UTEP Ice Hockey

Pinned between the Franklin Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert is El Paso, Texas, a border city known for a few things:  200 days of yearly sunshine, scorching summer heat and long rainless droughts. Certainly, it does not sound like the ideal place for a winter sport to call home, or does it? For many locals, the sports scene in El Paso lacks a strong team. While UTEP’s football and basketball teams seem to be the top dogs, they don’t always satisfy those who seek non-stop, fast-paced sports action. The city has tried arena football twice, but many can’t even remember the teams’ names. El Paso’s minor league baseball team, The Diablos, is still around, but its slow pace doesn’t attract thrill seekers. Among all of these, is ice hockey, a sport that is quietly successful within the community. Today, UTEP students have the opportunity to not only enjoy this winter sport in El Paso, but also to play it as well. Mario Ramirez, senior mechanical engineering major, and Jorge Villegas, freshman pre-engineering major, are president and vice president as well as players for the UTEP Ice Hockey Organization. They not only want to capitalize on the sport’s recent success in the Sun City, but they seek to provide local prospects with a chance to stay in their hometown and play for UTEP. “Both of us have a great respect and passion for the sport. We have the Rhinos here in town, and also the El Paso Hockey Association has a junior program that sends local players out of town to play for a variety of colleges. So, we thought, why have them leave when they can play here,” says Mario. “With UTEP trying to become a Tier-One school, we feel this can help the university as well.” The team’s biggest challenge is getting sanctioned by UTEP’s Recreational Sports Department. Before it can be recognized as an official recreational sports club, it must serve one year as a registered student organization and meet all university guidelines and procedures.  Once sanctioned, they will receive some funding from the university, but in the long term they have to become financially independent. Meanwhile, the  team is looking to build a strong base of players and support. “Right now we have about 15 players including Mario and myself. We’re looking to add about five more,” says Jorge. “At the same time, we’re trying to find some sponsors to help pay for jerseys and equipment.” The club is also applying to join the American Collegiate Hockey Association. The ACHA is a national organization that has three different men’s hockey divisions and would allow the Miners’ hockey squad to compete versus other college teams. The team is currently practicing weekly at the Sierra Providence Events Center. Practices are lead by Jorge and Mario and the cost is $10 per practice. This fee covers rink and equipment rental. Because the team has not been sanctioned, Mario, Jorge and the rest of the players are paying for fees out of their own pocket. “We understand that basketball and football are the main athletics here at UTEP, but we aren’t trying to compete with them, but rather alongside them, says Mario. “We just want to get a piece of the pie and help this team succeed.” Those who are interested, but have never played can still join the UTEP Ice Hockey Organization.

“About half our current team, including myself, had never even played hockey, let alone ice skated, but after the month-and-a-half of practice we are really getting the hang of it,” says Jorge. “We really encourage anyone to come out and train with us if they are remotely interested.”

The UTEP ice hockey team is not the first attempt to bring the winter sport to town. In fact, El Paso has been home to several hockey leagues and teams over the past few years. From 1996-2002, the El Paso Buzzards called the El Paso County Coliseum home and they were a big hit throughout the city. In 2001, former Buzzard Corey Herman founded the El Paso Hockey Association, which started a variety of youth and a junior league for El Pasoans to join. In 2006, Herman also started the El Paso Rhinos, a junior-A team, which has found nothing but success. Since their inception, the Rhinos have been one of the best junior ice hockey teams in the country. The team and players have consistently topped the Western States Hockey League standings year after year. They entered last season as the WSHL Thorne Cup Champions and won the Mid-West Division for the third year in a row. Despite losing in the playoffs, they still finished in second place in the 2010 Western States Hockey League National Tournament. That success has paid off and the Rhinos, who are currently 11-1, along with the city, will host the Throne Cup Tournament in March. This will not only shine a light on the sport, but also bring in scouts to recruit. This will give players a chance to move to a higher league or even earn a scholarship. “Texas is football, Texas is baseball. You wouldn’t think El Paso has hockey because all you see is sand, but we have a great core following that keeps up with all our teams,” says Tom Herman, director of youth hockey for the El Paso Hockey Association, and assistant coach for the Rhinos. Tom is one of the people behind the success of the team and he has provided players with many opportunities to earn college scholarships. He will also be coaching the first high school ice hockey team in the city at Coronado High School.

“We just want to create stepping stones for those interested in hockey, so that they can have a path which they can follow,” Tom says.

Omar Cruz, UTEP senior communication major and ice hockey team member, worked closely with the EPHA and the Rhinos. He firmly believes that a UTEP hockey team will be a huge success. “The work Tom and the EPHA have done with the Rhinos was so great, I felt we had to capitalize on it and jump on the band wagon so we at UTEP could experience similar success,” says Omar. The UTEP Miners hockey team is currently organizing a variety of fundraisers including selling t-shirts with the team’s logo. They also hope to schedule scrimmages against teams in New Mexico within a few months. The UTEP ice hockey team is still a year away from competing collegiality, but its members hope to make great strides in that time period, both on and off the ice, in order to establish a new brand of sports entertainment in the borderland.