Hockey Stuck: El Paso Rhinos’ League Cancels Upcoming Season
COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc in the amateur sports world, too. In a statement on its website, the Western States Hockey League –– which includes the El Paso Rhinos –– became one of the first competitions to go dark for the upcoming 2020-21 season.
"This is the most burdensome and painful decision ever made at the WSHL Board of Governors level," the statement read. "However, we strongly feel that continuing operations in the current climate is not safe or conducive to the success of our member players, nor teams."
Every junior hockey league faces a number of logistical hurdles that will be tough to clear to start play this autumn. For the WSHL in particular, a large geographic footprint that extends into Canada would mean dealing with various state and provincial health guidelines. Then there's the burden of securing student visas for overseas players, team recruiting and more.
There is no official word from Rhinos about the team's immediate future.
El Paso is still the defending Thorne Cup champion after the 2020 playoffs were canceled in mid-March as the novel coronavirus pandemic loomed over North American sports.
With one of the best and most passionate fan bases in American junior hockey and solid corporate sponsorship, the Rhinos organization would also be one of the hardest-hit if it's forced to abandon the upcoming season.
Most WSHL teams struggle to draw a crowd. The Rhinos, on the other hand, routinely sell out games at the El Paso County Events Center and often have to turn fans away at the gate.
Even without the pandemic, the WSHL's future was already problematic. Nine WSHL teams made the jump to the United States Premier Hockey League in the off-season, including league stalwarts like the Ogden Mustangs and Northern Colorado Eagles; while the Rhinos' Mid-West Division rivals, the Oklahoma City Blazers, joined the NA3HL (the North American Hockey League's Tier III feeder league), albeit likely under a different name.
It is understood that other cities and organizations were ready to step into the gap and fill out the league's roster of teams, though, and the WSHL vowed in its press release to resume competition in 2021-22.
That said, the WSHL was among the first to halt play in 2019-20. Perhaps they're just a step ahead here, too.