In a typical year, the El Paso Rhinos are a dominant team in the junior level Western States Hockey League, and this year is more than a good year.
The Rhinos are 51-1-1 as they head into next weekend’s Mid-Western Division finals against Oklahoma City. They are coming off 11-0 and 10-0 victories against Dallas.
Even by their standards, which includes 11 division titles in 12 years of existence, this is a remarkable season.
That, of course, leads to an obvious question: Why is El Paso’s junior hockey team, made up of 18- to 20-year-olds who typically play two seasons here before getting aged out, so perennially good?
For that matter, why is UTEP’s club team, which won its division of the Texas Collegiate Hockey Conference last season and finished second by one point this year, so good in a league that includes Texas, TCU and Texas A&M?
Coronado High School struggled a bit this season, but won New Mexico State championships in 2013 and ’14 and one of those years beat Franklin to do it.
There are American border towns that annually produce outstanding hockey teams for their level, but they are supposed to be on the border at the 48th parallel peering into Canada, not playing 100 yards from the border at the Rio Grande River.
So why El Paso?
A big part of that answer sits in an office at the Special Events Center at the El Paso Coliseum, where a special event usually qualifies as a sold out crowd of around 1,000 people watching the Rhinos steamroll an outmatched opponent.
That’s where Rhinos coach Cory Herman, a driving force behind the founding of the El Paso Hockey Association 17 years ago, sets up shop, a door away from his younger brother Tom, EPHA’s director of youth hockey.
They are busy men because the Rhinos are just the tip of the spear of hockey in El Paso. When asked how many different programs EPHA runs, Cory scratched his head and offered up “14 or 15”. That goes from toddlers putting on skates within months of learning to walk up to a team of pick-up players who recently won an over-50 tournament in Las Vegas.
“With the Rhinos success we’ve gotten more and more kids get involved in our learn to skate programs, our figure skating programs, our youth hockey programs,” said Cory Herman, who played for the El Paso Buzzards of the CHL in their dying days at the turn of the millenium before overseeing the creation of the EPHA, the transition of hockey from the Coliseum to the Events Center and the founding of the Rhinos. “What also helps out is Fort Bliss, the growth of Fort Bliss has really helped us.
“Our YMCA program, our Dallas Stars ‘Learn to play hockey’ program, and our learn-to-skate program has helped us. We have a really big group of hockey players under 8 for the last three or four years. It all kind of stems around the Rhinos success.”
Said Tom, speaking of the growth of hockey in this town in general: “This is what we’ve worked for and hoped for, to see it grow like this. It’s been amazing. Ten years ago it was pretty minimal, it has evolved so much. A lot has to do with the success of the Rhinos. The kids come to a game and it’s ‘I wanna play, I wanna play.'”
Take, for example, 20-year-old Ty Erramouspe, a Santa Teresa graduate, who saw his first Buzzards game when he was 3-years-old. Almost immediately after that he began skating in EPHA programs. He’s a forward for the Rhinos now, at the moment the one homegrown player on a team assembled from around the globe.
“I loved the game and my dad decided to have me try it out,” Erramouspe said. “I loved it. I was (the Rhinos’) stick boy for a couple of seasons, then when I was old enough I decided to try out. I made it. …
“It’s pretty special, to get to play in front of your home town, the little kids looking up to you. Hopefully they want to be just like me and play for the Rhinos.”
Herman thinks in three or four years there could be multiple locals on the team.
Forward Chaseton Sare, from Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, is a more typical player. He heard about how rabid the fan base was during his recruitment, but was a little skeptical.
“When I came here last year, I didn’t think the fans were going to be anything like they are,” he said. “Once you play in front of the crowd, it’s pretty exciting, it’s a good time all the time.”
As for what he loves about El Paso, his answer is typical: “Weather, for sure. Back home, Canada, it’s a lot colder than here. Just the weather and the fans. And the food, obviously.”
The Hermans are also from Saskatchewan and Cory’s first experience here, as a player for the Buzzards in 1999, sold him on El Paso and he’s made it his home since. He organized EPHA in 2001, two years before the Buzzards went under, and with some help from the El Paso Sports Commission, the Events Center was set up for ice when the ice machine gave out at the Coliseum. Herman got the Rhinos in 2006, his brother moved here for good a decade ago.
“There are a lot of similarities” between Saskatchewan and El Paso, Cory said. “I’m from a small town, we help each other out. It’s the same way here. El Paso is a big city, but it’s also a small city.”
After the Coliseum went out of the ice business, El Paso didn’t have a big enough venue for another Central Hockey League team, but the Events Center was a perfect size for a junior team and Herman landed one.
It immediately started winning, found a fan base among soldiers at Fort Bliss and, buoyed by instant success, grew to the point that the only reliable way to get a ticket now is to plan well in advance. Herman estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the fans are connected to Fort Bliss, meaning 60 to 70 percent are home-grown El Paso fans.
“The difference between the Buzzards and the Rhinos, the Buzzards were on the way down,” Herman said. “Junior hockey is for players on the way up.”
Example: In 2014-15, the Rhinos star goalie was Hungarian Ádám Vay. He is now in the Minnesota Wild organization.
“The more successful the Rhinos are, the more players want to come play,” Herman said. “El Paso has one of the best fan bases, training facilities, the city, weather – everything here. We’re getting international recognition as having great fans. The arena sells out, we have a very loyal fan base. That’s our greatest recruiting tool, it sets us apart.”
In 2011-12, Coronado first fielded a team and a year later Franklin fielded a team.
A major leap for hockey in El Paso came three years ago, when Tom Herman put together UTEP’s first team, giving an opportunity to 20-year-old Rhinos aged out of junior hockey. They became an instant contender.
“It’s grown a lot since we started it three years ago,” Herman said. There’s a lot of local guys playing in it, a lot of former Rhinos, players all over Canada and the U.S. It’s been popular so far and it’s been exciting every year.”
During last year’s title run, UTEP goalie Alex Lazarski, who is from Washington by way of the Rhinos, explained the appeal.
“I was always going to go to school; I was just waiting to finish juniors,” he said. “When I got a chance to play here, it’s all I could ask for. When I came down here I never thought I’d be in El Paso this long, but it’s worked out.”
Tom Herman estimated that between all the skaters in all the programs, along with fans watching the Rhinos, there are 10,000 people in El Paso connected to the EPHA.
“It keeps getting better every day,” Cory Herman said, pretty well summing up hockey in El Paso.
Bret Bloomquist may be reached at 546-6359; email@example.com; @bretbloomquist on Twitter.