Sunday night hockey came to East Texas, and it was magical.
In 2020, El Paso won a popular vote to be named the Kraft Hockeyville USA winner. As winners, the prize was $150,000 in rink upgrades, $10,000 in equipment upgrades. El Paso also got the chance to host an NHL preseason game.
The preseason game was delayed for a year because of COVID restrictions, but the Dallas Stars and the Arizona Coyotes finally came to El Paso.
The game, on a mild fall evening in October in El Paso, was an entertaining affair. The Stars were technically the home team, although El Paso is closer to Glendale, Arizona than Dallas (440 miles vs. 635 miles).
The Stars enjoyed strong support and came out with a 6-3 victory. It was a scrappy game that included a Radulov fighting major and several smaller scrums.
The intimate nature of the (literal) barn in El Paso lent itself to an old-fashioned kind of hockey game. Jake Oettinger, among others commenting that it reminded the players of the rinks they played in growing up.
Many of us grew up skating in slightly tumbledown rinks. If you did, you’lld be familiar with the kind of hockey rink the County Event Center in El Paso is and was. It’s a former rodeo and livestock show venue. It had an un-insulated roof, halogen lights, and a door that opened directly to the outside world. The homebrewed barn couldn’t keep ice in the summer. The money from winning the title of Hockeyville USA has gone to several upgrades. It paid for a new roof, upgraded lights, new breezeways and bathrooms, and various other upgrades. The rink is now a year-round facility.
Although not many of us are familiar with El Paso as a hockey town, it has a small but passionate fanbase. El Paso is the home of the NA3HL El Paso Rhinos, founded by Saskatchewan native Cory Herman. The Rhinos have seen success in the city, and this season will add a tier II NAHL team this year. The celebration of hockey in El Paso included a visit from the Stanley Cup. There were also opportunities for youth players to quiz players from the Stars and the Coyotes. The party had a uniquely west Texas spin bringing the spirit of the South-West to Hockeyville for the first time.
The Stars have made increasing moves of late to grow the game of hockey in Texas beyond the city of Dallas. The recruitment of Al Montoya Director of Community Outreach is among several highly visible steps to engage with a more diverse audience. Montoya is the first Cuban-American to play in the NHL. The Coyotes, too, deserve much credit for growing hockey in as unlikely a hockey state as Arizona.
Arizona’s own Auston Matthews, superstar center for the Toronto Maple Leafs, is likely to feature heavily for Team USA at the Winter Olympics this January. Matthews himself is of Hispanic heritage, like 80% of the population of El Paso. Maybe the day the Stars and the Stanley Cup came to El Paso will inspire the next Al Montoya or Auston Matthews.
If the Stars and the various junior teams located in towns small and large across Texas can continue to engage with their communities in the way the Rhinos have. Who knows?
Maybe one day, a kid from dusty west Texas will find themselves lifting the Stanley Cup or with an Olympic medal around their neck.
Featured Image: Denis Jr. Tangney/Getty Images