Some things have become so commonplace that after a while they’re taken for granted, like the sun coming up in the morning, the stars coming out at night and the El Paso Rhinos winning championships.
Coach Cory Herman and the Rhinos organization came into this season hoping that last year’s pedestrian 27-23-2 record and fourth-place Midwest Division finish of the Western States Hockey League was just a one-time hiccup.
Going into the Thanksgiving holiday, the Rhinos had posted a 15-2-1 record, which put them back in a rather familiar position: first place.
“Honestly, it kind of humbles you a little bit,” said Herman, who has coached the team to six WSHL championship series appearances and two Thorne Cup titles since 2006. “We had nine unbelievable seasons, and to hit a bump in the road like that makes you step back and try to figure out where you took the wrong turn.
“We have such a winning tradition here, we’re not used to losing. It really makes you appreciate all the success we’ve had.”
El Paso wasted no time re-establishing itself as one of the better teams in the league by racing out to a 13-0 record, outscoring their opponents 118-15 in that span.
“I think the biggest reason we’ve been more successful this season is that we went to a lot of different places to recruit,” Herman explained. “We really didn’t have a large core group of guys coming back last year. This season, we have a smaller core group, but a better one.”
Despite the hot start, Herman knows his team hasn’t won anything yet.
“Our division is the toughest in the league,” he said. “Every game we play in our division is going to be tough. There’s more parity, and that’s better for the league.”
El Paso is among the league leaders in both goals scored and goals against, which is all part of the plan.
“We’re big and we’re tough,” Herman said. “We play a blue-collar Boston Bruins style of hockey.
“On offense, we kind of throw the kitchen sink at you. We’re very aggressive and instead of waiting for our opponents to make mistakes, we try to force them to make mistakes. We take a lot of shots and we crash the net and basically try to make the goalie’s life miserable.”
Though the early success has been a team effort, Herman singled out a few players who have stood out.
“Arturas Lukaitis (Moscow) has been doing very well for us, but we’ll lose him for a month in December when he plays for his Russian national team. Also leading us are guys like Riley Hummitsch (California), Chaseton Sare (Canada) and goalie Tymen Edelkoort (Canada).
Surprisingly, with players from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, France, Latvia and England, communication has not been a problem.
“We have players from all over the world and some, when they first get here, don’t speak any English,” Herman said. “But hockey is hockey, and guys are guys. After about a month, they’re all speaking the same language.”
As in the past, one advantage the Rhinos have over the rest of the league is the home crowd.
“The fans have been unbelievable,” Herman said. “We sold out our last homestand and we’re very fortunate to have the passionate fans that we do.
“It helps us on the ice and it helps us with recruiting, because every player wants to perform in front of somebody, and our fans are the most loyal in the league.”