MOST NIGHTS, L. J. MCCOY gets to the Dodge Arena in Hidalgo before warm-ups, decked out in an orange hunting vest and a floppy hat, homemade signs—“You’ve been Shmyred” reads a favorite—in one hand and a bullhorn in the other. The McCoy family business, Valley Block and Brick, owns eighteen season tickets for the area’s minor league hockey team, the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees, mostly for clients and employees. But their half a dozen seats behind the visiting team’s penalty box have more to do with family than business. Anyone who drops the gloves with the Bees’ six-foot-six enforcer Ryan Shmyr will soon hear from the 39-year-old McCoy about how badly he got whupped (or, if you will, “Shmyred”). Meanwhile, his three face-painted, jersey-wearing nine- , eleven- , and thirteen-year-old daughters will pound the glass and scream their heads off, as will their 75-year-old great-grandmother, Pat Reynolds, who’ll also be wearing a Bees jersey. Before hockey found its way to the border, Grandma Petie never much liked sports. “But we came to the first game here and got totally addicted,” she says. “Immediately! Hockey is so fast, nonstop. And we’ve gotten to know some of the players, and they’re fantastic. I just love it.”
On any given Friday night, even with high school football in full swing, you can find folks like the McCoys all over the state. Minnesota, Michigan, and Massachusetts may be America’s hockey heartland, but since 1996 Texas has had more pro teams than any state in the U.S. There are an even dozen at the moment; in addition to the National Hockey League’s Dallas Stars, there are teams in Houston and San Antonio from the American Hockey League, Beaumont from the East Coast Hockey League, and Laredo, Austin, Corpus Christi, Hidalgo, Amarillo, Odessa, Lubbock, and San Angelo from the Central Hockey League. More than one and a half million Texans took in a hockey game during the 2003-2004 season.
This patently strange concept—cold sport, hot place—does more than defy common sense. Every man and woman and child in the Lone Star State has shot a hoop, stepped up to the plate, or thrown a football in the yard. But hockey? It’s played on ice; you need hundreds of dollars in equipment; it’s something Canadians and Yankees do. Yet minor league hockey’s popularity is only partially about the game itself. What really matters is the overall sports and entertainment experience a team like the Killer Bees can offer. Division I college and the major leagues may give you the chance to see the best players in the world, but in an era of high ticket prices and arrogant millionaire players, minor league hockey gives us what we claim to really want: close-up interaction with athletes who live among us, an affordable night out for parents and kids, and the sense of community that comes from rallying around your hometown heroes. Really, hockey offers much the same thing high school football does, especially in places like Laredo and Hidalgo, where having a pro team at any level—playing in brand-new arenas that also bring in concerts, rodeos, and wrestling—is a big deal for the town. And with the NHL mired in a bitter lockout, which at press time was threatening the entire season, players who make as little as $300 a week—even the biggest Central Hockey League stars don’t make much more than $1,000, and then only for six months—suddenly seem a whole lot more appealing.
Still, all this continued success has taken even me by surprise. I first wrote about Texas hockey for this magazine in 1996, when the Austin Ice Bats arrived in town as part of the now-defunct Western Professional Hockey League (it merged with the CHL three years ago). I found the whole thing—from the sport itself to this hidden subculture of fans and minor leaguers to the obvious fish-out-of-frozen-water angle—so fascinating that I spent a year on the road writing a book, Zamboni Rodeo, about it. But not every city could support the game, and if the whole thing had just been a passing trend, I wouldn’t have been shocked. Instead, the game has only gotten bigger and better. Eight years ago Texas hockey meant slushy ice in run-down livestock barns, road trips in a broken bus, and at least three fights a night. Whenever people would ask me what I had learned writing the book, I used to tell them that the movie Slap Shot, with its cartoon violence and venal owners and grubby working conditions, was a documentary. Some of that vibe remains (thank God!), but overall, both the business savvy and the product on the ice are much more polished.
“I watched this hockey in 1997, 1998,” says former Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock, who’s currently with the Philadelphia Flyers and spent part of his lockout downtime in training camp with a pair of CHL teams, the Corpus Christi Rayz and the New Mexico Scorpions. “There’s a dramatic difference. This is a much better league [now].” Good enough that two locked-out NHLers, Stars forward Brenden Morrow and Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Brad Lukowich, are playing in the league this year, for salaries (reportedly $725 a week) that won’t even cover their insurance, which they have to pay the cost of themselves.
Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley are currently the state’s hottest frozen spots. The Bucks and the Killer Bees each draw fans from both sides of the border. Last year, in their second season, the Bucks drew an average of 6,354 fans a night, making them the twelfth-best-attended minor league hockey team (out of 98) in the country. When Senator Judith Zaffirini broke her shoulder ice-skating in Albuquerque during last year’s redistricting battle, it was because she was practicing to drop the puck at the Bucks’ home opener.
During the same season, the first-year Bees weren’t far behind, drawing an average of 5,114 fans a night to a building that holds just 5,500. Surely the only hockey team to wear the patch of a chorizo company (H&H Foods), the Bees are equally supported by corporate sponsors—everyone from H-E-B to Stilettos Cabaret has a club box—Mexican Americans from all over the Valley, hockey-loving transplants from up north, and maquiladora managers. “The first game we came to, we got hooked,” says thirty-year-old Tanya Flores, an occupational therapist from Edinburg who attends every game in a group of ten that includes her husband and two daughters as well as her sister and her brother-in-law. A week after we spoke, Flores led a caravan of nineteen to see the Bees play the Ice Bats in Austin.
This is not unusual behavior. My book was dedicated to a man from Belton named Larry “Duck” Friddle, whom I barely knew except as a fellow fan on the Internet. He was known not only for his passionate e-mails and the horn that gave him his name but for a three-games-in-three-nights road trip he and his buddy Shane once took to Amarillo, Albuquerque, and Lubbock. On the way to Lubbock they got into a car accident. Duck refused to let Shane call his wife, lest she make him come home before the last game. When Duck later passed away of a heart attack, the entire Central Texas Stampede (the former franchise in Belton) was at his funeral, wearing jerseys over their shirts and ties, and there were quite a few of us from Austin too, players and fans alike.
It’s this interaction, fan to fan and player to fan, that continues to drive the sport. After a Bees game I attended, Rio Grande Valley players Shmyr and Billy Newson left the dressing room but couldn’t get down the arena hallway without encountering a gaggle of girls, ages four to twelve, clutching pucks and autograph books and jerseys. It’s a scene that would be unthinkable up in the big leagues, where a player might sign an autograph or two on the way to his private parking space. It would be a lie to say that all minor league players want to spend an hour every night chitchatting with fans—in fact, most teams require it—but more often than not, they’re happy to, and many fans become like family, cooking the players meals or donating household items. And when you have that access to players, you experience their wins and losses a lot more intensely.
That access is creating fans for life among border kids. Through their nonprofit foundation, the Bees have just received a grant from the NHL’s ASSIST program (Assists Skaters and Shooters Intent on Succeeding Together goes the tortured acronym), which will contribute thousands of dollars toward the kids’ equipment, ice time, and officials. The city of McAllen also hired Newson to teach kids over the summer. There are already 150 of them out there on the ice learning how to play. “It definitely means something to see minorities participating in hockey,” says Newson, who is black. “These kids have an opportunity to play and be good at it and add another element to the sport. They no longer see hockey as a sport they can’t afford or a sport that’s not for them. They treat us like kings here, so it’s good to give back.”
Sports are supposed to bring people together, even if it’s just to stick your tongue out at a rival city. But the sense of ownership we get from sports, that a team belongs to us, that a team is part of the community, has become diminished. High salaries and player movement leave fans feeling like the players aren’t really theirs, plus you never know if the team is going to leave town in the middle of the night or demand a brand-new stadium. And in the age of the Internet and ESPN, a kid growing up in Houston may like Derek Jeter or Albert Pujols more than a Killer Bee, while a disturbing number of grown-up fans now show greater loyalty to whoever’s on their fantasy team.
Not so, if you’re Odessa, with the Jackalopes; or Laredo, with the Bucks; or the Rio Grande Valley, with the Killer Bees. These teams belong to the community—everybody in the community. You can’t even say that about high school football. “With football, you’re either for one team or the other,” says 29-year-old Bees fan Abel Riojas. “Here, people from all over the Valley can cheer for one team.” Of course, hockey will never be football, but in these smaller cities, in a state where ice will rarely naturally occur, it’s not just the only game in town but what all games should be.
And there’s no chance of a lockout.