American Hockey League

Blossoming in the desert

by Walt Ruff | AHL On The Beat

Growth can be a wonderful thing.

It may not be instantaneous, but it is almost always rewarding.

The first season of professional hockey in Tucson, 2016-17, was also the first as a pro for defenseman Dysin Mayo.

He, along with forward Michael Bunting, combine to make up two of the only three players that have spent the majority of each season with the Roadrunners since the team’s inception, simultaneously growing both on and off the ice with the sport in southern Arizona.

“It’s been a blast so far,” said Mayo of his journey in city known as The Old Pueblo. “I feel lucky to be here every day. It’s got to be one of the best places to play in the American Hockey League.”

Now 23, the 2014 draft selection of the Arizona Coyotes came to Tucson as a 20-year-old following a successful Western Hockey League career and began the next stage of his hockey career in a town whose sports world revolved predominantly around University of Arizona athletics.

“I’d be out doing something in the community and someone would ask what a Canadian is doing down here and I’d have to tell them that I play for the Roadrunners and they wouldn’t really know what I was talking about,” Mayo said of the inaugural season. “Now, you get more of a response.”

Over the next two-plus campaigns, which followed a split-season stint with the team’s ECHL affiliate in Rapid City, Mayo worked on his craft, earning a consistent full-time spot with the team and leading the AHL in plus/minus for the majority of this current season.

“The first couple of years in the league I had some trouble identifying my game and finding what type of player I was. Working into this year, I think I really found my role as a player, being that defensively responsible-type player.”

Not only by nature of statistics, the largely evident sprouting of Mayo has coincided with what his team in Tucson has become.

“Dysin’s come a long way. His first year he was up and down but I knew he was good enough to play with us,” Bunting stated. “It was a numbers game and there were guys in front of him. Now, he’s become one of our most solid defenseman and you know what you’re going to get from him every night. He always does the little things right.”

Dysin Mayo (Photo: Chris Hook)

For Bunting, who also spent time with Rapid City, the extension of his play came by way of limiting some of his features.

“Maturity,” he said with a laugh, when asked regarding his biggest change from 2016 to now.

Known for his agitating style of play and fiery displays of emotion, Bunting – no stranger to penalty minutes – is cognizant of what he’s needed to work on to be a better contributor.

“He’s always had that energy. He likes to get under the other team’s skin,” said Mayo of his four-year teammate. “Now he’s a leader. He’s a guy that young guys will come into our locker room and look up to. He’s definitely grown in that way.”

As the two reflected on their own – and one another’s – bloom, the former roommates are seemingly most elated at the fact that as their games have grown, they’ve played their parts in propelling the team to reach new heights.

With success comes a following.

Since the start of the 2017-18 season, the franchise has totaled a Pacific Division-leading 112 wins, earning its first division title and Calder Cup Playoff berth along the way.

The attendance at Tucson Arena has comparably increased as well, steadily improving in each of the club’s first three full seasons. Tucson had been a host city for Triple-A baseball off and on from 1969 until 2013 and the three-year upward trend in crowd growth accomplished by the Roadrunners upon conclusion of the 2018-19 season was the first time since at least 2002 that a pro sports team had done so.

Michael Bunting (Photo: Kate Dibildox)

“Fans are die-hards here,” remarked Bunting with a laugh, acknowledging his status as a favorite among the Roadrunners fan base. “From my first year until now it’s grown tremendously, I think. My buddies from back home recently came for a game and they thought the atmosphere was crazy. Those guys are from Toronto and they’re saying that.”

Currently the franchise’s leader in games played along with all three scoring categories, Bunting’s logic for the projected success in seasons to come works hand-in-hand with the methodology that you have to love where you live.

“The organization is going to attract a lot of good players for a long time. The weather is great, the fans are only getting better and better each year and the city itself, it’s a great time to be here. One day you’re golfing and the next you’re walking to the rink in shorts.”

A consistent standard of winning doesn’t hurt either.

“I think we started to see it this year with some of the veteran guys that signed with us. As word gets around the league, hopefully that’ll only keep on going and guys will continue to want to come here,” Mayo said.

Both individually and organizationally, growth is good.

Tucson, especially, is a good place for it.

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