Just after the mid-season holiday break earlier this year, the Rhinos acquired forward Tomas Urbanec from Las Vegas in a four-way trade. Hours after the trade was finalized, he suited up in black and orange and played against Wichita in the Rhinos’ first series of the new year. His fit was automatic. He posted three points in his first game and left the series with five points. Tallying three more points in the following road series in Dallas, Urbanec had earned eight points before he had even skated in front of the home crowd as a member of the home team.
Although he was excited to play in front of El Paso’s remarkable fan base, he knew what to expect. During the 2018 Thorne Cup finals in El Paso, Urbanec was a member of the Long Beach Bombers team that topped the touted Rhinos in round-robin play. He admits that Rhino Country can be a difficult place to play when you’re on the opposing team. “It’s tough to play on the other team here. The pressure can get to you.” Yet when asked to recall playing in El Paso as a Bomber, he couldn’t. “I didn’t pay attention to anything else but the game. We won though,” he laughed. With the Rhino crowd’s palpable energy, staying undistracted isn’t easy, but Tomas explains that concentrating on the play is essential when you’re playing in enemy territory. “You don’t even look past the glass. You don’t care. You just play.”
Ironically, that type of focus and concentration you need as a member of an opposing team playing in Rhino Country is also exactly what is necessary to succeed as a member of El Paso’s roster. Combine that focus with an unbeatable worth ethic and a physical style of play, and you have the threads that weave the culture of Rhino hockey.
Having only been a member of El Paso’s team since January, Urbanec can already accurately articulate the sense of grit and competition that is pervasive in Rhino Country. “You have to always try and not just show up. There’s always someone looking to take your spot. I like that there is healthy competition between us [players]. It pushes everyone to be better.” He also admits that this environment is partly due to El Paso’s positioning in the Mid-Western division, arguably the most competitive division in the WSHL. “This is the toughest division to play in because most of the tough teams are in this division. You can’t just show up to a game because you’re always playing a good team. You always have to be ready to play.”
Although the status of the Mid-western division is open to question, the level of play across the Western States Hockey League is not. A five-year veteran of the WSHL, Urbanec can speak to how the league has progressed since his first season. “I’ve seen the league improve a lot. The skill level is better. It’s faster. It’s not the same league it was five years ago.”
Naturally, the League’s widespread advances in talent have also aided in Urbanec’s development as a player. More mature, confident and skilled than when he first left the Czech Republic for Long Beach in 2015, Urbanec has expectedly refined his goals in the past five years. Initially, he simply hoped to do well enough to eventually play in college or play professionally. Four years later, at the start of the 2019-20 season, he was poised to become the WSHL All-Time points leader. With the record in reach, his goal became to break the 351-point record set by former Rhino Jakob Kranabetter.
Before his first home series in El Paso at the end of January, he was seven points away from his 352nd point. For most, a seven-point series is farfetched, but for Urbanec, it was more than reasonable. However, despite three points on Friday and three more on Sunday, a zero-point game on Saturday pushed his chance to break the record back another two weeks.
Focused and determined headed into the Rhinos’ series against the Northern Colorado Eagles on February 7, 8 and 9, he called his agent for a pre-series pep talk. His agent told him to call his shot and Urbanec predicted it would be “bardown.” Sure enough, at the 14:55 mark of the first period in game one, the forward’s top shelf shot ripped past Northern Colorado’s netminder Marshall Murphy, and Urbanec became the WSHL’s All-Time points leader. “It was nice that it was a highlight reel goal. And it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.” After the game, he noted that the record-breaking goal that also happened to be the first goal of the game was made even more memorable by the fact that it was scored on the seventh day of the month while wearing number seven.
Now that he’s earned the achievement being named the league’s All-Time leading scorer, Urbanec, once again, is defining a new goal. In his age-out season, his main objective is to win the Thorne Cup. “I’ve never won [the Thorne Cup]. Every other personal goal I’ve surpassed. There will be no other chance to win. I can’t come back next year and try again.” Simply put, it’s now or never.