El Paso Rhinos helping Hispanic families embrace hockey
Games against Mexico's national team spotlight sport's growth in community
Joel and Maria De Los Reyes and their three children arrived two hours early for Sunday's game between the El Paso Rhinos and Mexico's national Under-20 team, sticking to what's become a family ritual.
"We want to make sure we get our spot at the glass behind the goal," Joel De Los Reyes said.
Ramon Tejada brought his usual accoutrements to the game: an air siren, a cowbell a vuvuzela and matratas, noise-making contraptions that he makes out of broken hockey sticks - - all to annoy the opposing team.
"When they're huddled up because they can't hear the coach, I love it," said Tejada, whose season-ticket seats are perched directly above the opposing team's bench. "That means I've done my job."
El Paso, a border city that's nearly 82 percent Hispanic, has embraced hockey, highlighting a growing interest in the sport by people of color.
Rhinos general manager Corey Heon estimates that more than 90 percent of attendees to Rhinos games and 95 percent of the team's youth hockey program are Hispanic.
"When you get a Hispanic family that's never been to a hockey game before, they're all soccer or baseball even, they come and watch this game and absolutely fall in love with it," Rhinos general manager Corey Heon said. "They have no idea what's going on at first, but they fall in love with it just because obviously what's going on on the ice, the quickness of it."
Nearly 4,000 people attended the two games between the Rhinos, a junior team that's won back-to-back Western States Hockey League championships, and Mexico.
El Paso swept the two-game exhibition series with a 15-1 win against Mexico at the El Paso Coliseum Event Center on Sunday. Mark Kurliandchyk scored four goals and teammate Brent Clemmer had three goals for the Rhinos.
The score may have been lopsided, but it didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd.
"Once I heard Mexico was going to be here, if I had to work or whatever, I was going to get the day off no matter what," Tejada said. "The Mexican team, they're trying to grow the sport and, hopefully, with the exposure they get here, it will help get more people involved."
Manny and Carmen Mata, who also regularly attend Rhinos games, have become a hockey family. Their daughter, Olivia, works the lighting at games; their son, Jacob, is a trainer and equipment manager for the Rhinos; and they've taken Rhinos players into their home for the last two seasons.
"I like it because of the attempt to expand the sport," Carmen Mata said. "I started coming with my brother back in 2014. "I was hooked. I said, 'We need to keep going.'"
Tejada said he became a hockey fan eight years ago when he received free tickets to an El Paso game. Now, when he's not bringing the noise at Rhinos games, he's watching his son play in the Junior Rhinos hockey program.
"It's just a great game that's for everyone," Tejada said. "Once I got my seats, those seats are mine. I won't get rid of them, no matter what."
Photos courtesy of Tyler DeLoach/El Paso Rhinos