The El Paso Rhinos have been right up there with the Idaho Jr. Steelheads as one of the Western States Hockey League’s elite franchises over the last few seasons but for whatever reason, they’ve struggled at the Thorne Cup Finals.
Head Coach Cory Herman, who is never one to make excuses, thinks that the format of the Thorne Cup Finals is tough because one bad period or game usually loses your team a shot to play for the title. He also believes that the current format plays to the strengths of more offensive teams like Idaho, whereas his Rhino squads are usually more of the hardworking, blue-collar variety.
Regardless of the Thorne Cup struggles, which began two years ago when they hosted the event, the Rhinos still put together yet another banner year in 2013.
Featuring one of the more skilled rosters we’ve seen Herman put together, combined with his usual assortment of gritty “El Paso-like” players, the Rhinos were one of the top teams in the league from start to finish.
They opened up by going 11-3-1 over their first 15 games, including a regulation victory on the road over the Idaho Jr. Steelheads, the only team to beat John Olver and Co. in McCall all season.
After picking up three points in Idaho, the Rhinos went on to win their next nine in a row, before finally falling to the Fresno Monsters in their concluding game of the All-League Showcase in Las Vegas, Nevada, where they finished with a record of 3-1-0 against tough competition.
Despite holding a big division lead, the Rhinos didn’t let up in the second half and looked downright dominant on some nights, showing the all-around game they did when they gave the Jr. Steelheads fits earlier in the season.
They really made their mark in late January when they took two of three on the road from the Dallas Ice Jets, a team that many believed could challenge Idaho for the crown.
Herman picked up a few key pieces late in the season, including a pair of goaltenders and the Rhinos cruised to an overall record of 36-8-2, 13 points clear of the second-place Boulder Bison.
Much like they did the season before, the Rhinos stormed through the divisional playoffs, sweeping the Phoenix Knights and Boulder Bison to punch their ticket to the Thorne Cup Finals in McCall, Idaho.
Heading back to a place where they played very well earlier in the year, many believed, including myself, that the Rhinos would be the ones lifting the Thorne Cup at the end of the week. The way they started the event did nothing to say otherwise, as they beat up on the Bay Area Seals 6-3 and followed that up with an 8-3 shellacking of the Fresno Monsters.
The Rhinos once again drew the Seals in their semi-final match-up and judging by the first time the two teams meet, it looked like El Paso was well on their way to the finals the next day.
It looked promising early, as El Paso took a 1-0 lead into the locker room after 20 minutes of play but the Seals scored five straight goals en route to a shocking 7-2 victory.
Herman didn’t think his team overlooked the Seals but instead dug themselves a hole early in the second period and couldn’t get out of it. They also ran into a hot goaltender, in Filip Orcik and just like Herman said, one bad period can spell the end of your season.
Although they fell short of their ultimate goal of winning the Thorne Cup, the Rhinos did still add another division title to their arsenal and move a number of players on to higher levels of junior, college and even professional hockey, which Herman says he takes the most pride in.
Due to expansion, the Rhinos have moved back into the Midwest Division for the upcoming season, where they’ll compete alongside the Dallas Ice Jets, Dallas Snipers, Texas Brahmas, Tulsa Jr. Oilers and Wichita Jr. Thunder and although their travel footprint has stretched a bit, Herman is happy to be apart of it what he feels will be a very competitive division.
It doesn’t matter what division they’re playing in, the El Paso Rhinos are one of the top junior destinations in North America, when you consider the facilities, amenities coaching, legacy and opportunities to move up. Herman continually puts together blue-collar teams that really exemplify the spirit of El Paso and behind their rowdy fans, they’ll be looking to add a few more banners to the rafters at Sierra Providence Events Center this season.
Players Moving Up:
As mentioned earlier, Herman’s goal is always to help his players move on after the season concludes and he’s done a fantastic job of that over the years.
Four Rhinos forwards from last season’s roster are currently playing in the Tier II North American Hockey League, as Chad Cesarz and Austin Hoff are both suiting up for the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees, Tyler Basham is with the Johnstown Tomahawks and Tommy Malkmus is back home in North Dakota playing for the Bismarck Bobcats.
Two more forwards, Taylor Bargar and John Morales, are currently trying to hook on with Tier II teams in Canada.
Captain Mikey Rivera is playing ACHA puck at the University of Oklahoma, defenseman Jan Dam has stayed nearby at the University of Texas- El Paso and Gunnar Bjorklund is at Western Washington University.
Hulking d-man Matej Steigauf has returned home to the Czech Republic where he’ll play pro this season and Trent Edwards is working out and trying to earn a spot in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Players Coming Back:
With a number of players currently playing Tier II junior hockey, Herman wasn’t able to get the full cast he expected back but is more than happy to re-load a bit, knowing his guys have moved up.
He still returns an above average group, led by power forwards David Nelson and Andrew Bradford.
Nelson enters his third year after setting career-highs with 58 points and 148 penalty minutes last season, both of which ranked second on the team.
He’s a thick kid that likes to wreak havoc in front of the net and Bradford is similar but even bigger in stature. They both have that “bull in a china shop” mentality that Herman loves and really wear the opposition down.
The only other returning forward is Kendal Craig, who appeared in just 12 games, including the playoffs last season but should see an expanded role in year two.
Herman’s group of returning defensemen is led by Chris Wilhite, one of the league’s best shot blockers. He is known for for his defensive play but rounded out his game last season by putting up 34 points, which led all Rhinos defensemen.
Also returning are Brandon Edson, Jack Strusz and Nick Wright.
Edson reminds me a lot of Gunnar Bjorklund, who has since moved on to college, in the fact that he’s not very big but always makes the smart play and can chip in on the offensive end when needed, collecting 11 points last season.
Strusz came to the team just before the Showcase and became a fixture in the line-up. He’s a big kid but he moves very well for his size and has more offensive ability than he’s showed so far.
Wright is the biggest of the bunch, at 6’4”, 210 pounds and saw limited time last season but if he can add an edge to his game, he’ll be one of the regulars.
The one position void of returners is goaltender and Herman wasn’t happy with the six netminders he went through last season anyway, so it shouldn’t be a problem.
Much like Idaho and the Dallas Ice Jets, the Rhinos don’t re-build, they re-load and Herman has done just that again.
The team is still in the middle of training camp and he doesn’t like to tip his hand, so he was pretty mum about what he has going on but did give me a few new faces to expect big things out of.
Trey Hughes played for the Rhinos two seasons ago, before spending last year with the Twin City Steel of the NA3HL, where the undersized but speedy forward put up 38 points
He’s back this season and he’s brought Tom Bartel, who led the Steel with 48 points last season, along with him.
Not needing many defensemen to fill out the roster, Herman was excited at the acquisition of Eliot Herz, who played 26 games with the Texas Brahmas last season before going down to injury.
He also noted that he has a few guys currently in camp competing for the #1 goaltender job and doesn’t yet know who is going to be his guy.
Herman loves the Midwest Division and had praise for every team, including the Ice Jets and Brahmas, who he knows will be very tough but also the Dallas Snipers, Tulsa Jr. Oilers and Wichita Jr. Thunder, who he believes will be much-improved. He and his Rhinos will face each of them six times this season; three at home and three on the road.
They’ll also play out of division series in New Mexico against the Renegades, which includes an outdoor game and in Phoenix against the Knights, who they ousted in the playoffs last year.
They’ll also welcome in two tough teams from the Pacific Division, in the San Diego Gulls and Valencia Flyers.
There’s no doubt Herman was frustrated with the way his team played in the Thorne Cup Finals the last two years but they just have to keep chipping away and doing what they do, which is play an in-your-face brand of hockey that is a nightmare to deal with. If they can do that and continue the niche the team has carved out for themselves since entering the league in 2006, they’ll be just fine.