November 27, 2022

There’s no team the Tucson Roadrunners know better than the San Diego Gulls. The Pacific Division’s two essential players have switched colors 56 times in the last six seasons, more than Tucson has ever seen from an opponent.

And as the seventh installment of the series begins when Tucson travels to San Diego on Wednesday at 8 p.m., the ties binding these rivals are as strong as ever.

“There’s one team that has historically brought out the best in us,” said Tucson coach Steve Potvin ahead of the first of eight meetings between the Roadrunners and Gulls this season. “It was almost 50/50 at that point.”

In the last three seasons, San Diego and Tucson have met 24 times on the ice. The final result? Twelve wins apiece, with all three seasons ending with exactly four wins and four losses for both teams. The only real hint of a split in that period came practically in the dying seconds of regulation in the last game between the two teams last season.

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The Gulls scored with 7 seconds left to send the game into overtime. Tucson prevailed in a shootout that night, but San Diego’s ability to push the game beyond the rules gave the Gulls the slightest upper hand through that one extra point in the standings.

The winner of the series gets the Interstate 8 Border Rivalry Trophy (yes, that’s a thing). It is named for the 350-mile portion of the 409-mile total route from downtown Tucson to Pechanga Arena in San Diego. While Tucson last won the trophy at first go in 2018-19, the trophy somehow stuck in southern Arizona even after the Gulls’ technical victory. It still stands in the Roadrunners’ home offices.

Teams are now playing eight games this season through the last weekend of March and anything but another 4-4 split will surely send the trophy to its rightful owner.

For the first few years since the AHL’s westernmost expansion, San Diego played the role of Tucson’s most natural geographic rival (although the Gulls were closer to the Ontario Reign in both geography and goal of Southern California dominance). Now, however, both the Henderson Silver Knights (405 miles door-to-door) and the Coachella Valley Firebirds (614 miles) are a hair closer to Tucson Arena’s main entrance.

Both teams play at brand new facilities: Henderson’s Dollar Loan Center opened in the spring and Coachella Valley’s Acrisure Arena will be dedicated next month. This twist provides another parallel to the Roadrunners and Gulls: Tucson and San Diego play in the two oldest arenas in the AHL’s Pacific Division.

“You can smell the story. You can smell the old Zambonis. You can smell the popcorn in those rinks,” Potvin said, noting that now that he’s sitting behind the bench in a suit and tie, it kind of takes you back in time when you played.”

Known as the San Diego Sports Arena for most of its life, Pechanga Arena opened in 1966. The Tucson Arena opened in 1972. They are the eighth and ninth oldest buildings in the AHL.

The shared history of the arenas extends beyond hockey.

Consider Tucson’s home game last Saturday against the San Jose Sharks — a 6-3 Roadrunners win from behind. Late in that duel, the Tucson and San Jose players were fighting on the southeast corner of the rink just as the Tucson Arena operations team belted out Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” over the loudspeaker. That skirmish took place less than 50 feet from where the music legend himself sang the same song live as recently as March 2017.

John, who performed his last North American concert Sunday at Dodger Stadium, dates back to the early 1970’s and has performed several times at both the Tucson Arena and the San Diego Sports Arena. He is one of several world-renowned artists to perform in the modestly sized buildings. The others: Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley, Cher, U2, The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Tina Turner. Turner, along with her then-husband Ike Turner, was the first musical performance to take the floor at the Tucson Arena the year it opened in 1972. She last played in 2000 in today’s Pechanga Arena.

“A brand new facility, a new arena, doesn’t have that story. She doesn’t have the mileage to say she has that character,” said Roadrunners President Bob Hoffman. “Older buildings have the opportunity to be upgraded, or new features, or new bells and whistles, as we’ve seen over the past few years and as we’re doing in the future here (in Tucson).

“But you have to have a certain longevity to build that character and have that charm.”

And apart from San Diego and Tucson, only the Scotiabank Saddledome (1982), which is now home to the Calgary Wranglers after they relocated from Stockton, California, opened before the late 1990s.

“I love playing in old barns like this,” said forward Adam Cracknell, this season’s captain of the Roadrunners at Tucson Arena.

Cracknell also played a season at San Diego in 2018-19 and has been a division opponent at Bakersfield for the past two years. He knows Pechanga Arena well.

“We drew really well,” he said. “Of course it’s a big sports city with the professional sports teams and it was a lot of fun to be among the ones playing at this big ice rink.”

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