2014 NATIONAL AND THORNE CUP CHAMPIONS
In true Rhino fashion, the team strung together another successful season in 2013-2014, earning a stellar 44-2-0 record. The Rhinos record-breaking season was due in large part to a truly deep roster. Veteran players like David Nelson, Andrew Bradford, Jack Strusz, Chris Wilhite, and Nick Wright returned to the team. Meanwhile, the explosive Plesa brothers line became an offensive machine for the Rhinos, posting a combined 270 points. Forwards Chad Cesarz and Austin Hoff also returned to the Rhinos from NAHL clubs, while defenseman Kalvis Ozols and forwards Eric Baldwin and Drew DePalma were acquired from the San Diego Gulls. Jan Dam, former Rhino and the newest staff member, convinced Jiri Pestuka, another Czech native, to join the El Paso roster late in the season. With these acquisitions and resignings, the Rhinos successfully solidified top-end offensive talent and productive depth.
In the crease, the Rhinos acquired two solid goaltenders to make up arguably the most powerful tandem in the WSHL. Herman’s last minute trades allowed for Seattle Totems goalie Bryce Fink to support Vay in the net. At the end of the Rhinos deep postseason run, Fink was named Thorne Cup and National Championship MVP, earning a 6-0 record in the postseason. Fellow Rhinos goaltending acquisition Adam Vay achieved similar success in the regular season, earning a 25-1-0 record and fantastic .936% save percentage. Vay also won all three of his playoff starts, making the Fink-Vay tandem undefeated in the Thorne Cup Playoffs. At season’s end, Vay was rated the number one goalie in the WSHL with the best goals against average, save percentage, and near-perfect regular season record.
Rhino staff also contributed mightily to the successful season. Garrett Poland returned as assistant coach while Jan Dam returned to help with hockey operations and European scouting. The city certainly rallied around the team’s success; the Rhinos posted 26 sellouts, good for best attendance in the entire WSHL.
As the number one team in the WSHL and arguably all of Tier III junior hockey all season long, the Rhinos took advantage of their regular season momentum by posting an undefeated playoff record (9-0-0) that earned them a trip to the 2014 Thorne Cup Championship. The Rhinos defeated the defending champion Idaho Jr. Steelheads 7-3 in front of a rowdy home crowd to clinch their second Thorne Cup in franchise history.
Less than three weeks later, the Rhinos travelled to Las Vegas, Nevada to contend for the National Championship title. After a win over the Jersey Shore Wildcats, the El Paso looked to take on the Idaho Steelheads again. This time, however, their luck ran out as the Steelheads clenched a shutout victory. After correcting their path with two wins over the Soo Firehawks, the Rhinos met the Steelheads for the third time in three weeks. A 7-3 win for El Paso meant that Idaho had been dethroned yet again. David Nelson’s hat trick and Bryce Fink’s goaltending performance helped the Rhinos earn their first National Championship Title in franchise history.
In addition to winning three title during the season, the Rhinos played in the franchise's first outdoor game. Clad in vintage throw back jerseys, the Rhinos secured a shutout of the New Mexico Renegades at the Los Alamos Outdoor Rink. Off the ice, the Rhinos made community gains by hosting their fifth annual golf tournament as well as its inaugural Vern Jhondro Memorial Rhino Run.
At the end of the season, Drew DePalma, Chad Cesarz, Austin Hoff, and Chris Wilhite, and Jack Strusz committed to play for St. Mary’s. Dakota Beaulieu signed to Worcester State in Massachusetts and Bryce Fink committed to play at the University of Wisconsin Superior. Defenseman Kalvis Ozols joined the professional ranks as he travels home to Europe to play for the Mont-Blanc Yetis. Tom Bartel also moved on to play collegiate hockey as he signed with Hamline University.
DEFENDING THORNE CUP CHAMPIONS RETURN TO THORNE CUP FINALS
The El Paso Rhinos – 2013-14 Thorne Cup Champions – put together another fantastic season in 2014-15. The team finished with 82 points for the season with a 41-5 record. The Rhinos were a decidedly defensive team in 14-15, allowing only 95 goals during the regular season – ranking them third in the league as one of only three teams in double digit goals allowed.
Goaltender Adam Vay started 32 games out of 46 regular season games for the Rhinos and posted a stellar 2.03 goals against average and a 0.923 save percentage. Vay was responsible for closing the door at the goal line but, several defenders did their part in making sure that opposing players never even got near Vay. Defenseman Robert Horak led all defensive players in games played – with 42 – and was a stalwart in the Rhinos’ starting lineup.
Defenseman Patrik Stancl – also from Czech Republic, like Horak – played 41 games and was also a key to shutting dowwn opposing offenses. Angel Sanca appeared in 34 games defending the blue line as well. Sanca ended the season with an amazingly low eight penalty minutes in those 34 games. Defenseman Brennan Johnsson joined the Rhinos at the trade deadline from the Phoenix Knights and not only helped to secure the blue line but, Johnsson also added nine points in just six regular season games in the orange and black.
Just because the Rhinos defense was among the league’s best, it does not mean that the offense was anything for opposing teams to take lightly. In fact, the Rhinos also ranked third in the league in goals scored with 279. It would be impossible to discuss the Rhinos prolific offense without first mentioning yet another Czech player – forward Jiri Pestuka.
Pestuka ended the season tied for third in the league in goals with 41. Defenseman David Brancik – and Pestuka’s fellow Czech and roommate – was not to be outdone when it came to scoring. Brancik led all WSHL defenseman with 49 points. Brancik’s total was two points ahead of fellow Rhino Johnsson, who did most of his scoring with Phoenix.
A large amount of Pestuka and Brancik’s goals came from the stick of Swedish forward Sebastian Borg. Borg’s 74 points – most of which came from his 50 assists – ranked him ninth in the league. Pestuka was just ahead of Borg with 76 points. Pittsburgh’s Bryton Tomko and Czech forward Marek Langhammer both contributed over 40 points to the team’s amazing offensive numbers.
Forward and fan favorite Gavin Abbott secured 38 points for his team during the regular season. Forwards Lukas Znosko and Jordan Cullum -- Cullum was also added late in the season from Phoenix – contributed mightily to the cause, as well.
In December, the Rhinos headed to Las Vegas – with a 19-2 record in tow – to face-off in the WSHL’s 14th annual Western States Shootout. The Rhinos hit the road back to El Paso with yet another championship in tow. The team beat the Idaho Jr. Steelheads 4-3 in double overtime in the final game of the round robin showcase tournament. The Rhinos and Steelheads would match up again in mid-April with a much different result.
The Rhinos began the Thorne Cup Playoffs with a two game sweep of the Dallas Snipers. The next weekend saw the Oklahoma City Blazers roll into El Paso in order to continue what has become a burgeoning rivalry. After losing game one in overtime, the Rhinos stepped it up and defeated the Blazers 8-2 and 8-1 in the next two games. El Paso then swept the Ogden Mustangs in order to secure the conference championship and guarantee a shot at defending their Thorne Cup Championship.
The first game was at the Sierra Providence Events Center, after the Steeleheads – who possessed the better record – chose to have the final game three games in Idaho. The Steelheads – who finished four points ahead of the Rhinos during the regular season with 86 – jumped out to a three goal lead in front of a capacity crowd after only eight minutes.
Midway through the first period, Pestuka netted a goal to head into the first intermission at 3-1. The Rhinos used that momentum to continue to score on the Steelheads and netted three more goals in the second period. The game would end as a 4-3 Rhinos victory.
Unfortunately, the Rhinos were not able to harness the first game magic in order to repeat as Thorne Cup champions. Idaho won the next game in El Paso and the following three games in Idaho in order to secure the Thorne Cup Championship.
The Rhinos were once again active in the community, visiting local schools and participating once again in St. Baldrick’s Day festivities. The entire team and coaching staff shaved their head in support of St. Baldrick’s Day. Fans were able to bid money in order to shave a player’s head. All proceeds were donated to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
Despite coming up just short at the end of the season, 2014-15 was a successful season for the Rhinos yet again. The players all contributed in some way in the community and on the ice. The team sold out almost every game and is looking to once again put an outstanding team on the ice next season.
The Thorne Cup will always be the goal for any El Paso Rhinos team and next year will undoubtedly feature yet another outstanding team – and a strong push for El Paso’s most successful franchise.
Record: W: 27 - L: 23 - OTL: 2
The team started off the season by signing several players from the NA3HL’s Atlanta Capitals who would be instrumental in the Rhinos’ success throughout the year. Defenseman Riley Hummitch, and forwards Evan Camba, Drake Cartwright, Alex Johanson, and Arturas Laukaitis all played in Atlanta before committing to the Rhinos in 2016. Later in the season, the Rhinos would eventually ink former Capital Phil Pugliese. The former Atlanta players along with English defenseman Simon Hobbis, Canadian forward Chaseton Sare, and Canadian goalie, Tymen Edelkoort III were top contributors to the team’s 52-38-14 record.
The Rhinos got off to a strong start, winning their first 12 games with sweeps of the Arizona Hawks, San Diego Sabers, Dallas Snipers and Ontario Avalanche. Shortly thereafter, the Springfield Express handed the Rhinos their first two losses in Missouri and Wichita earned a win over El Paso in the Sun City the following weekend. The Rhinos swept Tulsa and Phoenix before suffering two more losses to the Valencia flyers during their only December home series. Rounding out the first half of their season with two wins and two losses at the annual Las Vegas Showcase, the team shutout the Idaho Steelheads and topped the Southern Oregon Spartans but lost to the Colorado Eagles and the Casper Coyotes.
Heading into January with seven losses, the Rhinos were eager to improve their record as they started the new year. They scored 19 goals in three games against the Dallas Snipers but were quickly tamed when they dropped a game to the Long Beach Bombers in only their second series back. The next weekend, the Texas team won two games in Oklahoma City before returning to El Paso only to fall twice to the Blazers a weekend later. El Paso went on to sweep the Oilers and the Express before being swept by the Wichita Thunder in their final regular-season series.
Just before playoffs, the franchise announced that former Rhino and Worcester State alum Vinny Bohn would become the Assistant Coach and help coach the team into the post-season. Unfortunately for Bohn and the Rhinos, the team’s post-season run was not as long as the Rhinos preferred. The Rhinos dropped their first playoff game to the Springfield Express, 5-4, before winning the final two games of the series to earn entry to the third round of playoffs. The following weekend, the Rhinos’ season ended when they were swept by the Wichita Thunder who went on to become the 2017 Thorne Cup Champions.
Despite not having the season ending the franchise hoped for, several players had notable statistics at the end of the 2016-17 season. Forward Chaseton Sare led the team in points and goals and was also among the WSHL’s top four scoring leaders. With 108 points, Sare surpassed Marcus Wilhite for the Franchise’s All-Time Points per Season record. Sixteen points behind Sare, Alex Johanson ranked second on the team and ninth in the League in scoring with 42 goals and 50 assists for a total of 92 points in 51 games. Arturas Laukaitis, who briefly left the Rhinos midseason to play for Lithuania in the World Junior Championships, finished the season with 40 goals, 33 assists, and 73 points in only 38 games. Defenseman Simon Hobbis rounded out the team’s top five scoring leaders with 47 points on the season. Finally, Tymen Edelkoort earned 25 wins, seven shutouts, and a 0.937 save percentage in 31 games.
Following the season, defenseman Simon Hobbis and forward Drake Cartwright headed to play at the University of Central Oklahoma. While playing under former Rhino Captain and UCO Assistant Coach Michael Rivera, Hobbis and Cartwright helped the Bronchos win the 2018 WCHL Championship, the team’s third League title in the past three years. Alex Johanson also continued his hockey career, playing at Trine University where he totaled 8 points in 25 games.
Arturas Laukaitis moved up to the NAHL where he played most of the season with the Minnesota Magicians before again returning to Lithuania to play in the World Championship tournament. Fellow Rhinos Colby Haugen, Phil Pugliese, JC Dubecky, Chaseton Sare, Jayden Ritchie, Jake Kopinski, Ty Erramouspe all signed with El Paso for the 2017-18 season.
The summer of 2017 saw the announcement of the Rhinos’ installment of the RapidShot Hockey Training System, a training program used by some of the nation’s top professional and college hockey programs like the Pittsburgh Penguins and the University of Notre Dame. The shot system is designed to help players improve reception, reaction time as well as shot accuracy and speed.
The Team also hired a new General Manager, Corey Heon, who had long been involved with the El Paso Hockey Association as a referee, coach and color commentator. He explained, “It’s a great opportunity to help the program grow into something bigger and better. I’ve always been a part of the organization in some way or another and it was time to make it official.”
Record: W: 56 - L: 3 - OTL: 1
Division Champions & Thorne Cup Champions
Rhinos Earn League Best Regular Season Record
With Rhino alumni Jayden Ritchie, Phil Pugliese, Chaseton Sare, Colby Haugen, JC Dubecky, Jake Kopinski, and Ty Erramouspe returning for another season of Rhino Hockey, the franchise was confident in its ability to bring home the Thorne Cup from the start.
That feeling was justified when the Rhinos opened the season with 24 goals against the Dallas Snipers in their first series. The momentum continued as the team impressively racked up 27 wins, with no losses, before the midpoint of the season. At the Western States Shootout, however, the Idaho IceCats halted the Rhinos’ win streak when Russell Harren slipped one past Krasanovsky with only 1.4 seconds left in regulation. Looking for redemption, the Rhinos pulled out wins over the Ogden Mustangs and Long Beach Bombers in the final two games. Following the Shootout, the franchise also announced that they would host the 2018 Thorne Cup.
After the holiday break and the exciting announcement, El Paso headed to Wichita where they posted 30 goals over the three games. Despite a strong start to the second half of the season, the Rhinos’ momentum was stopped again the following weekend when the dropped the first game to the Blazers in Oklahoma City. El Paso bounced back immediately winning the final two games of the series. They also went on to win every remaining regular season game, giving them a record of 49-1-1, the best regular season record in WSHL history.
Winning the Third Thorne Cup in Rhino Country
After being two games shy of a perfect season, the Rhinos’ Thorne Cup run got off to a rough start despite being the host team. El Paso dropped their first Round Robin game 4-1 to the Long Beach Bombers and the following night fell to the Oklahoma City Blazers, 4-3, in their second Round Robin game. The tables turned on Friday, however, when the Rhinos squeaked by the Utah Outliers to land themselves in the Thorne Cup semi-finals where they shutout the Idaho IceCats. In a thrilling final against the Ogden Mustangs, Nikita Pintusov’s tie-breaking goal with only 2:10 left in regulation gave the franchise their third Thorne Cup.
El Paso’s Thorne Cup push was possible because of the roster’s talent and depth. The offense posted 405 goals while the defense only allowed 63 throughout the season.
Former Valencia Flyer Jakob Kranabetter was added to the Rhino roster late, but Rhino Country would be where the forward became the WSHL’s All-Time Points and All-Time Assists Leader. He totaled 239 assists and 351 points in four seasons in the WSHL. He also finished his junior career ranked fourth in points in the League for the season.
Austin Simpson also greatly contributed to El Paso’s offensive success, ending the season with 98 points in 50 games played. Ranked thirteenth in League for points, Simpson’s 38 goals and 60 assists also made him the team’s leading scorer for the season. Only two points behind his fellow forward, Chaseton Sare’s 96 points included 51 goals, earning him the fourteenth spot on the League’s point leaderboard. Phil Pugliese also posted a notable 81 points in his final season as a Rhino.
Defensively, the Rhinos were led by netminder Filip Krasanovsky. In 37 games played, he had an impressive 93% save percentage and a goals against average of only 1.35 a game. He also posted 12 shutouts in 35 wins and two losses. Canadian goaltender Kayden Pickles, however, became the defensive backbone of the team during the Thorne Cup finals. After the Rhinos lost the first two games of the tournament, Pickles started in the final round robin game against the Utah Outliers. His win earned him a start in the semi-finals where he shutout the Idaho IceCats. Finally, Pickles held the Mustangs to only two goals in the championship game, allowing the Rhinos to hoist their third Thorne Cup.