The Dallas Mavericks weren’t the only team to suffer an unthinkable post-season loss this week–the Amarillo Bulls fell short in their quest for the Robertson Cup at the Dr Pepper Arena in Frisco.
The Amarillo who? The what cup?
The Bulls are a junior hockey team in the North American Hockey League, and the Robertson Cup is the NAHL’s six-team post-season tournament, which took place at Frisco’s Dr Pepper Arena from May 3-8.
Amarillo came in as the favorites, having dominated the NAHL regular season, but in the end the Cup was raised by the Texas Tornado, which, in a quirk of the tournament format, only qualified because they hosted, then took advantage of home ice to win its fifth NAHL championship in twelve years.
The Tornado organization pioneered junior hockey in Texas, as well as sports in Frisco, where the Dr Pepper Arena and Star Center (which also serves as the Dallas Stars’ corporate headquarters and practice rink) was followed by Dr Pepper Park (home of baseball’s Frisco Rough Riders, the Rangers’ AA team) and FC Dallas Stadium.
But it was the Bulls that made me drive the four hours from Austin to Frisco. I’ve covered hockey in Texas since 1996, both for TEXAS MONTHLY and my book Zamboni Rodeo, a reporting beat that has taken me to such unlikely locales as Shreveport, Corpus Christi, and Laredo. But the teams, fans and arenas in West Texas were always my favorite, particularly in El Paso, San Angelo, and Amarillo.
Most of the minor league teams from then are gone (including my hometown Austin Ice Bats), but Amarillo, Odessa, and Corpus Christi have since replaced them with NAHL clubs, joining Frisco and Wichita Falls.
Amarillo, surprisingly, has lots of hockey history: a team called the Wranglers played there from 1968 to 1971 and then from 1975 to 1977 (with a name change to the Lone Stars). Then from 1996 to 2010, it had a team in the Western Professional Hockey League (which later became the Central Hockey League): first called the Rattlers, then the Gorillas. (Yup. The “Amarilla” Gorillas.) Texas senator and former Amarillo mayor Kel Seliger has even made hockey part of a campaign ad.
The Gorillas went under in 2010 but were immediately replaced by the Bulls, which relocated from Albert Lea, Minnesota. In its second season, the team drew an average of more than 2,000 fans a night, which in junior hockey, is a solid number.
The 28-team NAHL is an alternate universe that combines the passion and community of high school football with the functionality of junior college, albeit without the actual schooling. It is a transitional level between high school and the NCAA, its players all between the age of seventeen and twenty, still trying to develop their skills to win a college scholarship. The players come from all over the country, though more and more players do hail from Texas, and the presence of the NAHL teams here mean that not as many have to leave the state to keep developing.
Thirteen Bulls players are headed for college next year, a pretty extraordinary number (and one reason why the team was so strong all season). NAHL players aren’t paid (to preserve their NCAA eligibilty), and as with college hockey, there’s no fighting–a notable difference from pro ranks–but the game is fast and physical.
But what hockey at this level is about is fans. Despite their semifinal game being at 3:30 on a Monday afternoon, at least two hundred Bulls fans made the trip from Amarillo, their contingent not only outnumbering their opponent St. Louis, but also matching the Tornado’s home crowd in intensity. Outside of the ticket window, I overheard one family with children acknowledge to another that their kids were missing school. Later, I heard secondhand that somone had announced his intention to be in Frisco with the disclaimer, “I may not have a job when I come back, but I’m going.”
Most native Texans who are hockey fans have the exact same story about becoming a hockey fan. Take Amarillan Travis Babb, who, back when the Rattlers first began, received a fax (!) at work about the team.
“It was eight dollar ticket night, and it was my wife and my oldest daughter at the time, and I said, we can’t go see a movie and dinner for 24 bucks, let’s go see what hockey’s about,” he says. “It’s January in Amarillo, Texas, it’s blowin’ thirty and it’s ten degrees. We didn’t miss a home game after that.”
In fact, Babb estimates he’s only missed three Rattlers, Gorillas or Bulls home games in thirteen years. He’s also puts in around 5,000 road miles, traveling to Odessa, Topeka, Albuquerque, Frisco, and Wichita Falls. Corpus Christi’s still on his bucket list.
Amarillo fans have a reputation around the NAHL for being, shall we say, impassioned. A handful of them bang on the glass incessantly, which is technically against league rules, and led to a controversial incident in Odessa. A hockey blogger pal of mine from Colorado who was at the game immediately decided to root against the Bulls because of the glass-banging, as well as the fact that all the players had dyed-blonde or orange fauxhawks in a show of playoff superstition/solidarity (beards are more traditional, but hey, we’re talking teenagers).
“Amarillo fans have a bad rep,” admits Vickie Genn, a grandmother and self-described “computer geek” who came to Frisco with her ponytailed, mustachioed husband Odell and another couple in their 70s. “We walk the walk, we talk the talk. But we’re nice as we can be [when the game’s over].”
Much like Babb, Vickie checked out a Rattlers game one day at the insistence of a friend and kept on going. She prefers the sport’s high speed and non-stop action to football, where “you run plays, stop. Run a play. Stop. With hockey, there is someting going on on that ice all the time.”
By the time I meet her, she has a blister on her finger from four days of ringing cowbells. And recently, her three-year-old granddaughter was found by her mother in the backyard yelling, “Hey ref, you suck!” (The toddler has since been told that what happens at a hockey game stays beween her and Nana and shouldn’t be confused with appropriate real life behavior.)
People think it’s a little odd that hockey exists in the world of “Friday Night Lights,” but it’s actually the same world–close-knit communities in smallish towns. When you’re a fan of hockey in a place like Amarillo or Odessa, and you cheer for players by their first names, it’s because you really know them, not because the team is “we” vicariously. The kids might live in your house or with a neighbor (the junior hockey practice known as “billeting”), or do a charity promotion at your business, or maybe even date your daughter.
And sometimes the kids actually are yours. Between the second and third period, Vickie Genn stops to talk to a woman standing alone ten rows behind the Amarillo fans. She turns out to be the mother of St. Louis player Joe Kalisz, the NAHL’s most valuable player. “I’ve never been so nervous in my life,” she says.
The Bulls lead St. Louis 2-1 for two periods, but then things go bad, with the Bandits seizing a 3-2 lead they would not give up in the span of just one minute and three seconds. After the third St. Louis goal, Vickie excuses herself and gets up from her seat.
Too disappointed to watch? In need of a consoling cigarette? No, she went back to Kalisz’s mom to congratulate her.
There’s nothing quite so tough in sports fandom as driving six hours to see a loss (except driving six hours home afterwards). But the Amarillo fans’ disappointment gives way immediately to respect and gratitude–as the two teams shake hands, the Bulls fans all congregate at the glass behind the goal, still banging, ringing bells and blowing air horns. Bulls goalie Gregg Gruehl raises his mask above his head in thanks, and then the whole team gestures with their sticks.
An hour later, outside the arena, it really is the same scene that you’ve literally seen the Dillon Panthers have on television, if you haven’t in your own town with the high school football team–everybody gathers in the parking lot, many players visibly teary, each of them receiving a round of applause as they come out of the rink and lug their gear bags back onto the bus before receiving a consoling hug from either their billet families or their actual families.
Travis Babb does not billet a player, but he employs one: Michael Erickson, a Bulls forward bound for Williams college who actually works in Babb’s office, the only player on the team to hold a job (most, having already graduated from high school, concentrate solely on hockey, both on the ice, and with community and promotional work). As such, Babb’s regard for the young player’s work ethic goes beyond what happens on the ice.
“I tell people every day, I’ve got a fourteen-year-old daughter, and if she brought home a kid like Erickson one day, I wouldn’t have a problem with it at all. That’s how much I think of him.”