DEFENDING THE THORNE CUP & TATENDA
Hungry for a chance to defend their Thorne Cup title, the Rhinos re-signed Nick Gorup, Zach Hale, Austin Balko, Zach Kohn, Jeffrey Schmudlach, Bill Krueger, Arthur Hollinger, Eric LaBounty, Kevin Davis and Zach Goller. In addition, they signed forwards Braxton Green and William Gillis along with Maryland defenseman, David Fegler. The organization then turned to the Midwest to acquire new players. The Rhinos signed the talented Wisconsin trio of Anthony Knuth, Trevor Erickson and Michael Bottchner. Michiganders Drew Montague, Eben Crandall, Andrew Duff and Tyler Benson followed suit, arriving in El Paso eager to start the season.
The Rhinos had a hot start to the 2008-2009 season, winning 11 straight games before meeting a familiar foe in the Tulsa Rampage. After a close 6-5 loss, the El Paso team posted a record of 11-1-0 and 22 points. The Rhinos found redemption near the end of first half of the season, as they were back on top of the Rampage in the standings. El Paso posted a mid-season record of 25-1-1 with 51 points, while Tulsa was second in the division with 43 points and a record of 21-8-1.
Following a Thorne Cup season with more winning in the first half of the season, the Rhinos had a nearly unbeatable pride. Unexpectedly, that pride grew when Karrie Kern, Chief Executive Officer of the United States operations branch of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force took in a Rhinos game. Admiring the picture of the rhino on the bodywork of the team bus, she jokingly suggested the El Paso Rhinos adopt Tatenda, an actual rhino in Africa, as a mascot. The organization followed through on Kern’s suggestion and adopted the male rhino in 2008. Though he was not physically moved to America, the organization continues to donate to the organization to cover Tatenda’s food and upkeep expenses.
After the holiday break, the Rhinos returned to the ice with their new good luck charm Tatenda in their hearts. Tatenda’s spirit lifted the team to play an entire month without defeat. The players closed January by wearing pink jerseys that would be auctioned off, with all of the proceeds going to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
Good will produced good luck and the team skated by all of its competitors throughout the rest of the season. On March 8, 2009, El Paso became the Mid-West Division Champions for the third time in three years, beating San Antonio, 9-3, to sweep the Diablos out of the Western States Hockey League playoffs. Head coach Cory Herman also earned a monumental achievement, earning his 150th win in only three seasons at the helm.
With another winning season in the books, the Rhinos represented the Western States Hockey League at the Tier III Junior ‘A’ Hockey Nationals in Marlboro, MA. Although the team was unable to defend the Cup, the new franchise had inarguably made a name for itself in the WSHL after two consecutive National Tournament berths.
At the conclusion of the season, the junior hockey careers of Nick Gorup, Bill Krueger, Arthur Hollinger, Eric LaBounty, Jeffrey Schmudlach, Zach Goller, Kevin Davis, Andreas Bengtsson, Adam Rosenberg, Shane Callahan had also come to an end. Arthur Hollinger, Bill Krueger, Jeffrey Schmudlach, and Nick Gorup went on to sign with various college hockey teams around the country, motivated by their previous success with the Rhinos.