Get Arizona's Best Sports Content In Your Inbox!

Become a smarter Arizona sports fan with the latest game recaps, analysis and exclusive content from PHNX's writers and podcasters!

Just drop your email below!

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Upgrade Your Fandom

Join the Ultimate Arizona Coyotes Community!

Pride of the Old Pueblo: Tucson coach Steve Potvin deserves attention for Roadrunners' success

Craig Morgan Avatar
February 23, 2024
Tucson Roadrunners coach Steve Potvin (right) watches game action.

Tucson Roadrunners coach Steve Potvin only got eight games out of defenseman Michael Kesselring before the Coyotes recalled him in November. Those sorts of lineup losses are a regular occurrence in the American Hockey League, where winning often takes a back seat to development and NHL opportunity. Potvin and his staff were just excited for Kesselring, who was logging 20-plus minutes a night, including a significant role on the ‘Runners penalty-killing unit and its second power-play unit.

Some of the other recalls were a little more challenging. When Jason Zucker was suspended for a hit on Nick Cousins in January, the Coyotes recalled Roadrunners leading scorer and AHL All-Star Dylan Guenther. He has not returned. 

When Connor Ingram left the lineup recently with an injury, the Coyotes recalled Roadrunners starting goalie and AHL All-Star Matt Villalta. 

Through it all, Potvin’s team has kept rolling in the Old Pueblo. Entering this weekend’s series with the Bakersfield Condors at Tucson Arena, the Roadrunners were in second place in the Pacific Division, five points behind Coachella Valley with two games in hand. Only a handful of the franchise’s top prospects have made their way to Tucson in the early stages of the rebuild, but the Roadrunners are still eyeing a Calder Cup playoff run.

“Steve hasn’t had teams that are like the Hershey teams where they’re just stacked with skill,” Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong said. “He’s had grinding teams so he’s had to grind his way into the playoffs, but that group does not take no for an answer. They just frickin’ work and he’s done a great job down there.”

Which begs the question: Why isn’t Potvin getting more national attention when it comes to up-and-coming coaches? Is it time that his name joined the list of potential hires for the next level?

“You don’t hear his name but I think you will,” Armstrong said. “I think in the inner circles, there’s some talk. Look, Jay Varady got his opportunity to move forward. Mike Van Ryn got his opportunity so I think it will come for Steve. He’s still young.”

Potvin also lacks the traditional résumé that Varady (now a Detroit Red Wings assistant coach) and Van Ryn (now a Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach) have. Varady coached in the NCAA, the WHL, the USHL and the OHL before becoming the Roadrunners head coach in 2018. Van Ryn had coached in the OHL and AHL before he was named Roadrunners head coach in 2017. Those résumés provided both men with an array of experiences and, just as important, an array of connections and relationships throughout the hockey world. 

By contrast, Potvin was working with the Junior Coyotes as a skills coach in 2014-15 before he was named the Coyotes skills coach in 2016, and then joined the Tucson staff in 2017. This is the only team beyond the youth level for which he has ever worked, and he only has three seasons as a full-time head coach under his belt, but players past and present swear by his approach and think he could make the leap to the NHL.

“Of course he can,” said former Coyote and current Vancouver Canucks forward Conor Garland, who spent 2½ seasons in Tucson with Potvin. “I never had him as a head coach but I thought he was an elite power play coach that knew how to expose each team we played and had different breakouts that he could implement for each team we faced. 

“He was also way ahead of his time dealing with younger players and their sensitivity and personalities (mine included), and how to get the best out of them for the day and the future. I know countless guys that would give him lots of credit for their AHL and NHL success.”

Almost every coach dreams of greater opportunity, but when asked about it, Potvin provided a nuanced answer.

“I’ve never thought about it,” he said. “I know that some people may not believe it. Of course, when I signed the contract to be a skills coach you say, ‘Oh, this is great. You never know where it could lead.’ But I was always more just curious about the next step. People asked: ‘Hey, did you ever think about coaching?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, that’d be great. I’d love to coach.’ I’ve always had that curiosity to see where things could go, but I never really strived to make it a goal to be a coach. I just wanted to be around the game.

“I’ve always had a passion for the game. The more you’re around this game, the more you’re around elite people, and when you’re around elite people, you see their tendencies and how they behave. You want to mimic and model the good ones, model their attitudes and learn from them. I’m no different. I just started understanding it a little differently when I was older.”

Coach Steve Potvin has the Roadrunners off to a 29-15-2-1 record this season.
(Photo courtesy of Tucson Roadrunners)

Potvin admits that when he first became the Roadrunners head coach in 2020, he wasn’t sure how his approach and message would be received or perceived. He had three years under his belt as an assistant coach, but that was the extent of his behind-the-bench, upper-level experience.

So he tried to bring the perspective of a player who toiled for four seasons in the minor leagues and 10 in Europe before finishing his playing career for the CHL’s Arizona Sundogs in 2009-10.

“When you go through the experience as a player, you don’t really realize that you’re not going to do this forever,” he said. “Sometimes, you can let difficult situations lead to resentment and really be cynical about how your path is going. Sometimes, it doesn’t really fall in place with how you envisioned it and that can take you to a dark place. 

“Once you retire and you’re away from the game, you realize how much you miss it. It becomes a little bit of an addiction. You want that feeling again. You realize how much you love it and that when it was dark, those were actually moments when you should have really been listening and finding out what your weaknesses were; not letting your ego take control. That was the game kind of whispering to you and challenging you to get better.”

As the top Coyotes prospects start making their way through the organization, Potvin will have more opportunities to impart that message, but he is already making his mark on players such as Guenther, Maksymilian Szuber, Aku Räty, Victor Söderström and Josh Doan.

He is also impressing the Coyotes coaching staff.

“Fabulous,” said Coyotes coach André Tourigny when asked to evaluate the work Potvin and his staff have done in Tucson. “I think he has done a really good job with the tools he’s provided. 

“Potsy’s a really good guy and the players like him. The reality when you look at their team and our team is we have two different teams. He has a team with more grind, more physicality. We have a lot more talent up front. I cannot say we sit or call every week, talking about systems, because we are busy, but we talk about call-ups, we share documents and I think it’s important that he’s teaching those players how we want to play.”

Potvin is quick to credit his staff and his players for the success the team is having thus far.

“I really do believe it’s because of the humans that we have in the room,” he said. “They want to learn, they want to get better and they are all people that are also trying to prove something. There may have been some missed opportunities with other cultures or other teams so they’re hungry; they’re determined.”

With 25 games left in the regular season, the Roadrunners have a chance to secure home-ice advantage at least for the first round of the playoffs, if not longer. Potvin said that is the immediate goal.

“We want to be able to play in front of our fans,” he said. “When we made the playoffs in that COVID year, there were no fans allowed. Last season, we weren’t able to play in front of our fans because the first three games were on the road.

“They deserve it; the people that support us and care for us and really show up every night. It inspires us to play well and to be better.”

Playoff runs are usually what lead outsiders to sit up and take notice of the people driving that success, but Potvin is in no hurry to climb the ladder.

“Don Cherry said something years ago when I was a kid, and I don’t know why, but it resonated with me that every coach should go through every level of coaching, whether it’s minor hockey, junior, minor pros or pros,” he said. “You don’t understand the full extent of being a coach until you’ve gone through all those experiences. When you look at my path, I can maybe understand or appreciate how each of the levels helped me deal with the next level.”

Potvin also believes he has more to learn at the AHL level.

“I’ve always believed that you can’t lead unless you’re also trying to do the best you can for yourself,” he said. “If I’m going to preach something, I’d better act a certain way, so being able to try to guide these guys actually helps me guide myself and push myself. I have to walk the walk.”

If that eventually leads to greater opportunity, he’ll approach it in the same manner that he has approached each previous step.

“I’d love to see what the next level is like,” he said. “There’s still work to be done to understand what’s necessary at this level, but I want to experience what Bear is experiencing and the challenges that he’s experiencing, what the coaches at that level experience, what it takes to tick in that environment and how you get top players in that league to produce and perform. How do you shape their attitudes and behavior and what drives them?

“That just goes back to my curiosity and desire to learn. You always want to keep growing.”

Top photo of Steve Potvin (right) and assistant coach John Slaney (left) courtesy of Tucson Roadrunners

Follow Craig Morgan on X

Get Arizona's Best Sports Content In Your Inbox!

Become a smarter Arizona sports fan with the latest game recaps, analysis and exclusive content from PHNX's writers and podcasters!

Just drop your email below!

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.


Share your thoughts

Join the conversation

The Comment section is only for diehard members

Open comments +

Scroll to next article

Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?