EL PASO, Texas — The Stanley Cup toured El Paso Thursday as part of the Kraft Hockeyville USA 2020 festivities and one phrase kept coming from fans and onlookers: “I never thought…”
From the El Paso County Events Center — site of a preseason game between the Dallas Stars and Arizona Coyotes on Sunday (9 p.m. ET; NHL.com) — to Fort Bliss Army base to a park downtown, people could hardly believe that the Cup was here and that this city along the U.S.-Mexico border won the title as 2020’s most spirited hockey community in America after amassing the most online votes in the Kraft Hockeyville USA 2020 contest.
“I never thought I would live to see this,” El Paso resident Donna Deloach said, holding back tears after seeing the Cup outside the Events Center. “I’m 82 years old and I never thought I would be able to see this here in person. Hockey has come to visit me.”
The Cup visit and the preseason game, postponed last year due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, are among the prizes El Paso receives for winning Hockeyville USA. The Events Center received $150,000 in rink upgrades and $10,000 in equipment from the NHL Players’ Association Goals & Dreams fund.
The rink upgrades were much needed for a facility that was originally used for rodeos, equestrian events and cattle auctions. The money was used to repair holes in the Event Center’s roof, expand the building’s entryway, install energy-efficient LED lighting and renovate two restrooms.
But some residents, local officials and members of the Stars and Coyotes said the attention that the Hockeyville USA title has brought to this largely Hispanic city along the Rio Grande is just as valuable as the rink makeover.
“I don’t know what’s more exciting, the NHL game or the Stanley Cup,” said Beau Bagley, president of the sports tourism division of the El Paso Sports Commission. “I’ve seen some big sporting events but very rarely does this community get two pro franchises to play a preseason game here, let alone ice hockey in El Paso, Texas. This is unheard of in this area of the desert southwest and people are ecstatic about it.”
Members of the El Paso Rhinos junior teams of the North American Hockey League and North American Tier III Hockey League couldn’t believe that the Stanley Cup was in their converted cow palace.
Peyton Brendel, a goalie on the tier III team, snapped pictures of the Cup even before Phil Pritchard, curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame and the white-gloved “Keeper of the Cup,” could take it out of its traveling case.
“I never thought I’d see this here,” said Brendel, a Flagstaff, Arizona native. “It’s really cool seeing something you never think you’d see. I never thought I’d be in El Paso, Texas, and here I am looking at [the Stanley Cup] a couple of feet away. It’s definitely something to remember.”
Daniel Cuellar, a Rhinos tier III forward from Mexico, couldn’t stop smiling after posing for a team photo with the Cup. He said he expects bigger things to come from the Hockeyville USA title.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for Mexico, also the southwest part of the U.S.A.,” Cuellar said. “It will expand doors so everybody can play hockey, in Mexico, in southwest U.S.A., in South America, anywhere you can play this sport. It’s a beautiful sport.”
Unseasonably cool temperatures and a brief afternoon shower didn’t dampen spirits at a Hockeyville community celebration in downtown’s San Jacinto Plaza. A mariachi band played as fans lined up for photos with the Cup and to meet former Coyotes players Shane Doan, Taylor Pyatt and David Scatchard.
“I’ve been in Arizona for 25 years now so getting to El Paso is something special,” said Doan, a former forward and captain who scored 972 points (402 goals, 570 assists) in 1,540 games with the Coyotes and Winnipeg Jets. “It’s cool. You have the Rhinos here and have some people here creating a little bit of a growing of the fan base here, which is huge. Once you see our sport and get involved in it, it’s addictive.”
Alex Hernandez said he came to the park in adorned in a Detroit Red Wings Henrik Zetterberg jersey because getting a picture with the Stanley Cup “is on my bucket list.”
“And I never thought I’d have the opportunity living in this part of the country,” the 50-year-old El Paso resident said. “When I hear this was happening, I said, ‘It could rain three inches and I’ll be soaking wet to get my picture with that Cup.”
Lia Pina proudly wore Pittsburgh Penguins jersey as she posed with the Cup in the park. The 28-year-old nurse from El Paso said she was impressed by the outpouring of community support that helped the city win the Hockeyville USA title.
“To me, it means that everybody loves hockey,” she said. “Hockey is a universal love. It doesn’t matter what color you are. It makes me really proud to be from El Paso and that hockey is such a big thing here.”