The Ice Bats Cometh

Minor league hockey in Texas? You bet your skates. Fans are packing rinks from Amarillo to Waco, and nowhere more than Austin, whose winged wingmen endure long road trips and low pay— all for the love of the game.

February 1997By Comments

THIS IS WHAT THE MEMBERS OF THE Austin Ice Bats see as they skate out for practice: a Fitting Stool shoe store, a Hallmark Crown card shop, and a guy pushing a mop in a Furr’s cafeteria. It’s eight in the morning on the Friday before Thanksgiving, and the Bats are on the rink at Northcross Mall, which is empty save for a few seventy-something couples on their morning stroll.

Northcross is the team’s official second home. And why does Austin’s only professional sports franchise need another home? Because its primary residence, the Travis County Exposition Center, was built to showcase livestock and farming equipment, not Canadians and Zambonis, and at the moment, the Expo Center is hosting a tractor pull. It’s probably just as well, since what they call ice at the Expo Center is actually, at least in November, more like a soup of slush, fog, and dirt. Welcome to hockey in Texas.

There are 103 professional hockey teams in the United States, and 10 of them are in Texas—the most of any state in the Union. Dallas, of course, has a franchise in the topflight Na-tional Hockey League, having swiped the North-stars from Minneapolis in 1993. The American Hockey League serves as the NHL’s farm sys-tem; just below that is the International Hockey League, which has clubs in Houston and San Antonio. Below the AHL and the IHL are five roughly equivalent minor leagues; one of them, the Central Hockey League, has franchises in San Antonio and Fort Worth. But the main reason Tex-as has become a hockey mecca is the brand-new, six-team Western Pro-fessional Hockey League, which has franchises in Ama-rillo, Austin, El Paso, Waco, and Belton. (Albuquer-que rounds out the list.)

The emergence of hockey in Texas is actually part of a trend that started with the NHL, which spent the early nineties renewing its marketing efforts. In 1994 it inked its first network television contract in years—with Fox—and it has expanded southward to cities like Tampa Bay, Miami, and Phoenix. At the same time, minor league teams in locales like Memphis and Oklahoma City were drawing impressive crowds. Enter the WPHL, which began play last year and was founded by an investment group that included businessmen from the Southwest, Canadian entrepreneurs, and NHL players. The Ice Bats ownership is headed up by physician Daniel Hart, who went to the University of Texas at Austin before ending up in Cincinnati, where he fell in love with that city’s IHL club, the Cyclones. He is joined by Ed Novess, a master brewer for Miller Brewing Company in Cincinnati who once lived in Fort Worth; Paul Lawless, a seven-year veteran of the NHL and onetime standout for the Cyclones who also plays for the Bats; and coach and general manager Blaine Stoughton, a former Cyclones assistant who starred for the NHL’s Hartford Whalers.

The Austin franchise was originally going to be known as the Outlaws, but the more inventive name Ice Bats prevailed, inspired by the colony of winged mammals that live under the city’s Congress Avenue bridge. The borderline silly name is firmly in a tradition that includes the Louisiana Ice Gators, the Kentucky Thoroughblades, and the Macon Whoopee. The other clubs in the WPHL are more prosaically monikered, though the Waco Wizards have problems with the local Baptist community (i.e., Waco), which thinks the name has satanic connotations.

The WPHL has gone out of its way to explain this strange new game to Texas. Each team has flyers explaining everything from ice making to icing, the sport’s most frequently invoked rule. In Belton the Central Texas Stampede put a page in their program with rather superflu-ous translations of hockey lingo into basketball terms: a face-off is a jump ball, the rink is the court, and so on.

After a little more than three months of action, the WPHL’s draw has been pretty good, ranging from about six thousand fans a game in the larger cities like Austin and Albuquerque—as many as nine thousand have come out in New Mexico—to more than four thousand in El Paso, Amarillo, and Belton (those Pagans, er, Wizards up in Waco aren’t doing as well). The league honchos are so pleased with those numbers that they’re already moving forward; next season there will be teams in Odessa-Midland, San Angelo, and Louisiana cities Lake Charles and Shreveport. The more distant future may include locales in Arizona and Colorado. The expansion will cleave the WPHL into two divisions and make it more entertaining for fans and players alike: Currently, the league schedule is a rather redundant gauntlet, with each club playing the five others twelve times, and then four of the six going on to playoff action.

While the great number of northern and Midwestern transplants in Texas probably has something to do with the league’s early success, it really isn’t so unlikely that Texas, ever the football state, would be the perfect place for hockey. It’s a rough-and-tumble sport played by well-mannered hotheads, blue-collar workers, and prodigious snuff dippers. Really, the only difference between a small town in Alberta and a small town in Texas is the frozen pond in the back. Hockey is a fairly simple action-packed game that offers a little of everything to fans of more familiar sports. Enjoy the way football combines speed, grace, and violence? Try it on ice skates, with the occasional brawl added in. Prefer the subtle pleasures of baseball? Well, the mano a mano duel between pitcher and hitter is approximated when the goalie faces down a winger on a breakaway. Hockey also has the constant motion of basketball, but without that damnable habit of constant scoring. If anything, the game is most like soccer, except you don’t use your head. That’s what your teeth are for.

THE EXPO CENTER’S BIG TRACTOR pull isn’t merely turning the team into the Mall Bats; it’s also putting them on the WPHL’s longest possible road trip—a straight shot to Albuquerque, then back through Amarillo and El Paso. The Bats are shuttled around in a Gray Line bus that’s custom painted with the team’s logo and equipped with a TV and a VCR. Bobby Wallwork, the team’s 28-year-old player—assistant coach, has his own strategy for long trips: Don’t sleep the night before. Clearly he leads by example. Over the course of the day the team turns the bus into an obstacle course as guys sprawl across the aisles, lie on the floor, and stretch out over chairs. The last row of the bus is occupied by Kyle Haviland and Ryan Anderson, two of the team’s biggest brutes, who are reclining together on the couchlike bench, shirts off, snuggling underneath a shared blanket.

Wallwork (or Wally, as he is known) chooses the day’s video selections, which include Slap Shot, the comically violent Paul Newman vehicle that is to minor league hockey what This Is Spinal Tap is to heavy metal—satirically ridiculous but frighteningly familiar. All of the Bats have seen Slap Shot a million times, and the bus fills with the sounds of guys shouting out their favorite lines.

Other players occupy themselves with newspapers or magazines. Jeff Gabriel, the only Bat who sports hockey’s classic one-tooth-missing look, does the crossword puzzle every day. “It keeps me sharp,” he says, prompting his five-foot-six, 150-pound teammate Jon Poirier to inquire if Gabriel is smarter than his wife. “No one’s smarter than his wife,” Gabriel replies, showing himself to be a very wise man indeed. Poirier is a bit highbrow too: He majored in art in college and only plans to play hockey until he can begin a formal apprenticeship with a master glassblower in Sweden.

Wallwork was the first player to join the Ice Bats; he’s a top scorer and quickly became a fan favorite. He also helped recruit the rest of the team. Wallwork played in Cincinnati for Coach Stoughton, and he brought along three friends from his previous team in Muskegon, Michigan, including scrappy defenseman Haviland (“Havs”). The rest of the team came from all over—Memphis, Jacksonville, Rhode Island, Alberta.

Stephan Desjardins, the team’s most recent acquisition and its first French Canadian, doesn’t really know his new teammates yet, but he’s happy to be here because he thinks the Bats will take the WPHL crown. He passes much of the bus ride writing a song to his girlfriend of nine years, who is in Montreal. His lyrical efforts proclaim the expected yearning, devotion, and lust but also rhapsodize about his new hockey team and its shot at the championship.

Slap Shot aside, the cinematic hit of the bus ride turns out to be Happy Gilmore, the story of a hockey player who finds success as a professional golfer. “Happy, all you ever talk about is being a pro hockey player,” Happy’s girlfriend gripes at the beginning of the film. “Sounds like my wife,” an unidentified Bat shouts back. The golf-hockey connection is rather apt as it turns out; one reason many of the Bats moved to Austin was the chance to hit the links year-round. This was particularly important to veteran defenseman Jim Burton, who has completed the playing portion of his Professional Golfers Association card and will soon hang up his skates to join the tour.

Even if he never leaves the nether regions of pro golf, Burton will probably earn more money in the PGA; with a few exceptions, the Bats make $300 to $600 a week, depending on their experience, and their contracts aren’t guaranteed. But the cost of living is reduced considerably because the team takes care of rent—all the players live in the same plush Northwest Austin apartment complex. Their income is also augmented by money from personal appearances, but in the off-season, most of them have to work for a living: Bats have been employed as roofers, bartenders, construction workers, and movers.

At least they don’t have to pay for food when they’re on the road. Each player’s per diem totals $25 a day. A ten-spot is more than enough to cover dinner on this day, which they pick up at a KFC fried- chicken joint in Lubbock. Six hours later, the bus cruises into Albuquerque, passing a shopping mall with an Olive Garden. “Didn’t we eat there before?” someone wonders. “No,” Wally replies. “That was Amarillo. Here it was Pizza Hut.”

PRACTICE, EAT, NAP, GAME, DRINK.” That’s Bobby Wallwork’s description of game day. But what he omits is the time spent dressing and undressing. The locker room is a sea of plastic, foam, fiberglass, and tape, the players encased in bulky kidney protectors and giant shin guards that double the size of their calves. In this almost daily ritual, habits and superstitions rule: Bobby Wallwork and Andy Ross always put on their left pads first, and Kyle Haviland tries to be the last guy dressed.

Practice on game days is an abbreviated affair, with just enough skating to get the team loose. The afternoon is for lunching and napping, and then it’s time to think about New Mexico. The Scorpions are owned by active NHL players Joe Murphy and Bernie Nicholls plus John Wetteland, the hockey-crazed Texas Rangers reliever (and isn’t that fun to say?). What’s important to the Bats, though, is that the Scorpions are in first place and have already beaten them three times. Only one of those games was close. In the locker room, the Bats begin to psyche themselves up. They cheer (“C’mon boys, C’mon boys!”), state the obvious (avoid stupid penalties, play good defense), and talk strategy (exploit the goalie’s tendencies). Then they march out to yells of “big tilt,” a trail of rubber matting protecting their skate blades and leading to the rink like a red carpet.

The game of hockey is pretty straightforward. It’s played in three 20-minute periods, and each team puts six guys on the ice at a time: the goalie, two defensemen, and three forwards (the center and the right and left wings). The forwards advance the puck while the defensemen trail the play. Some defenders specialize in scoring; others remain close to the goal they’re trying to protect. A dominant performance in hockey is determined not just by how many goals a team scores but by how many chances the team has to score.

The players rotate on and off the ice in three sets, or lines. The top two lines are the scorers; the third is the checking line, dedicated to defense and harassment. The game’s signature element is penalties, most of which involve holding, interference, or overly zealous use of the stick or the body. When a penalty is called, the offending player goes to the penalty box, usually for two minutes (grievous offenses draw five), and the other team gets a power play, a chance to take advantage of its one-man edge. Failing to score on a power play is like striking out with men on second and third.

The most exciting thing about hockey is the perpetual motion. The game is all breathtaking buildup, a series of hits, passes, missed chances, and good defense that pile up until, boom—a great pass or a little mistake and watch it, don’t blink, goal! There is nothing like the anticipatory swell of a crowd when the home team is on the move, followed by a violently cathartic explosion of cheering if they score or a giant groan if they don’t.

On this night the crowd in New Mexico does little groaning. After the first period, it’s Scorpions 1, Ice Bats 0, a score that doesn’t begin to reflect how badly the Bats have been outplayed. Stoughton says as much back in the locker room. “The puck is bouncing off the stick,” he says, mocking one player’s excuse. “Don’t give me that shit. I played the game.” The guys take the talk to heart in the second period, but they don’t get any breaks, and the Scorpions’ unbeaten goalie Tony Martino is just too sharp. The Bats are down 4—0 after two periods.

To make matters worse, Kyle Haviland breaks his wrist during a body check. He retreats to the locker room, face aflame but eyes dry. Haviland, who’s 25, is the team captain and one of the Bats’ toughest characters on the ice. In the NHL, clubs have large enough rosters to have specialized goons, players whose only job is to fight. In the WPHL, where there are fewer men on a team, everyone can skate, and most everyone can throw down too. But Havs is good enough at fighting that he rarely has to. He’d had only one fight all season, partly because no one wants a piece of him and partly because the team needs him to stay out of the penalty box. “Fifty percent of the game is putting the puck in the net,” he says, “and fifty percent of the game is intimidation.”

The Bats do have a few players who seem to prefer the solitude of the “sin bin.” One, 33-year-old Scott Shaunessy, is also the team’s executive director. Shaunessy came out of injury-induced retirement early in the season because the Bats needed more bodies; after nine games he was the team’s most penalized player. Another is Ryan Anderson, a.k.a. “Kid,” a 21-year-old rookie from Manitoba with long blond hair and a pale baby face. Anderson’s youth and tenacity give him a chance to move up to a better league, but right now his job is, as he puts it, simply to “bang around.” In one game, he was ejected for fighting less than a minute after the opening face-off.

In New Mexico he lasts a little longer. The Scorpions’ number 17 has been playing nasty all night, so with the game out of reach and tempers heating up, Anderson attacks him. It’s only after the ejections are handed out that Anderson realizes he went after the wrong player—number 27, who has a similar haircut, and well, all Anderson really saw was that second number  before he threw the first punch. But he enjoyed it anyway. As he’s escorted off the ice, Anderson is feted by the New Mexico fans, a particularly ornery bunch prone to passionate displays of jeering and profanity. He triumphantly raises his arms up in the air. The Bats may have lost the war tonight, but he knows he won his battle.

AFTER THE UNINSPIRED EVENING IN NEW MEXICO, the Bats win two out of three before returning to Austin. In a way, though, Austin isn’t where they want to be; heading into December, the team is 6—5 on the road and a disappointing 2—4 at the Expo Center. On the other hand, home is what the Ice Bats are all about. The players moved here for the golf, the weather, the bars, and the girls. The franchise itself has a relationship with the community that’s not about tax breaks or sky boxes, but rather, players delivering for Meals on Wheels, promoting the Great American Smokeout, and signing autographs for free.

The Bats know they aren’t merely playing a competitive sport; they’re also putting on an event. Games at the Expo Center have laser shows, a mascot named Fang, and Texas Lottery promotions. A four-wheel drive Hummer cruises the ice between periods, and kids selected from the seats perch on top of it, tossing Bats paraphernalia to the crowd. For December’s first home game, the Bats brain trust makes a clever sideshow out of the team’s home-ice struggles. They recruit a guy to dress up as “Koho,” a Native American healer, and announce before the game that his father blessed the 1980 American Olympic team before it defeated the heavily favored Soviet team. Koho takes to the ice outfitted in a ceremonial headdress and, of course, an Ice Bats jersey. He does a little dance to some disco, and then the game begins.

And what do you know, the Bats get a dominating win against El Paso! If there’s any juju on their side, though, it surely belongs to 31-year-old goalie John Blue, a California surfer and NHL alum. Blue is a big home-crowd favorite; like Bruce Springsteen and Cowboys fullback Daryl “Moose” Johnston, he has a cheering section that to the uninitiated could appear to be booing: “Bluuue! Bluuue!” the crowd cries whenever he makes a play. Tonight he can do no wrong, snatching one puck out of the air like an errant housefly, blindly smothering another under his side. And maybe there’s something to the shaman as well—the game kicks off a 6—2—1 home record for December.

The Austin crowd knows its hockey. Unsurprisingly, some of the most devoted season ticket holders are transplanted Yankees, like Bridget Novak and Mark Zaleski, Motorola employees from New York State whose tickets put them in perfect position to taunt the opposing goalie for two periods: “You’re a sieve, you’re a vacuum cleaner, you’re a black hole, you just suck!” Getting on the referee is also a hobby. “Hey Huber, shake your head, your eyes are stuck,” one fan yells when the ref misses a call. “The refs are just like us,” cracks Bobby Wallwork. “They’re in the minor leagues for a reason.”

But that reason isn’t simply because they’re not good enough to keep up with the big boys. It may be the ultimate bush-league cliché, but these guys play because they like to. If they couldn’t do it for the Ice Bats, they’d do it out on the pond or in a community league. Unlike minor league baseball, or even the AHL, quixotic ambitions are not part of the package. These are not prospects on their way up, nor are they old-timers desperate for one last taste of glory. They are hockey players—in Texas. Maybe someday, as the sport grows, the Bats will compete with the Cowboys, the Longhorns, and high school football for space on the front page of the local sports section. And maybe someday, as the WPHL expands to seven or eight Texas teams and if the NHL comes to Houston, one of those high school foot-ball players will put down the pigskin for a stick and a puck. He may not become the next Bobby Orr, but he could be the next Bobby Wallwork. Now if they could just figure out a way to keep the ice cold.

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