Mascot tour makes stops around El Paso
The Dallas Stars, Arizona Coyotes and El Paso Rhinos mascots began their day visiting children at Reynolds Home, a homeless shelter for women and their children.
Since 1990, the Reynolds Home has aimed not to just provide temporary living shelter, but to help families transition into their own homes.
“When we get a woman that is homeless, we help her get back on her feet by helping her get a job, helping her keep that job and helping her kids get back into school or day care,” said Starlynn Lucero-Ortiz, volunteer coordinator at Reynolds Home. “And when they are ready, financially ready, we look for an apartment so they can move into their own home. … and then when they leave, we help them for up to a year as well.”
On Saturday, the children got to meet Victor. E. Green (Stars), Howler (Coyotes) and Spike (Rhinos) and play with them. The mascots went on a jungle gym with the children, played catch and chased them around.
“I love these kids,” Lucero-Ortiz said. “Sometimes it’s hard to deal with the adult women but knowing that these little kids deserve everything that they can get is just gratifying. Just seeing them smile, especially in the times we are just getting over, it’s pretty neat.[The kids] missed out on a whole year of events, birthday parties for example. So this is pretty exciting for them.”
El Paso Electric was at Reynolds Home and prepared breakfast for the families.
“We help with donations,” Lucero-Ortiz said. “When the moms get here, they are not expected to pay any kind of rent. They live here for free as long as they’re filling their obligation of looking for a job, working, having their kids in school and meeting their weekly goals.”
Learn to Play clinics a success
Two Learn to Play clinics were held at the El Paso County Events Center for kids just learning to play hockey or who wanted to learn to skate and play. One session was for 6-10-year-olds and another was for 11-16-year-olds.
Each session included about 40 kids who received on-ice instruction from former NHL players including Shane Doan, Dave Scatchard, Vernon Fiddler and Al Montoya.
“What Kraft has allowed us to do (in this community) is becoming mainstream and we are ready for hockey,” said Montoya, a former goalie and the Stars’ director of community outreach.
“Coming down here, the Latino community has voted for Hockeyville and won Hockeyville, it’s one of the happier days for me.”
Montoya began his NHL career with the Phoenix Coyotes in 2008-09 and was the first Cuban-American player in the NHL.
“I grew up, I was raised in a house of immigrants, so you didn’t have somebody that looked like you that played the game, and now to come back … these kids are getting that opportunity.”
The Stars, who run numerous clinics and outreach programs throughout the state of Texas, said winning Hockeyville was just a matter of time.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Dwight Mullins, director of hockey development for the Stars. ” We’ve had a great relationship as the Dallas Stars have been very supportive to the El paso youth hockey community. It’s such a thriving little community. For our sport to have a little niche and a little pocket in this area of the country, they have done such a great job. We really embrace them through the Learn to Play and other donations and different things we can do to support the hockey community.”
Rhinos, mascots visit El Paso Children’s Hospital
After visiting the Reynolds Home earlier in the morning, and the Learn to Play clinics in the afternoon, the Stars, Coyotes and Rhinos mascots went to El Paso Children’s Hospital.
Though the mascots couldn’t enter any of the children’s rooms because of health protocols, they stood by the doors and windows and waved and danced.
“Just seeing the kids light up and so many of the little ones experiencing these mascots for the first time, and you value that time they can come in and spend,” said Meghan Kamau, childlife coordinator for the hospital. “It’s huge for those families because they don’t get to do it out in the regular world right now.”
The mascots went on several floors of the hospital, visiting cancer patients, chronic patients and trauma patients.
“They were really good with the kids,” Kamau said. “They did different poses and dances and interacted with the patients really well, so they were really great. Some of the patients did [come out of their rooms] because they were really interested. As long as they weren’t isolated and we can try to keep some semblance of social distancing and masks, we allow it.”
In addition to the mascots, several junior players from the Rhinos interacted with the children.
“I know so many people that are die-hard hockey fans, they love the Rhinos,” Kamau said. “So I think [Kraft Hockeyville USA] is really important because it does bring a different activity to El Paso. We are in the desert, but we have an ice game. I think it’s a great opportunity.”
Hockeyville special for Fiddler
Fiddler was among a handful of former NHL players who took part in Learn to Play clinics on Saturday, and the event had a special meaning for him.
Fiddler played 14 seasons as a forward in the NHL, including two for the Coyotes (2009-11) and Stars (2011-16), who will face each other in a preseason game at the Events Center as part of Kraft Hockeyville USA on Sunday (9 p.m. ET; NHL.com).
“When it all aligned together that the Coyotes were going to play the Stars up here, we were super excited,” Fiddler said during a break in the Learn to Play sessions. “I obviously got to play on both teams. Played in Phoenix for two years and then five years in Dallas. I’m trying to get one of those jerseys that you can split it right in half so that I can cheer for both teams. It’s great to see it. These people really deserve to see an NHL game, and I’m sure it’s going to be a big talk of the town.”
Both during and after his career, Fiddler has donated his time and taken part in numerous charitable efforts. In 2014-15, he was the Stars nominee for the King Clancy Trophy, awarded annually to the player or players who best exemplify leadership qualities on and off the ice and have made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in their community.
“With our platform, we have to give back, and it’s just fun to be a part of this and be invited to this,” Fiddler said. “Just to see the community come together and win this, it’s an honor for me to be here at Kraft Hockeyville.
“Coming up to El Paso has been a really fun experience for me so far, I’ve never been here and it’s great to come to a so-called nontraditional hockey market and see what they’ve done with the rink and their junior team. It looks like they’ve got some great tradition here and it’s going to be great to see the Coyotes and Stars play.”
Fiddler was one of nine players in the NHL with Native American roots at the time of his retirement in 2017.
“Hockey is for everybody and that’s the main goal,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you come from or what color you are, it’s all about just being out there on the ice where everybody is equal, and you saw a lot of that today. It was great to see boys and girls and different ethnicities and cultures out there.”
Fiddler said he was hoping there were some future hockey stars on the ice.
“Just the smiles on their faces,” he said. “It brings you back to when you first started (playing hockey). … They just love it, they just love to be on the ice and handling a puck and bringing these junior (Rhinos) guys out here, they have something to strive for and look forward to. And hopefully whether you’re a boy or a girl you’re going to look to play somewhere to represent your town, and they did a great job representing their town this morning.”
Stars announcer excited to call game
Brien Rea has said he’s thrilled that he’ll be behind the microphone for the preseason game between the Dallas Stars and Arizona Coyotes on Sunday as part of Kraft Hockeyville USA.
“As somebody who spent 10 years of his life in the minor leagues, being able to broadcast any type of game with NHL teams is a pretty special moment,” Rea said. “I expect it to be a full crowd, a lively crowd, regardless of who the individual person is rooting for or when a goal is scored or a moment happens.”
Rea, entering his fourth season as a television analyst with the Stars for Bally Sports Southwest, spent four seasons as play-by-play announcer for Texas of the American Hockey League and spent the six seasons prior broadcasting games in the Central Hockey League, so he knows how passionate hockey fans can be in smaller markets.
“I spent three years of my life calling hockey in West Texas,” Rea said. “I’ve lived in parts of the country like that and for a place like El Paso, where, when you’re in that portion of Texas, life is about high school football a lot of times, there is a passionate hockey community that has been in that part of the country for a very long time.”
Rea will be joined on the broadcast by Brent Severyn, who also works for Bally Sports Southwest. Rea said he hasn’t been to the El Paso County Events Center but is eager to see what it has become after looking at pictures and videos of what it looked like before the upgrades were made with the Kraft Hockeyville USA prize money.
“I’ve spent 11 years of my life in Texas and a lot of it was going through these minor league buildings, these coliseums and these events centers that were originally rodeo barns that were converted to hosting hockey,” Rea said. “I’m really excited to see what it does ultimately turn out to be because it really is an important thing to try and modernize some of these old buildings … I’m really just curious to see what does the finished product look like.”
The Stars have been involved in youth hockey clinics and growing the game in the state of Texas, and the Kraft Hockeyville event is the latest example.
“There’s a stronger hockey presence at a lower level that grew [in West Texas] and then I look at the market of Dallas and the 13 or 14 StarCenter community rinks that the team is attached to and all the youth hockey programs that come out of there,” Rea said. “And then that turns into hosting the NHL Draft in 2018, and then hosting the NHL Winter Classic (2020 at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas). … To see that organic growth … that doesn’t happen overnight in the ‘nontraditional’ market.”
From rodeo barn to hockey barn
When former minor league forward Cory Herman wanted to bring hockey back to El Paso in 2005, he had no idea how popular it would become.
Herman played for El Paso of the Western Professional Hockey League before the team folded in 2003. His idea was to grow hockey in a building which had been primarily used for rodeos.
“He is the one that came to me and said,’ Listen, I have an idea, I think we can make [the El Paso County Events Center] into an ice rink and make it work,’ said Brian Kennedy, chairman of the El Paso Sports Commission. “We didn’t ask for any money from the county, we did it ourselves.”
Herman, who owns the El Paso Rhinos junior hockey teams and founded the El Paso Hockey Association, retired as coach after last season. Under his guidance, the Rhinos won a national title, 11 division titles and four Thorne Cup championships as the winner of the Western States Hockey League.
“That’s one of the biggest reasons when we transformed [the building] from an equestrian center…we wanted to bring hockey here, to try to build youth hockey,” Herman said. “The first year, the players had to dress in a circus tent. So there were some challenges.”
Since the Rhinos entered the picture, the Events Center has seen its numbers grow from 500 people a month to more than 10,000.
“This is a perfect example of taking something that had limited use and turning it into something that has a totally different use but is able to expand,” Kennedy said. “We didn’t know that we’d get this kind of community support, but I think that it just comes to prove, if you give them a good product and you give them a fair price, they’ll show up. And people have fallen in love with hockey in El Paso, Texas.”
Kennedy grew up around hockey and played in high school. But that was in Minnesota, which is known for the sport.
“It shows that this is a good model for maybe other places around the country, too,” he said. “For this town, it’s hockey crazy right now and I’m OK right now. I haven’t seen stuff like this since I was up in Minnesota.”
There were plenty of fans in hockey jerseys during the community festivities, but one jersey was more popular than others: the Rhinos.
“You see a Rhinos game here, [the crowd is] unheard of in junior hockey,” said Beau Bagley, president of sports tourism and events at the El Paso Sports Commission. “With the support from Fort Bliss and the (U.S.) Army, this becomes a fantastic venue. I knew once people came here to see this, the NHL, I knew it would go over very well. This is a big deal.”
Rink upgrades worth wait
Though El Paso won the title of Hockeyville USA in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the celebrations to be delayed a year.
That ended up giving the community more time to plan the event and make sure the El Paso County Events Center was upgraded properly.
“It is quite literally a barn and it functions like a barn,” said Tyler Deloach, director of operations for the El Paso Rhinos. “We still have cattle heaters in the back. To make sure that it was equipped to be a hockey rink, we needed to insulate the building, specifically the roof. We had some holes that were insulated as well. That’s what most of the money went to.”
Keeping the ice in usable condition was tough because of the roof problems combined with the El Paso weather.
“We were also able to change our lights from halogen lights to LED, which helps keep the ice maintained better,” Deloach said. “And we put in breezeways to make sure the cool air stays in during those hot El Paso summer months. We completely redid our bathrooms as well. We were really excited about how we were able to use the money.”
Deloach said the number of players participating in youth hockey in El Paso has “skyrocketed, especially since 2010.” Herman, president of the Rhinos and the El Paso Hockey Association, said it could increase even more.
“This was the first year that we were open for programs all summer long,” Herman said. “[Kraft Hockeyville is] just an unbelievable event for our city to have.”
Saturday is expected to be another busy day with two Learn to Play clinics, one for players ages 6-10 and one for those ages 11-16. The clinics will feature former NHL players Shane Doan, Al Montoya, Vernon Fiddler and Bob Bassen.
Stanley Cup arrives at rink
The Stanley Cup arrived in El Paso, and its first stop was the Events Center. The Cup was placed at center ice, where Rhinos players got to admire and take pictures with it.
“Seeing the Cup is a breathtaking experience,” said forward Alex Krause of the Rhinos, who have junior teams in the North American Hockey League and the El Paso Hockey Association. “There’s nothing like it. You only get the opportunity to do that so many times in your life, and it was a really special moment for me to see it and be around it and be part of it, and it’s something I’ll never take for granted and cherish for a long time.”
Hockey long has been a part of El Paso, where the Rhinos were founded in 2006, and winning the title of Kraft Hockeyville USA has only strengthened the community, forward Jordan Zelenak said.
“The community loves the game down here,” Zelenak said. “To have them get the reward of seeing the Cup and everything that the NHL is is unbelievable for them and for everyone that is going to be here for the years after we are here. … It just means so much to this (Rhinos) organization they’ve built over the last 20-30 years to bring [it] to El Paso. Every kid when they’re growing up, they want to win the Stanley Cup, and to be able to see it now in person, it’s a breathtaking experience.”
The Cup was a pleasant surprise for the Oberle family. Heather Oberle’s husband got her into hockey, and he has been deployed in the Army since May. Heather and their three kids got to see the Cup.
“I wish my husband could be here because it was meant for him, but because of him we’re able to do this,” she said.
Son Liam, 12, is a fan of the Colorado Avalanche, who won the Cup in 1996 and 2001. He found the Avalanche players’ names on the trophy.
“It’s a cool experience to be seeing the Stanley Cup,” he said. “To be around it personally. Really cool experience.”
Cup visits Fort Bliss
Following the rink, the Cup made a visit to the Army base at Fort Bliss, the largest military installation in the United States.
“I’m a big hockey fan because of my best friend,” Sgt. Andy Close said. “He got me into it a couple of years ago and [I’m] just loving it ever since.”
Close, who said he didn’t touch the Cup, is a Stars fan whose favorite players are Jamie Benn and Anton Khudobin.
“It’s insane, I can’t stop smiling,” he said. “It’s just such a big piece of history and for it to be in this small town of El Paso, it’s kind of a blessing.”
David Casey, an Army infantryman, said seeing the Cup was special to him because he grew up playing hockey.
“You dream of seeing it, you dream of holding it and touching it,” he said, “and to finally be in the Army and be off of work … we had to see it.”
Casey, an Avalanche fan who grew up in Minnesota and Denver, said he made sure to be at the base as soon as he heard the Cup was going to be there.
“First Stanley Cup, I was 6 years old,” he said of Colorado’s 1996 championship. “My dad got me into hockey. … Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Peter Forsberg were instrumental to me falling in love with hockey.
“[Seeing the Cup] makes me more nervous looking at it and touching it than actually talking to women. Spent years watching other players win it, dreamed of winning it on my own when I was younger, so it’s beautiful.”
The day continued with a community celebration at San Jacinto Plaza in El Paso. In addition to the Stanley Cup, former Coyotes players Doan, Dave Scatchard and Taylor Pyatt signed autographs and took part in a Q&A.
“This is special,” said Doan, who played all 21 of his NHL seasons for the Coyotes/Winnipeg Jets franchise (1995-2017). “You see the junior team guys around here and you see the support that they have, and that’s legit. That’s something that our sport is spreading and it is growing. … For us to have a chance to come over here from Arizona makes it a lot of fun and [to] get a chance to kind of see the hockey community here is special.”
Doan is the Coyotes leader in points (972), goals (402), assists (570) and games played (1,540). He said El Paso reminded him of the community in Arizona after he and the Coyotes relocated from Winnipeg for the 1996-97 season.
“Obviously it wouldn’t be your first thought, that [hockey] is in El Paso, but when you walk in and you’re here for five minutes, you can see that it is,” Doan said.
Scatchard played 11 NHL seasons, including two for the Coyotes (2005-07). He said he was surprised at the turnout at the celebration as well as the amount of people who are hockey fans.
“I think it’s exciting that you could be this far south and have people loving hockey,” he said. “I think it’s amazing and it’s beautiful that our game is going global and it’s everywhere. I think the sport of hockey has never been healthier. I love the initiative of the NHL to come out to these small communities and really bring our best product and let people see it up close and personal. They don’t have to fly to some other city to go watch it. They can go right there in their small town and watch the big boys play.”
The Stars and Coyotes mascots were also in attendance and posed for photos with young and old fans alike. The Rhinos sold Hockeyville merchandise, with the proceeds benefitting their junior program, and a mariachi band entertained the crowd.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for Mexico, also the southwest part of the USA,” said Daniel Cuellar, a Rhinos forward from Mexico. “It will expand doors so everybody can play hockey, in Mexico, in [the] southwest USA, in South America, anywhere you can play this sport. It’s a beautiful sport.”
Community food drive
The community activities began when Kraft Hockeyville USA Cares hosted a food drive for El Pasoans Fighting Hunger.
From Sept. 15-28, the Rhinos collected canned goods and nonperishable food donations, which were dropped off at the Events Center. Kraft Heinz also supplemented the donation to ensure more families in the greater El Paso area have food.
“Giving back to the community is a huge part of being a Rhino, and being able to help in any way is a great reminder that we are a part of a wonderful community that has done so much for our organization,” Zelenak said.
The Rhinos play at the Events Center, which was refurbished with the $150,000 prize money for winning Kraft Hockeyville USA. It went toward expanding the entryways, replacing the lights with energy-efficient LED lighting, renovating the restrooms and replacing the roof.
But Wednesday was more about helping the community than enjoying the updated arena.
“The food drive was a great opportunity for our organization to give back to the community that has been supporting hockey in El Paso since the 1990s,” El Paso forward Alex Krause said. “It was truly a heartwarming experience.”
On Thursday, a community celebration at San Jacinto Plaza will include the Stanley Cup, alumni from the Stars and Coyotes, and a mariachi band.