had a lot thrown at him early and is really getting up to speed in a hurry.
There has been a lot of discussion of the numerous draft assets that GM Bill Armstrong has accumulated for his scouting staff, both for 2022 and beyond. Once those assets become prospects, however, are you satisfied with the development model and staff in place to turn those prospects into NHL players?
Yeah, I’m convinced that the personnel that we have really is what makes it work with their input, their expertise, their experience and their attention to detail. We’re always pushing for more in every aspect of the operation, and we will continue to do that on and off the ice, but the staff is tremendous.
The market is tremendous, too. Our players love the city and the area. I know our opponents like to come to Tucson. It’s a growing market for us to continue to develop, but you raise a great point in terms of the assets having been acquired that are going to provide the ammunition to our developers and to our amateur staff. Our primary assets are really what are going to be the lifeblood of the organization in many ways. Looking forward to this draft and beyond, every aspect of your organization has to be in sync on what I like to call the asset optimization continuum.
Each part of the organization is necessarily reliant on what comes before and dependent on what comes after. The amateur (scouting) staff has now been afforded a lot of ammunition gathered by Bill Armstrong in the management group. They’re going to have the swings, the at-bats. The amateur staff is reliant upon that to go to the draft, because you can be at the draft and have compiled the best list, but if you don’t have the picks, no one will ever know.
Once the picks are made, the management and development staff and coaches at the American and NHL levels are necessarily dependent upon the work of the amateur staff and what has been put into the system. And then it’s incumbent upon the development staff to make what the amateur staff has chosen better. That player development is going to happen immediately, before we see them, certainly in development camp right after the draft, as they grow as amateurs or unsigned draft picks, and then necessarily once they are signed, assuming they get signed, when they’re put into the development system at the pro level.
The type of support group that Bill Armstrong and Xavier Gutierrez and Alex Meruelo have compiled will make sure not to neglect any aspect of the development of players. Whether it’s the care of players on or off the ice, mentally, physically, and with skill development, it will continue right through Tucson into Phoenix. It’s an exciting time to come into the organization and an exciting time to be part of the organization. We understand that we’ve got a job to do every night and every day that necessitates that we show up to play to win at both levels and push each other to get better, individually and collectively as we build the future.
Does Tucson Arena have the necessary infrastructure to fully develop your players, whether it’s training or workout areas or anything else?
We’ve got a great set-up off the ice in Tucson, and access to areas that are going to make our players stronger, faster, better. Can they be better? Certainly they can be better, but that’s like any discipline. You want to be state-of-the-art all the time, but it’s not always about where you are, but what you make of it. We’ve made a great deal out of what we have there and we have access to first-rate facilities. We have an excellent fan base, an excellent city to live and work in. And they are making improvements to add some creature comforts around the building, and to continue to address our needs developmentally.
How much time do you spend in Tucson per month?
It varies. There’s heavier periods like now leading up to the trade deadline at both levels. The college seasons are getting near to college players becoming free agents, so there’s signing decisions. The college players really get staggered as to when they will be available because some of the teams that don’t make the playoffs will be done very soon. Some will be within two weeks and those that get to the Final Four will be April 7 and 9.
You’ve also got the end of a lot of the junior seasons not so far away so you want to make sure you’ve seen the guys that you need to see there.
People around the organization say you don’t go home much. True?
I do my best to manage the work-life balance, but I also understand it’s a 24/7 job that can’t be done the right way any other way. It’s hard to put a time frame on each aspect of the job, but I’m certainly in excess of 100 games viewed at this point. I pride myself and others in our organization, on our desire to compete in everything we do. We need to be better than our opponents out on the scouting battlefield, preparing every day, seeing games, getting on the phone, seeing free agents, drafts, pending free agents, talking with our colleagues around the league, getting an idea of where the salary cap is going to be.
Certainly, we have many people contributing to this kind of information that we share, but it really is born out of competition. Future NHL games are being won and lost on today’s scouting battlefields. That’s the mindset we have and I love the competition and the grind without losing sight of the need for results.
Winning teams in the AHL often boast a number of veteran players who aren’t necessarily NHL prospects. How do you strike a balance between winning games and staying true to your primary mission of developing players?
It’s hard to say specifically year over year, because your group is necessarily going to have a cyclical nature to it. By the time players are second- or third-year pros, some of them have graduated, but they’re all going to be more experienced by that point.
We’re tilted young this year and very capable and hungry. It’s hard to say there is a specific goal to either focus on player development over winning or winning over player development. I’ve always been of the mind that they’re simply not mutually exclusive. They’re both very important. If you’ve got to pick one or the other, you’re probably hedged toward player development because that’s the true nature of what you’re trying to do is make NHL players. However, there can be a negative to teams that get to the point where they believe they can’t win. Just like winning begets winning, when it doesn’t come, sometimes you get going the other way and I don’t believe that’s the right environment, a healthy environment to allow players to feel real good about their games and improve their games. There needs to be a reward for good play and competition.
Taking into account a player’s development path, the needs of the NHL team and the situation of the NHL team (the Coyotes are currently in a rebuild), how do you know when it’s time for a player to make the leap to the NHL?
A lot of times, it’s the players themselves who demonstrate to us that they’re ready, and not just ready for a taste which can also be helpful. Matias Maccelli is getting it now, but his play and his obvious improvement over these last four or five months has demonstrated that he’s not only earned a job, but he’s prepared to get a look.
That being said, we want to make sure these guys are ready to go and stay, but it’s OK, if they’re not ready in year one. Dysin Mayo is a good example of taking advantage of opportunity and preparing himself with four years of American League experience under his belt. (Conor) Timmins gets hurt, he grabs a hold of his opportunity and earns himself a contract. There’s other examples. We’ll never know if Barrett Hayton should have had the opportunity to play more at the American League level. The issue was at that time, he wasn’t eligible to stay in the American League. He was either staying up, or going back to junior, which has its own push and pull.
Primarily, I think the players themselves need to demonstrate over months, more so than weeks or weekends, that they are at the top of our group at their position and can play at that level when an opportunity is presented, whether through injury or performance. I will never put a ceiling on what a guy can do or what role he can earn when he gets an opportunity. If they earn an NHL role, good for them, but this is where I go back to what I’ve said many times: I have not seen any player play too many American League games. We have seen players play too few. That’s the foundational sense of where I’m coming from in that regard.
With all the draft picks that are coming this year and in the next two years, how much do you think those will impact the complexion of the Roadrunners’ roster in the coming two to three years?
I think it’s going to be a dramatic impact and I think your timeline is safe. You’re looking at drafting 17- and 18-year-olds in July. Outside of those that might be in Europe or the U.S. national team development program, if they’re drafted out of the Canadian junior leagues, they need to go back so typically they won’t be in Tucson for at least two years unless they’re a late birthdate or some of the outliers who skip a step.
Two to three years is a fair horizon and it really is an exciting thing to be a part of. We see the challenge, but the opportunity is great and it’s an integral part of what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to build and what we will build.
Tucson Arena improvements
When PHNX Sports broadcast live from Tucson Arena on Feb. 26, Roadrunners President Bob Hoffman gave me an impromptu tour of the arena to get a sense of the improvements that are taking place — improvements that Coyotes President & CEO Xavier Gutierrez made clear were long overdue investments from the city.
The Coyotes are in the sixth year of a 10-year lease with the City of Tucson for use of the arena.
Here’s a rundown of the changes that have taken, or will take place.
Parking: There is a new parking garage on the east side of the building (Lot A) that was completed last spring. Hoffman said it quadrupled the amount of spaces that are available in that lot.
“It gets us to where a large portion of our fan base can be right there, front and center, and not have to have a long walk to get in,” Hoffman said. “We have a very similar garage structure with actually a few more spaces, that’s going to be opening in Lot C (northwest side of arena). The convention center is stretching out further and into Lot B so it’s taking some spaces out of Lot B, but one of the improvements that the fans will see with the parking area over there in front of the convention center is that that entire area is going to be redone as far as the parking goes and updated and modernized so it’s just going to be a much better experience with your parking: increased spaces, better lighting, better security.”
Dusty’s Party Nest: There is a wide and largely vacant walkway (photo above) that connects the east and west sides of the arena along the south end above the scoreboard. That will be converted to a lounge area named after the team’s mascot.
“Whether it’s on individual nights that season ticket members or group members can be in there, or if it’s bought out by a particular company, we’re going to use that area each and every night to create a larger hospitality area that will accommodate bigger groups,” Hoffman said. “We’re gonna put TVs in there that will be spaced out throughout to watch the pregame, the game or other sporting events.
“We’ll have high-top tables, barstools, tables, chairs. It will have a bar in there for the folks with access. And then we’ll have food packages and buffets. It will be more premium. It will be a special menu that is created just for that area and that’ll depend on what the group selects and who’s going to be in there.”
Loge boxes: At the top of the bowl, there are four loge boxes (one shown above) in the process of being cordoned off with low walls (two on the west side, two on the east). Each box will have four seats.
“They’ll have a little bit more of an exclusive feel so there’s a little bit more privacy than what you have from sitting in a normal seat throughout the venue,” Hoffman said. “You’ll have your own private wait staff so it gives you a little bit of an upgrade as well from that hospitality standpoint, and you’re also able to order off of a separate menu pregame so you can order certain items that would not be accessible at the normal concession stands.
“Whether it’s companies that want to entertain people in town for certain nights or friends that want to get together for a certain night, we are going to have options. We are also going to make two of the four boxes available for licenses so that a company could buy and own that area for the entire season.”
Ribbon boards: There are two new black ribbon boards (one pictured above) on the south end of the arena that can be used for advertising, branding and announcements.
“There’s really three phases that we’ve discussed with the city regarding revenue streams and building improvements,” Hoffman said. “Our biggest pieces obviously are ones that are going to create a better fan experience, dress it up a little bit more, and then also create some additional revenue streams for the team.
“So the first phase of it was just the one end zone over by the scoreboard where the ribbon boards are up and running now, but in a later phase, we are going to put it in the other corners (north end) as well so that there will be four ribbon boards.”
Scoreboard: Tucson Arena’s roof configuration cannot support a center-hung scoreboard but the team does hope to upgrade the board that rests on the south wall.
“That’s in a later phase to improve and just keep up to date all of the audio and video inside the arena and all of the technology,” Hoffman said. “One other thing that’s been added that’s really a behind-the-scenes addition is we also have a new computer system in our game presentation area that helps us with updates and shows and the like.”
Bathrooms: The restrooms were upgraded two years ago.
Team areas: There are no plans to change anything right now in the team areas which are located below the stands on the west side of the arena. The Roadrunners locker room is fine. The coaches room and the training and medical areas are a little cramped, but not out of line with what you might see in other AHL arenas.
The team has a weight and workout room underneath the stands on the north side of the building where there is also a storage area for the team and food and dining areas. The footprint of the arena makes it difficult to expand west, but the convention center is expanding so there could be possibilities in the future.
“As the entire campus continues to evolve and grow, spaces may reveal themselves or areas that are currently occupied may be able to move into other spaces,” Hoffman said. “There is an opportunity as the entire campus over the next two years keeps growing and evolving, that it would create some space that might be a little bit more beneficial for us to upgrade some of our hockey areas.”
Other possibilities: “I’m continually having conversations about other digital signage solutions that could be placed all around the arena or in different spots,” Hoffman said. “When you walk on that concourse, just to have a digital sign on the wall that we could put sponsors on that has an updated, state-of-the-art look is going to generate more revenue. I guess if I had to wish for one thing, I’d like to see opportunities for more signage, but that is all in the works. It’s nothing that I am being told I can’t have yet. It’s just in one of the later phases.”