By Michael Ferraresi
The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX – Not to confuse hockey with cartoons, but before the Phoenix Coyotes, there were the Phoenix Roadrunners.
The minor league team, which played more than 20 years in Phoenix, returns to the ice in October, led by a group that includes two former National Hockey League players who live in the Northeast Valley.
With more than 30 home games planned at America West Arena for the coming season, the Roadrunners likely will provide an affordable alternative for Northeast Valley hockey fans who don’t want to drive to see the Coyotes play in Glendale.
Paradise Valley resident Claude Lemieux, who won four Stanley Cups over a stellar 20-year career, was announced in February as the Roadrunners’ president.
Lemieux said he looks forward to running the Roadrunners with former teammate J.J. Daigneault, a standout defenseman who played for 10 NHL teams over 17 years, and childhood friend Ron Filion, the team’s head coach and general manager.
“We’re three fairly young guys, and we feel we can put a product on the ice that will bring that Roadrunners tradition back to Phoenix,” said Lemieux, who played for the Coyotes from 2000-2003.
It didn’t take long for Lemieux to tap his vast NHL connections to bring the Roadrunners into the limelight.
The organization will host an exhibition game April 19 at America West Arena featuring current NHL stars, such as Jeremy Roenick and Luc Robitaille, currently locked out by the league’s labor dispute.
Lemieux, 39, said the Roadrunners want to build winning teams but also want to focus on signing young scorers and enforcers to excite fans.
“When you’re bringing a new product to town, you want to make sure you’re winning games,” he said, “but we’re going to try and provide (fans) with the combination of toughness and skills.”
Daigneault, of Scottsdale, will help Lemieux as director of player development and be an assistant coach to Filion.
The three Quebec natives are working to sign players in advance of the East Coast Hockey League’s 2005-2006 season. The league includes West teams in Southern California, Nevada and Idaho.
Daigneault, who previously coached in the Junior Coyotes’ youth league, said the Roadrunners would serve as a launching pad for the careers of professional prospects and local amateurs.
The recent victory by the Northeast Valley-based Bantam AA Mustangs in the USA Hockey Youth Tier II National Championship is an example of how Arizona is producing more hockey talent every year, he said.
“If you take a look at what was accomplished with the (Mustangs) winning the national championship, you can really tell that hockey is developing well in Arizona,” Daigneault said.
“These kids are (under 14) years old, and when they reach their 20s, they’ll have a chance to play in the ECHL and other professional leagues.”
The team doesn’t have any NHL affiliation, though possibilities are being considered.
Filion, whose previous job was in Georgia with the Augusta Lynx of the ECHL, said the minor league games will provide plenty of action.
The average age of players could be something like 23 years old, Filion said.
“There’s a lot of excitement at this level. The kids rarely take a night off because they know there’s always someone in the stands watching.”