From Rhinos to Bulls

by Manny Brizuela

“Don’t ever remember this feeling again…”

Those were the words first spoken by then, El Paso Rhinos Captain Garret Poland, to his rookie teammate Chris Wilhite, in 2011, after losing in the USA Hockey National Championship.

Little did Poland know those words would help shape the mentality and culture that the Pueblo Bulls are hoping to establish eight years later.     

“We lost in the national championship against Helena,” Chris said. “One thing that stuck with me, and I’ll never forget this, it was his [Poland] last year when we lost at nationals but he looked at me on the ice and told me, ‘don’t ever remember this feeling again.’”

For Chris and the Rhinos, it was important not to dwell on the setback in order to look ahead and figure out how to be successful all over again.  But to understand how David Nelson and the Wilhites intend to mold the culture behind Pueblo Bulls Hockey, we need to understand what sort of hockey culture cultivated them.

(Photo via Pueblo Bulls)

Two brothers in Chris and Marc Wilhite, David Nelson and Tyler Tuneberg spearhead the Bulls initiative with the support of team owners, Jerry and Lorie Wilhite. Chris is the Head Coach, Marc is assistant coach, David is assistant coach/GM and Tyler is assistant coach/assistant GM. Chris, Marc and David have three Thorne Cups under their belt with each taking home a ring. And they were all won with Corey Herman’s El Paso Rhinos.  

The Wilhite connection to the WSHL stems as far back as the 2004-2005 season when Marc was playing for the Valencia Vipers (Now Flyers).

“It was definitely more rough and tumble but it wasn’t like Slapshot where it was so gongshow,” Marc said. “There was still pretty good players and players going to college. The Phoenix Polar Bears were a league powerhouse at the time.”

Marc’s introduction to the Polar Bears was sweeter than most as the Vipers handed the Polar Bears an unprecedented Showcase loss. Showcase was held over pre-season during those years and the Polar Bears weren’t regulars in the loss column.  Despite only seeing one shift, Marc skated on that ice and for the length of that shift, had the better of a legendary Polar Bears team. 

(Photo of Marc Wilhite taken by Oscar Yanez)

Marc made the move to play AAA hockey after the Vipers but then returned to the WSHL to play for the Rhinos. He landed on a Rhinos team that blended physicality and skill to a puck possession game, essentially a hybrid of what he experienced with the Vipers and then after playing AAA.

“The first year I was down in El Paso (06-07), it was their first year as a team,” Marc said. “They did a pretty good job recruiting and we ended up with some top guys coming out of AAA. We only lost maybe five or six games that year.”

Perhaps too humble to admit it himself, Marc was one of those top guys coming back to the Dub with 21G-40A-61Pts in 56 games in the NAPHL. His first year with the Rhinos he was able to tally 43G-65A-108Pts.

It was smooth sailing until the Rhinos had to meet the same Phoenix team Marc had beat with the Vipers—only this time in the finals.

“We got beat pretty bad,” Marc said.

The next year was absolute domination for the Rhinos. They went 48-1-2 (W-L-OTL) and clinched the Thorne Cup Title in their second season as a team. The Rhinos and the Polar Bears would trade Thorne Cup blows in the years to come. The Boulder Bison had a run before the Steelhead era emerged.  

Marc’s team set the culture from year one. The Rhinos found their identity and remained loyal to it like brand guidelines. It’s not uncommon for him, Chris and David to revel in a little friendly banter as to whose team had the better run. 

“For me it was a little different,” Chris said. “I started when I was 16 so I was there for four years. My first year was actually the last year of the league being with USA Hockey.”

(Photo of Chris Wilhite taken by Oscar Yanez)

Chris entered the league in a transitional period that posed serious implications for some. Certain teams like the Polar Bears disagreed with the move so they bowed out and left a void to be filled. Nothing would fill that void but questions, at first, about how the level of play will be affected.

“It really doesn’t matter if it’s USA Hockey or AAU,” Chris said. When they switched over and got to expand a little more it brought better players and brought the caliber of the league higher throughout the United States and even throughout the world. When we were with USA Hockey we didn’t have nearly as many European players.”

The Rhinos team that Chris and David dressed for would eventually fill the void left by the vacancy of a top team. Enduring a finals loss, the start of Chris’s WSHL career was similar to Marc’s.

While Chris was gearing up to return for the Rhinos, David Nelson was looking to make the trek from the iron range for his first year. A native of Warroad, Minnesota, David played two years for Warroad High School in the ever-popular Minnesota High School Hockey League. Ironically, he was also making the move from a USA Hockey sanctioned league to an AAU sanctioned league.

Chris and David couldn’t be more on the same page today than they were during the 2011-2012 season when they both tallied the same amount of points. Chris registered 9G-24A-33Pts as a defender and David had 17G-16A-33Pts as a winger.

(Photo of David Nelson taken by Oscar Yanez)

“My first year in 11-12, we were a younger team,” David said. “We had the opportunity to host the Thorne Cup and got there by winning the division championship. We were a little under the radar coming in and fell short of our goal. Going into year two, we had our three year captain come back and a handful of first year guys that are coming back for their second year that understand the culture and grind and what it takes to get to the next level and perform on the bigger stage.”

The two would withstand an Idaho Jr. Steelhead three peat before they got their moment of glory. But the moment of glory persisted for an entire season, when in 13-14, the Rhinos boasted another dominant regular season going 44-2-0, pushed through the division finals, won the Thorne Cup, and the UHU National Championship.

“The biggest thing for us in that year was that we were a very high skill team that was able to beat teams with just our talent.” said David.

But that may not have been what kept the team glued for so long that year.

Staying the course for an entire season comes with its challenges especially if dealing with a tragedy. Chris, David, and the entire Rhinos organization had to deal with the tragic loss of long time Rhinos friend, Murray Bates.

“Not many knew this, but Murray Bates was one of the biggest pieces of the El Paso Rhinos organization,” Chris said. “Murr was around from the start when my brother, Marc, was playing for the team. He was a former Montreal Canadian and was mentor to us all, on and off the ice. He was an assistant coach and towards the later years, became one of the broadcasters for the games. I would also say he was an advisor to the whole organization but he meant the world to the players, to the staff and anyone else who was close to the organization.”

“With a tragedy like that, of losing a good mentor to us players and to the El Paso Rhinos, I think everybody understood it’s not about the individual aspect. It had a big effect on everybody that was involved with the Rhinos,” David said. “I remember Cory came in the locker room and said when we get back from Christmas nothing can be the same if we want to win a championship.”

The hard-nosed, in your face style of play continued to be a staple of Rhino’s Hockey. Chris and David were able to bolster themselves on the experiences that Marc and his teammates went through on their way to a championship.

(Photo taken by Oscar Yanez)

Arguably the biggest part of a winning mentality and establishing a culture that buys into it, is bouncing back from a loss. You can’t get up if you don’t fall down. 

“’…Don’t ever remember this feeling again.’ It kind of just stuck with me,” Chris said. “Every year we obviously wanted to get back to Thorne Cup. My final year (13/14), Garret Poland was our assistant coach and when we got to playoffs he reminded me again, not to remember that feeling from the 2011 nationals. Once we won nationals that final year, I gave him a hug and told him he would never have to remember that feeling again.”

Fast forward to the present. Three former WSHLers who were in the league at key moments are at the helm of the Bulls. The trifecta carries with them, one, empathy to relate with players coming into a first year team and how to build from scratch. Two, knowledge of a winning formula backed by a team-first culture, and three, the incredible support of the team’s home city.  

“To say that El Paso didn’t have a big part in what we are trying to do with Pueblo, and kind of the mindset that I have, that would be a lie,” Chris said. “We are going to set a standard and going to expect every athlete that comes in here to be ready to work. It’s not something you can just take for granted, live that junior lifestyle, and roll through the day. You are here for a purpose.” 

So, why Pueblo? And why the Bulls?

“We found Pueblo as a community that would embrace something like a junior program coming to their town. They are a hockey community, but also a hockey community that is up and coming. We not only look at this opportunity to bring a hockey organization but also to grow the game of hockey.”

“We had a few other names in mind, but it was just a matter of embracing ourselves within the community and what they hold,” David said. “As far as finalizing on the Bulls, we just thought that when you look at the face of a bull, it’s just going to attack you, be in your face and it translates to bringing that hard work mentality right from the get go.”  

The Wilhites attended the 2019 Thorne Cup Finals and those are signs of a team already invested in the league. The only thing left is to do that hockey.