Hockey in El Paso: From Minor Pro to Junior A, It’s Still a Fun Ride [VIDEO]
The first thing that ran through my mind was, "You want me to do play-by-play for what?!"
Call it a blind date that turned into a 16-year relationship spanning Acts II and III of hockey in the high desert. I wasn't around for Act I in the 1970's (Paul Zimmerman's excellent attached video on El Paso's hockey history shows a little of that). Like most of us here, I didn't know hockey from jalapeños; but I wouldn't trade my experiences calling the fastest game on earth for anything.
It didn't start that way, though.
Being asked to write a piece on my bit of hockey history for Hockey Weekend Across America, I have to admit I did a mental doubletake when our station's general manager, Brad Dubow, asked me to step in to call games for the El Paso Buzzards, beginning with the Buzzards' second championship season in 1997-98. But I came to appreciate the sport. I appreciated the people I met even more.
And I've learned a lot along the way, too. Tried and true life experiences, like: don't EVER fall prey to thinking Canadians are the wide-eyed innocents of North America. There are more Canadian wheeler-dealers than you could imagine from meeting one "oot and aboot".
Just ask Corey Heon.
CALL ME MARK
My rookie year callling the Buzzards was his, too; but I shouldn't have let this kid straight out of college talk me in to spending my whole per diem on four hands of cards at the back of the bus on a road trip.
I can't even remember the name of the game, but "Heo" explained the rules, the cards were dealt and exactly four hands later I was broke, victimized by another rookie who dealt Heo four straight winning hands.
Because the dealer didn't last long on the team and had seemed distraught because he lost, too, I chalked it up to bad luck. It took me over a decade to learn the game was fixed from the beginning and these Canadian wolves had played me like Neil Young's guitar!
FROM HARBOR TO HOME
But how did I find this out more than 10 years later? Because Heon, like a lot of those Buzzards players, grew to like El Paso as much as we liked their game and stuck around to tell their stories to others.
El Paso Rhinos team president and head coach, Cory Herman, got here the same way. A tough guy on the ice for the Buzzards, multiple concussions sent him into early retirement and into a sales job with the front office where he found one of his callings.
In 2001, Herman started combining his sales experience with a great head for the business of hockey and his passion for teaching the game, taking over the youth hockey program from then-owner Billy Davidson. Call it divine providence.
Speaking of Canadian con artists, Davidson was at the top of the list. This is the guy who, when the Buzzards were taken over by the Central Hockey League, decided he'd spite the CHL by stealing his players skates so they couldn't play and the league would lose money.
After what Davidson did to the name of the game and the Buzzards' franchise, which went dark after the 2003 season, it was good that the seeds of the sport here fell to a Saskatchewan farmer's son.
THE SILVER LINING
It has taken 12 years, but Cory Herman's work has paid off. Spending that much time working on one thing in one city is enough to erase the blackest mark a carpetbagger like Davidson could make. No one can doubt Herman is here for the long haul.
In El Paso the sport is more prevalent than ever, through YMCA programs that help needy kids get the necessary equipment, through a legitimate high school club program, a UTEP club team and a Midget Triple-A team of high school-aged players from around the world.
It's all capped off by the El Paso Rhinos of the Western States Hockey League, a Junior A-Tier III program coached by Herman that has won it's league championship, the Thorne Cup, in 2008, and finished second in the nation two seasons ago.
At the center of it is Herman and brothers Tom and Dave, who came to El Paso just like their older brother, and who also decided to stay and spread the hockey word. Tom played professionally in Germany while Dave got to college before injuries shortened his promising career as a goalie.
Nowadays the Hermans have a hand in every team and every hockey lesson in El Paso.
It has gotten to the point where the sport and the city are nurturing each other at El Paso's only rink, the Events Center. The place always seems to have something going on -- which means there is a demand. No way this bunch is leaving town like El Paso's very first hockey team did. Although it helps that the current teams have the benefit of dasher glass.
You're reading this correctly. In the 1970's, semi-professional hockey was played athe El Paso County Coliseum with no glass on the dasher boards. Now, THOSE were real fans!
Not real smart, but real.
These days, it's a much better fan experience. Obviously, no one's thinking the NHL is on the way, and many El Pasoans think the Stanley Cup is a mug made by a tool company. But the Hermans teach a fast-paced, hard-nosed brand of Canadian hockey that appeals to fans who have sold out the El Paso County Events Center more this season than ever before.
I still enjoy calling the action. All of the men and women who work around their schedules to volunteer as officials and helpers like what they do, too. After a couple of stints doing some freelance work calling college football and basketball for CBS Sports and Time Warner Cable, a few people think I'm "settling" for doing junior hockey.
Those people probably don't know the guys I know. Probably haven't been to a hockey game, either.
It has been fun, even running with those Canadian wolves.
Speaking of -- Heo, if you're wondering who ratted you out, it was your old buddy, Cory Herman.
Hang around long enough and some stories get too good to keep to yourself.
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Want to learn a little more? Check out Paul Zimmerman's video.