EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — The road to the National Hockey League (NHL) or even the Winter Olympics for a junior hockey player isn’t the path most amateur athletes take. It’s typically a longer, more grueling process, which is playing out in El Paso for Rhinos players in the North American Hockey League (NAHL).
In most sports, the journey to the pros is as follows: little league, high school, college, and professional. However, the majority of junior hockey players in the NAHL are 16 to 20-years old. Most will go on to earn Division I scholarships, sometimes two or even three years after graduating high school.
“I want to go to the NCAA. I want to get a DI scholarship, so that’s what I’m working on right now,” said Rhinos forward Nathan Gagne, who is from Quebec. “I left home at 15 years-old, and I’m 19 now. I haven’t gotten a birthday at home since I was 15.”
The Rhinos’ roster consists of players from all over the world. From Canada, to Great Britain, Lativa and across the United States, 30 players have made their way to El Paso to get their skates in the door, a place where, coincidentally, ice is hard to come by.
“Growing up in Minnesota, all it is is hockey. I always thought I would stay there and play juniors or somewhere in the Midwest,” said Rhinos forward Graham Harris. “I never thought it would be in Texas.”
“I never thought it would take me outside the Midwest area,” said Rhinos forward Jordan Zelenak, who is also a native of Minnesota. “But now that I’m here, it’s actually pretty crazy to see how invested everyone is here in hockey, and how big the hockey community is down here.”
With the majority of their roster consisting of teenagers, the players need a place to live while they are in El Paso. That’s where host families come in, referred to as, “billets.”
“They’re a member of our house, they live and sleep here, and we feed them,” said Bryan Morris, the host family for Harris and Zelenak. “But they’re more than that. They’re part of our family,” said Bryan’s wife Sherri Morris. “I think one of the primary billet responsibilities is to support these players, and make sure they have a great experience in El Paso.”
While the experience is important, the destination is what it’s all about. Last season, the NAHL set a new single-season record with 380+ NCAA commitments, with over 77 percent of those (290) being NCAA Division I commitments. Additionally, 32 percent of all Division I freshman played hockey in the NAHL. Over the course of the last six seasons, 1,500+ NAHL players have made NCAA commitments, and 32 have been drafted into the NHL.
“There’s a lot of players who have played in this league who play in the NHL,” said Rhinos Director of Operations, Cory Herman. “When you come see a game here, you’re seeing the future stars of hockey.”
The ranks of NAHL-pedigreed players in the NHL continues to swell. Included are some the game’s brightest stars like Ottawa Senators netminder Craig Anderson (Chicago), Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop (Texas), Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard (NTDP), Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson (NTDP), Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane (NTDP), Nashville Predators forward David Legwand (Compuware) and Vancouver Canucks forward Ryan Kesler (NTDP). Perhaps the most notable alumni is former Philadelphia Flyer Eric Lindros (Compuware).
“It’s a different journey for everyone,” said Rhinos Head Coach, Anthony Bohn. “I think the biggest thing they need to learn, which our league provides, is how hard you have to work to be successful at a competitive level.”
It’s certainly a path less taken, but El Paso has quickly become one of hockey’s hotbeds in a short period of time. It won’t be long before we start seeing former Rhinos players representing their countries in the Winter Olympics, as well as in the NHL.
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