Why the Rhinos Deserve Their Place: My Letter to the GSA
NOTE: Reworking the Bridge of the Americas *may* result in the razing of the El Paso County Events Center, home to the El Paso Rhinos; but the GSA is currently accepting public comment as it considers the impact of expansion. Interested parties can click here to download the PDF form and have their own say by emailing Daniel.Partida@gsa.gov. The following is my open letter.
You know the news. Two of the three proposals for expanding the Bridge of the Americas would raze the El Paso County Events Center, home of the El Paso Rhinos. The other would prevent its expansion.
You’ve also probably seen and heard the numbers. The tens of thousands who would lose the only ice rink in El Paso. The thousands of youth and adult hockey players and figure skaters who use its programs. The Rhinos' two junior teams, facing an unknown future with no place to call home.
Adding the numbers is easy math. As is subtracting them.
So, what sticks? What makes something last past the equation that puts it in one ledger or takes it from another?
What about those things you may not have seen or heard? What about the 17 years of Rhinos’ games packed full of El Pasoans proudly sporting their black and orange gear? The shared moments. The championship banners. The devotion. The passion. The spark in a youngster’s eye that gets him or her out onto the ice for the first time.
It’s culture, and nothing less. The thing that can’t be counted but is unmissable; can’t be seen, only experienced. The thing that takes years to create and nurture but, when that foundation is laid, becomes your flag and anchor.
Throughout its years, the El Paso Hockey Association has stood proudly with and for El Paso and Fort Bliss through both triumphs and challenges, even contributing directly to a civic win when the city earned the title of “Hockeyville USA” in 2020.
“The Rhinos' Way” is more than a catchy locker room slogan and has kept the organization moving forward, from dressing in a circus tent with space heaters in it's 2006 inaugural season to moving into the North American Hockey League in 2021, the second highest level of junior hockey in the United States; where fans are all but assured of someday seeing a player or two in the NHL that they'll remember watching in El Paso.
And almost every season coming with an improvement to the El Paso County Events Center, often paid for, if not straight-up built by the EPHA. Locker rooms. Balcony. Lighting. Ice plant.
Why make all that effort, do all that building and work if you don’t really care? CEO Cory Herman, his brothers, mom and dad didn't have to put in hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money over two decades. They didn't have to spend time literally building up the Events Center infrastructure. Why not just roll out the pucks and say, “Come watch some hockey!”?
Unless it really does mean something more.
Yes, we’re talking a pair of junior hockey teams, youth programs, beer leagues and a 2,800-seat converted horse barn. Relative to almost everything else that goes on in El Paso, it would be easy to generalize and classify what the EPHA and the El Paso Rhinos do as niche.
But what a niche.
How many high school football teams have 17-year season ticket holders?
Can any one local team in any sport claim its existence has directly benefited El Paso kids, leading to their playing that sport in college with scholarship money? Conversely, can those teams make the claim that those opportunities would evaporate if they no longer existed?
What should we call the EPHA’s heart for community service; the hundreds of thousands of hours and dollars and autographs and smiles given, especially in service of some of El Paso’s youngest, most vulnerable citizens?
Here, it’s easy to go back to the numbers –– to count the EPHA's annual donations to St. Baldrick’s, Rhinos' visits to El Paso Children’s Hospital, to stack the charity and the dollars and the time, all straining to crest some arbitrary hurdle to quantify what won’t have a price until we notice the empty calendar.
Big or small, that’s the thing about culture. There's no replacing it when it's gone.
(Duke Keith has been the play-by-play voice of Rhinos Hockey since its inaugural season in 2006.)