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.

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.

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