Just about 12 years ago, Cory Herman’s professional hockey career concluded prematurely due to injuries and left the Saskatchewan-native in a whole different world; not playing hockey for the first time in his life and living in the border town (and not the Canadian border) of El Paso, Texas.
Herman, who played for the El Paso Buzzards of the Central Hockey League, decided to stick around for a while and help build the youth hockey program in the area, which was nearly non-existent at the time.
Just about five years later Herman invited his brothers, Tom and Dave, down from Canada to help him further his vision and bring high-level hockey back to El Paso, which the city had been void of since the Buzzards left in 2003.
Before he knew it, the Rhinos were born and began their first season in the Western States Hockey League in 2006.
Fast-forward six years and what has taken place in El Paso over than span is nothing short of spectacular.
The youth program is bursting at the seams and consistently moving players up to the big club, the Sierra Providence Events Center is always packed with the rowdiest fans in the league and the Rhinos have become one of the most dominant organizations in WSHL history.
Herman, always one to be humble, quickly directs the credit to the great fans of El Paso, who come out in droves to watch his team play and support the Rhinos like a religion.
Push the credit where he may but if not for Herman, or rather the Hermans, would hockey even still be around in El Paso?
Many fans and players are quick to say no.
It’s a fascinating situation; a Canadian born and raised hockey player chooses to stay in the hot Texas town of El Paso, which is better known for its barbeque than its hockey. It sounds like a bad script of a made for TV movie but in some odd way, it has worked famously.
Heading into their seventh season in the league, the Rhinos brand is known across all of junior hockey. Herman takes pride in putting together big, fast and physical teams that put on a show, especially at home. Their in-game entertainment is top-notch, their facility is a throwback to the junior barns of yesteryear (literally, it used to house bulls during rodeos) and they’re the only team in the league with their own television deal. You can’t make this stuff up.
They’ve captured the Midwest Division crown five times and took home the Thorne Cup as the league champion in 2008.
Last season, the Rhinos were once again one of the premiere teams in the league and despite some bumps in the road, were still able to take home the Midwest Division Title with a sweep of the upstart Dallas Ice Jets.
Their leading scorer and captain, Michael Rivera, is a prime example of what Herman has helped mold. He began playing in the El Paso youth program when he was 10, worked his way up to the Rhinos and is sure to see plenty of college offers coming his way after his last season with the team. Rivera is exactly what Herman envisioned when he began his journey in El Paso.
After winning the division, the Rhinos then moved on to the Thorne Cup Finals, a tournament pitting the top four teams in the WSHL against one another with the league championship on the line.
The Rhinos, who did a fantastic job hosting the four-day event, picked a bad time to get cold however and wound up finishing third.
It was a tough way to end another banner year in El Paso but Herman has taken it in stride, making a number of changes heading into the 2012-2013 season, where he claims fans will see a “much more gritty, physical, Rhinos team.”
I don’t know how much more gritty and physical they can get but one thing I’ve learned is don’t bet against Cory Herman.
The star returner and fan favorite is the local boy, Mike Rivera.
The captain led the team with 62 points in 43 games last season and can play both skilled and physical hockey, a rare combination for his size.
Also returning are three players who symbolize what the Rhinos are all about; big, fast, physical hockey.
John Morales, Tyler Basham and David Nelson all will suit up for the Rhinos again this season and each has proven they can can bang the body and put up points. In fact, last season each player had over 30 points and 50 penalty minutes; they truly do it all.
The four returners are the face of Rhinos hockey and if you ever get a chance to watch them play, you’ll find they never take a shift off.
Herman has also brought in a number of similar players that will work hard, play the system and wear their opponents down.
Tyler Brady is a kid out of Ohio who Herman described as, “the kind of guy that won’t blow you away but finds a way to get 2-3 points in big games.”
Tommy Malkmus is a similar player out of North Dakota, who Herman tells me is one of the hardest working guys he’s seen.
Herman has put together his typical group of forwards who work hard and fire up the crowd, while leaving their opponents battered and bruised. Their work ethic and they way they play the game is a great representation of the city of El Paso.
There are only two returners to Herman’s blueline, as he will have to rebuild a bit on the backend this season.
Gunnar Bjorklund is back in El Paso for his third season with the squad and although he’s only listed at a generous 5’11”, he plays like he’s 6’4” and is reliable in all situations.
Chris Wilhite is the other returner and has a bit more of an offensive flair, notching 33 points last season while seeing a ton of time on the power play.
Herman has brought in the type of guys you’d expect to help round out the rest of his defensive corps, including Trent Edwards out of Colorado, who is projected to be a big, shutdown type player, a guy that could possibly be paired with the more offensive Wilhite.
Herman is also excited about Nebraska-native Grant Killian, who played AAA hockey in Omaha last season and should grow into one of the best defensemen on the roster.
It will be interesting to see how the group jells together, as the blueline has a good amount of turnover but we do know they’ll be physical, as always.
If you could point to a Rhinos’ weakness last season, you could say it was in goal, where Herman shuffled through five goaltenders, before Trent Casper finally calmed things down and took over the job.
This season, Herman doesn’t return a single goaltender to his roster and has had to recruit from out of the area.
Austin Brihn is a kid out of Seattle who got his feet wet in the NORPAC last year and is expected to really come in and settle himself nicely in El Paso, where he should see a good amount of playing time.
The kid behind him, although maybe not as skilled, is the biggest story in El Paso right now.
Herman made headlines over the summer when he signed Allan Cukier, a goaltender from Mexico City, Mexico.
Although he played most of his youth hockey in the United States, Cukier is set to become the first Mexican player in WSHL history.
Herman told me that the local papers in El Paso have been all over the kid, doing weekly stories and even coming out to training camp to cover his every move.
Everywhere Herman goes in the area, he’s bombarded with questions about “the Mexican goalie” that people can’t wait to catch a glimpse of.
The soon-to-be 19 year old has taken the exposure in stride, according to Herman and is excited to get back to playing hockey.
In all, Herman hopes the tandem he has will hold down the fort all year, as he certainly does not want to rotate through five players again this season.
Herman likes putting together a tough regular season schedule, as he feels it better prepares his team for playoff hockey and provides them with great learning experiences throughout the year.
For that reason, he and the Rhinos are set to play two very tough out of division road series. They’ll head to McCall, Idaho in November to take on the back-to-back Thorne Cup Champion Idaho Jr. Steelheads and will go back to Grapevine, Texas in late January for three with the Dallas Ice Jets, who are no longer in their division.
Their home schedule is going to be a bit easier, as they will play host to the Tulsa Jr. Oilers, which should spark a rivalry like the one they had with the now defunct Tulsa Rampage. Also coming into town is the expansion Wichita Jr. Thunder.
For the first time since joining the league, the Rhinos will not be playing in the Midwest Division, as along with the nearby New Mexico Renegades, they’ve made the move to the new Mountain Division.
There, they will join the Boulder Bison, who they will rekindle a nice little rivalry with, Cheyenne Stampede, Arizona Redhawks and Phoenix Knights.
Many people have asked, why move El Paso out of the division with the other Texas teams?
The answer is simple; El Paso is so far west that the trip to the Dallas area can take over 12 hours and with their new move, the Rhinos travel has improved greatly.
New division or not, Herman and the Rhinos are expected to keep doing what they’ve always done; win hockey games, put on a great show and move their players on at season’s end.
What Cory, Tom and Dave Herman have built in El Paso is a fantastic story that proves hockey can flourish anywhere if you put the effort in.
Story by Brent Maranto does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Western States Hockey League