The El Paso Rhinos will be hard-pressed to repeat their efforts from a season ago, when one of the most dominant teams in Western States Hockey League history won both a Thorne Cup and United Hockey Union National Championship. It may be a tall task but it’s exactly what head coach Cory Herman will be expecting from his squad and that’s what makes him one of the best around.
An architect of a number of high-level teams during his time in El Paso, Herman had high hopes for his squad coming out of training camp, with a roster headlined by a handful of returners, like forwards Chad Cesarz and David Nelson and defensemen Chris Wilhite and Jack Strusz. He was also able to acquire a number of players with previous junior experience, in Dakota Beaulieu, who he picked up in a trade with the New Mexico Renegades, as well as Tom Bartel and Trey Hughes, who played together the year prior in Minnesota. Herman’s biggest coup however was 6’6” Hungarian goaltender Adam Vay, who absolutely stole the show for much of the year.
The Rhinos opened up by the season by playing their first six games in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, about a 12-hour drive from their home on the Texas/New Mexico border. The Rhinos swept the Dallas Snipers in a tighter series than many would have predicted, before doing the same to the rival Texas Brahmas but with a little more flair. A big part of that flair came via a trio of brothers from Alberta that Herman acquired just before the start of the series and they lit it up from the start, as Peter, Matthew and Nick Plesa combined to form the most dynamic forward line in the entire league.
Returning home in late October, the Rhinos then swept the San Diego Gulls and dominated the Brahmas again, outscoring them 28-3 in yet another clean sweep.
Making things look easy now, El Paso finished off the first half of the regular season by sweeping the Wichita Jr. Thunder and Tulsa Jr. Oilers, scoring an absurd 68 goals over the six wins and heading into the showcase with the best record in the entire league.
Playing against three other first place teams and a second place squad under Las Vegas lights’, the Rhinos fell to the Idaho Jr. Steelheads and Fresno Monsters, in what would end up being their only two losses of the season, while also picking up solid wins over the Phoenix Knights and Ogden Mustangs.
The losses, although tough to swallow, came at the right time for Herman and Co. as it showed them that even though they were flying high, they were still beatable and had some work to do before being crowned champs.
The schedule didn’t get easier in 2014 but the Rhinos took their game to another level, opening the new year with a hard fought three-game road sweep of the Mountain Division leading Phoenix Knights, before returning home and sweeping the Dallas Ice Jets, the only team in the Midwest Division that was within striking distance at the time.
The rich got richer in late January/early February, as hulking forward Austin Hoff returned to the team after spending the previous few months in the Tier II North American Hockey League and Herman went out and bolstered his team even more, acquiring three key players from the San Diego Gulls, in forwards Eric Baldwin and Drew DePalma and 6’6” Latvian rearguard Kalvis Ozols. Even with Vay playing lights-out in net, Herman wasn’t content there either, knowing that in the Thorne Cup Finals, you need two strong goaltenders to make it through and he pulled off a huge trade with the Seattle Totems and brought on veteran Bryce Fink, presumably to eat a few minutes and give Vay some rest every now and again.
The Rhinos went on to sweep Wichita again, then take down the New Mexico Renegades, Valencia Flyers and Dallas Ice Jets, again, as nobody in the division was even close at this point.
They finished up by sweeping Tulsa once more, while outscoring them 41-0 over a three-game set and then met the Dallas Snipers in the regular season finale, the same team they were set to host the following weekend to open the playoffs.
Never one to take it easy, Herman dressed his usual roster and the Rhinos showed the Snipers no mercy, sweeping the series with ease and finishing the regular season as the top team in the league.
Even with nothing to play for, with a spot in the Thorne Cup Finals already locked up due to the Rhinos hosting the event, El Paso still went out and won the division title in the playoffs, knocking out the Dallas Snipers and Texas Brahmas, each in a uneventful two-game sweep.
With Fink getting the majority of the minutes in net, the Rhinos opened up the Thorne Cup Finals with a 4-2 win over Idaho, one of only two teams to previous defeat them, before finishing the round robin stage with victories over Phoenix and Texas.
Facing the Knights again in the semi-finals, the Rhinos jumped out to a 3-0 first period lead, only to see it evaporate in the second, as Phoenix notched three straight to tie things up before heading into the third.
Defenseman Jack Strusz scored at the 3:44 mark and Fink was fantastic in net, to help the Rhinos seal a spot in the championship game.
The setting couldn’t have been any better on that Sunday in early April, as the crowd was wild and the Rhinos looked to dethrone the three-time defending Thorne Cup Champion Idaho Jr. Steelheads, who had actually won their second Thorne Cup in El Paso back in 2012.
Once again, the Rhinos were just too much, jumping out to a 2-0 lead and never looking back in a 7-3 victory to win their first Thorne Cup Title since 2008 and on home ice, to boot.
Fink, brought in at the trade deadline to be a back-up, was outstanding the entire week and won MVP of the tournament for his efforts, while Austin Hoff, David Nelson, Peter Plesa, Chris Wilhite and Kalvis Ozols were each selected to the All Thorne-Cup team, as well.
It wasn’t over yet for the Rhinos however, as they, along with the runners-up Jr. Steelheads headed to Las Vegas the following week for the 2014 United Hockey Union National Championship.
In a similar format to the Thorne Cup Finals, the Rhinos went 2-0-1 during the partial round robin stage, with their only blemish coming in a 3-2 shootout loss to Idaho. A 12-2 lambasting of the Soo Firehawks in the semi-finals then set-up a re-match of the Thorne Cup Finals, as the Rhinos and Jr. Steelheads clashed for the fourth time in just over a week.
El Paso fell behind 2-0 early, fought back to take a 3-2 lead midway through the second but Idaho found a way to tie it up before the end of the period. The Rhinos came out on fire in the third however and Idaho had no answer, as El Paso scored three straight to win it 6-3 and become the 2014 UHU National Champions.
It was a great season in so many way for the Rhinos, who went undefeated at home and on the road (with their only losses coming at a neutral site) set a league record for short-handed goals and twice dethroned the reigning champions in one of the most impressive runs you will ever see.
The Rhinos are the complete package and what they did during the 2013-2014 season was absolutely remarkable.
Players Moving Up:
A boatload of Rhinos will be playing NCAA Division III hockey this fall, including a large group that’s headed to St. Mary’s University, a spot that has long been a haven for El Paso age-outs. The group in Winona, Minnesota, includes forwards Eric Baldwin, Chad Cesarz, Drew DePalma, Austin Hoff and David Nelson, as well as defensemen Jack Strusz and Chris Wilhite. Those seven players, all of whom were amongst the WSHL’s elite, should give head coach Bill Moore plenty of talent to fill the spots vacated by the Rhinos alumni that recently graduated, and then some. Forward Tom Bartel will faceoff against his former teammates, when Hamline and St. Mary’s clash in late February, while Dakota Beaulieu will be all the way on the east coast, suiting up for Worcester State University. Rounding out the WSHL’s largest group of college commitments is goaltender Bryce Fink, who could very well see playing time as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Meanwhile, defenseman Kalvis Ozols will be getting paid for his efforts this season, as he’s signed on professionally in France.
Players Coming Back:
With all the big names mentioned above moving on, Herman didn’t have many veterans to bring back but those that he did, will all play big roles this season. Goaltender Adam Vay headlines the group and Herman thinks that he can be even better in year two, especially if he can keep his focus. Backing him up will likely be Ryan Buttazoni, who saw limited time as the third-stringer last season and will be looking to bounce back from an injury. Leading the forwards is Czech import Jiri Pestuka, who notched 33 points in 26 combined regular season and playoff games after coming to the Rhinos late last season. Also coming back up front is Texas native Kendal Craig, who is known for his gritty play and David Bures, who should see an expanded role. Returning to the backend is defenseman Elliot Herz, who Herman just wants to keep it simple and Angel Sanca, who only appeared in two games last season.
As usual, Herman has recruited well and seems to have a team with the talent to pick-up right where last year’s squad left off. Forwards Joel Gellvear, David Brancik and Gavin Abbott all have previous junior experience, as Gellvear starred for the Wichita Jr. Thunder last season, Brancik for the Lake Tahoe Blue and Abbott averaged more than a point per game for the Wilkes-Barre Miners of the Northern States Hockey League. Herman is excited about Sebastian Borg, a highly touted Swedish forward, Brennan Kosloski, who comes from Herman’s home province of Saskatchewan and Adam Zimmerman, who could be the one to fill the role vacated by the franchise’s all-time leader in games played by a defenseman; Chris Wilhite.
Herman said that he was sad to see the Dallas Ice Jets and Texas Attack go dormant, as he felt that Paul Taylor would have done a great job with both teams but he still likes the match-ups and rivalries the Midwest Division has to offer. He is also in favor of the new playoff situation, which is more of a true play down format and could play right into the Rhinos hands, with their home ice advantage being one of the best in the league.
The players may come and go but the goal in El Paso remains the same; win a championship. With Herman at the helm, they will always have a chance.