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Lone Star Skate Texas, like the rest of the Sun Belt, is experiencing a minor league hockey boom, but for the Odessa Jackalopes the operative word is bust

Feb. 16, 1998
Feb. 16, 1998

Table of Contents
Feb. 16, 1998

Pro Basketball

Lone Star Skate Texas, like the rest of the Sun Belt, is experiencing a minor league hockey boom, but for the Odessa Jackalopes the operative word is bust

Joe Clark, coach of the Odessa Jackalopes, reviews the medical
report on his gypsy gladiators a half hour before a Western
Professional Hockey League (WPHL) road game in Albuquerque
against the New Mexico Scorpions. With a shinbone fractured in
20 places, right wing Joakim Blink, from Upplands Vasby, Sweden,
will not play. Right wing Pat Barton of Burlington, Ont., is
suffering from postconcussion syndrome and will remain out of
the lineup until he can remember his name. With 33 fresh
stitches above his lip, center Craig Stephenson of Big Spring,
Alberta, also will take a pass. "Nasty gash," says the coach.
"He could have his teeth cleaned without opening his mouth."

This is an article from the Feb. 16, 1998 issue Original Layout

Clark, who's standing in the cramped visitors' dressing room at
Tingley Coliseum, then examines the lineup card for the
last-place Jackalopes. Even among those able to play, more than
half are nursing either a stress fracture or a shoulder
separation. The battered tissue around the eyelids of many
players on the roster offers the hues of a Polynesian sunset.

Not that any of the Jackalopes are complaining. Each seems
grateful for the chance to play in the WPHL, with its
$400-a-week wages and 5,000-seat arenas and up to 10-hour bus
rides. What more could a man ask for in life?

Having seen minor league hockey blossom into the Confederacy's
most unlikely growth industry in the early 1990s--who could have
envisioned a Central League franchise called the Macon
Whoopees?--WPHL founder and president Rick Kozuback in 1996
persuaded Canadian investors to support his new league, which
would be made up of 12 teams in Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico.
Thus were born not only the Jackalopes and Scorpions, but also
the Amarillo Rattlers, Austin Ice Bats, Central Texas Stampede
(which plays out of Belton), El Paso Buzzards, Fort Worth
Brahmas, Lake Charles Ice Pirates, Monroe Moccasins, San Angelo
Outlaws, Shreveport Mudbugs and Waco Wizards.

Kozuback's business plan is based on the theory that a novelty
like hockey can be an appealing entertainment alternative in
locales where Bloody T-Shirt Night at Bo's Tavern ranks as the
top spectator draw. Kozuback says that if WPHL franchises watch
their nickels and dimes, they can realize a profit by averaging
3,000 customers per home game. "That's 3,000 paid, not counting
the freebies," he stresses, "and so far only two of our 12 teams
[Fort Worth and Waco] aren't meeting financial expectations.
Some franchises--Austin, Lake Charles and San Angelo--are
thriving, and next season we're expanding into Corpus Christi,
Little Rock and possibly the Rio Grande Valley."

WPHL teams hold down overhead in part by paying their players
Burger King wages. "But these guys are enjoying life to a
greater extent than the players in the NHL," says New Mexico
coach Garry Unger. Yes, that Garry Unger, who played 16 seasons
in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and
St. Louis Blues, among other teams. "I can confirm that major
league salaries bring major league headaches."

He adds that few players in the WPHL will ever be able to
dispute that, because the NHL prospects of most of these players
are nil. "There are guys here with certain NHL skills, but not
the complete package," Unger says. "But they're realistic, and
their objective is the I [International Hockey League] or the A
[American Hockey League], not the N."

A half hour later Unger's Scorpions, the second-best team in the
WPHL, skate out and begin demolishing the Jackalopes, who are
approaching the merciful conclusion of a stretch that has had
them playing 12 games in 17 nights. In Tingley Coliseum, where
the lighting is better suited to a seance than a hockey game and
vertical steel beams obstruct many of the fans' views of both
creases, New Mexico determines the outcome in the first three
minutes with three goals. Backup Michael Tornquist replaces
veteran Billy Pye in the net for Odessa when the score reaches
6-0 early in the second period, but Pye is soon back on the ice
after Tornquist receives a game misconduct for attempting to
fillet a Scorpion's thigh with his goalie stick. In the course
of the game, four fights break out; New Mexico wins them all. In
the final minutes of the 9-0 Scorpions victory, Pye sips from a
plastic water bottle and appears oblivious to the crowd behind
him that is gleefully chanting, "Goal-ie! Goal-ie! You suck! You
suck!" When the debacle concludes, the Jackalopes quickly
shower, dress and pile into two vans for the trip back to the
local Sleep Inn, where they will try to forget about their
dismal performance.

Pye has seen more glorious days. In 1991 he watched in gratified
exhaustion when the red light flashed at the opposite end of the
ice as Northern Michigan, for which he played, won the NCAA
final in a triple overtime classic against Boston University.
That summer Pye signed a contract with the Buffalo Sabres. He
was assigned to Rochester of the AHL and began fine-tuning his
game in anticipation of a trip to the NHL.

His career never took off. Seated in a diner across from the
Sleep Inn several hours after the loss to New Mexico, Pye, 29,
lists the teams he has suited up for in the last seven seasons:
"Let's see, there's the Rochester Americans, the Fort Wayne
Comets, the Columbus Chill, the New Haven, uh, somethings--the
Falcons, I think--the South Carolina Sting Rays, the Waco
Wizards and the Odessa Jackalopes."

The goalie shakes his head. "Jackalopes," he says. "That really
cracks my parents up." Pye, who grew up in Plymouth, Mich., says
his folks refuse to believe that a giant rabbit that has antlers
and tastes like lobster roams the Texas high plains.

Pye accepts the fact that his career has literally gone south
but struggles to understand how that happened. "Why I am not
playing for the Buffalo Sabres instead of here, I really can't
explain," he says. "But after a game like tonight's, I do
sometimes wonder how certain NHL goalies would have made out
against some of the shots I saw tonight, in the kind of lighting
that this Albuquerque building provides."

Most of the Jackalopes, afforded the rare postgame luxury of a
night of bed rest instead of a bus ride, bypass the next
morning's free Continental breakfast in the motel lobby. Just
two players partake, one being a near cinch candidate for
elevation to the I. Left wing Sami Laine, age 27 and by his
account bored with Finnish hockey, came to the WPHL this season
and quickly earned the Jackalopes a mention on the wire
services. In December, against Waco, Laine became the first
player to score five goals in one period of a pro game. Says
Laine, "After the third goal the coach said, 'Sami! You stay!
Stay on the ice!' Bang. Two more. It was like a dream."

Laine received a congratulatory call from his friend and
countryman Teemu Selanne, the All-Star winger of the NHL's
Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and the news of his feat raced through
the WPHL. Ever since, backchecking forwards and cross-checking
defensemen have been attracted to Laine like lawyers to an oil
spill.

Laine's companion at breakfast is his on-ice bodyguard, Greg
Bailey, who's 6'4", 215 pounds and tougher than a bus-station
steak. Though he imagines himself in the NHL someday, Bailey
fits Unger's description of the typical WPHL player: limited in
his skills and unlikely to ever reach hockey's highest level. "I
don't need to read the scouting reports," says the 24-year-old
Bailey. "I know that I lack the offensive game. And I need to
make quicker decisions. But you can't lose the dream."

He grew up in Port Stanley (pop. 1,500), Ont. "I've got two
brothers," says Bailey. "One of them, who's now 34, was a better
hockey player than me. He went to play Junior A, missed his
girlfriend and went back home. He married the girl, at least.
They have two kids, and he's got a good job working as a lineman
for Ontario Hydro. So you could say he's lived happily ever
after, except that every day of his life he kicks himself in the
ass wondering how far his hockey career might have taken him if
he'd stayed with it."

Bailey met his wife, Angie, while playing in Huntington, W.Va.,
where she was a cheerleader at Marshall. "When she came out to
the flatlands of Odessa from the beautiful countryside of West
Virginia, well, that was an eye-opener," says Bailey. "Everybody
walking around in their Wrangler jeans, driving their pickups
with the dog hanging out the window. You think you've moved into
the middle of a country and western song. But that's the beauty
of this experience. We'll be 35 before you know it, have those
two kids and be living who-knows-where, and talking about Odessa
and the other places we've lived."

Bailey can add another bizarre place to that list. A couple of
weeks later he is traded to Lake Charles.

An outsider might wonder if settlers of the Odessa area struck a
deal with the devil that provided underground riches (Ector
County has produced two billion barrels of oil since 1926) in
exchange for the utterly bleak landscape. Because of the local
obsession with high school football, Odessa's Permian High team
became the subject of a 1990 book, Friday Night Lights, but much
of the populace took umbrage at author H.G. Bissinger's
description of a town dominated by bourbon-swilling,
race-baiting, sociopathic gun worshippers. The chamber of
commerce prefers the portrayal of Odessa offered in Everybody's
Baby, a made-for-TV movie that depicts a city united in its
heroically successful effort to rescue Baby Jessica from a well
in 1987.

The Jackalopes players enjoy their adopted hometown. They and
the oil-patch roughnecks view each other cordially--though as
cultural oddities. "They think we talk funny," says center Don
Margettie, who's from Niagara Falls, Ont. Margettie and his
teammates do their best to maintain a positive image in the
community. "The people in Odessa are gracious and genuine," he
says. "We realize that if any of us gets loaded and makes a fool
of himself in some beer joint, word of that will spread around
town before you know it and wipe out a lot of goodwill."

Odessans remain slightly less hockey-savvy than, say, the fans
who attend games at Molson Centre in Montreal. "When it was
confirmed that hockey was coming here," says Noel Martinez, who
works in the Coliseum ticket office, "we got calls from people
wanting seats on the 40-yard line."

John Erfort, who covers the Jackalopes for the Odessa American,
says, "On opening night the arena was sold out and everyone just
sat there, pretty much in silence, except when the Jacks would
put the puck in the net. Then they knew it was time to cheer.
Still, that was better than opening night last year in Amarillo.
After the second period everybody got up and left."

Tonight's opponent is El Paso, the league champion, and some
4,200 fans turn out for the game at the Ector County Coliseum.
The match is tied 4-4 at the start of the third period before
Pye uncharacteristically lets in two soft goals from the blue
line in the period's opening minute. The game disintegrates into
a brawl. Odessa loses 9-4.

While the players pile their equipment, their dinner (nine large
pizzas) and themselves into the bus for a 4 1/2-hour run through
a sleet storm up to Amarillo, Clark, who spent the previous
eight seasons coaching in Scandinavia, is taking a
shape-up-or-ship-out phone call from the Odessa owner. On the
way out of town, the bus, which has four TVs with VCRs, stops so
one of the players can go into a Blockbuster and rent Con Air.

Highway 395 cuts across territory so barren, so absolutely
horizontal that the lights of towns that lie as far as 15 miles
ahead--Andrews, Seminole, Brownsboro--cast an otherworldly glow
across the sky. As the movie and card games conclude, the
players fashion beds out of bus seats, four across, with their
legs spanning the aisles. To reach the bathroom in the back, the
boys on the bus must crawl atop the seats in a Spiderman crouch.
Here, at 3 a.m., in an ice storm between Tulia and Happy, we
encounter the reality that is minor league hockey.

Twenty-six-year-old defenseman Matt McCoy, his handsome Irish
face marred slightly by an indentation beneath his right cheek
bone that is approximately the width of a puck, remains awake.
The way he explains it, there will be two significant days in
his life. One will be the day he leaves hockey, the other will
be the day his obituary appears, and McCoy has no more idea
where he's going after the former than after the latter. He
talks about last season, when he tried to quit the sport:

"I'd played three years in Europe, didn't get the raise I wanted
and said, To hell with it. I'm through. Hockey screwed me, so
I'm going to screw hockey. Which was ridiculous. You don't screw
hockey.

"But I went home to Vancouver, put my marketing degree to work,
took a job and was miserable. I started pacing. Finally my girl
practically had to beg me to leave town and go back to hockey.
And I did. This is what I do, and this is what I love. When I'm
playing hockey, I'm me. I'm Matt. That's when I feel like a
whole person."

In the coffee shop of the hotel in Amarillo, Pye, now
shell-shocked enough to earn a slap from General Patton, tells
Clark he has to beg off tonight's game. So the Jacks will play
Tornquist and his pro record of 0-6-1.

An additional hardship: Three Jackalopes are serving automatic
suspensions after their participation in the Friday Night Fights
against El Paso. Clark will dress only 11 skaters, seven under
the limit--including 33-year-old assistant coach Jeff Triano,
who broke his right big toe in two places when pressed into
service a few days earlier--and two goaltenders against the
Rattlers. "We'll have to play conservatively, play a 1-2-2 trap
and try to save our legs," Clark says with a shrug.

As the bus pulls into a tunnel leading into the Amarillo Civic
Center, the driver is informed he must park elsewhere. "We've
got to back out," the driver mutters. "They're staging some kind
of animal show in there."

The animal show turns out to be the city's annual Nativity
pageant, being held in the auditorium adjacent to the hockey
arena. The cast includes donkeys, lambs and llamas. To reach
their dressing room, the Jackalopes must file through the town
of Bethlehem, complete with Roman soldiers.

Before the game, as the Virgin Mother, Joseph and a trio of wise
men look on with expressions of profound dismay, trainer Greg
Andis tapes the knee of a player who is standing in a passageway
with his hockey pants pulled down, revealing a protective
apparatus he has hand-labeled MISTER CUPPY. A little while later
in the locker room, the Jackalopes make a vow: They will not
lose tonight.

In a scene out of Hoosiers, about 100 Odessa fans who have
traveled 250 miles through the winter storm sit behind the
visitors' bench to cheer for their team. Their loyalty is
rewarded. With nine minutes left, Laine ties the game at 3-3 on
a 12-foot shot from a bad angle that finds the upper left
corner. The Jackalopes avert a crisis in the final minutes as
Tornquist, playing the game of his life, makes a glove save
while performing a one-and-a-half backward somersault with a
twist, enabling the Jacks to kill a five-on-three penalty and
push the game to overtime.

Odessa's Dan Lavergne, who was playing for Colby College against
teams like Williams and Amherst a year earlier, scores a goal in
the OT shoot-out. So does Laine. The Jackalopes win for the
first time in six games, 4-3. In the dressing room Triano, who
has played about 25 minutes with the broken toe, presses his
face against the wall, sobbing in agony, while Andis cuts off
the skate and exposes a foot that is grotesquely swollen and
black.

"You won't walk for a month," says an onlooker.

"I'll play Tuesday night," says Triano.

An hour later, Triano and the Jackalopes board the bus again.
They ride off into the darkness, toward a vague light in the sky
that glimmers just beyond the Panhandle horizon.

B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTONIN KRATOCHVIL GLASS MENAGERIE It's hard to say who's wilder and woollier, the Jackalope or the team. [Odessa Jackalope mascot watching hockey game]B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTONIN KRATOCHVIL HOT TIME For $400 a week, players such as Rick Girhiny get fired up to customize their sticks and keep their hockey dreams alive. [Rick Girhiny applying blowtorch flame to hockey stick]B/W PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO A LITTLE SHORT Most players in the WPHL, like Jackalope Ryan Equale (21), are limited. Reaching the big time will be a stretch for them. [Ryan Equale in game]B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTONIN KRATOCHVIL THREE CHEERS After a rare victory, the Jackalopes and a new fan celebrate in their home away from home--the team bus.
When it was confirmed that hockey was coming, people called for
tickets on the 40-yard line.
"We've got to back out," said the driver. "They're staging some
sort of animal show there."