"Slap Shot" meets "A Season on the Brink" in this twisted tale of minor league hockey in the place with more pro teams than any place in North America: TEXAS!

Eye Weekly, Toronto
JASON ANDERSON

Playing pro ice hockey in Texas is a peculiar notion. As Zamboni Rodeo illustrates, it's even weirder in practice. For one thing, it's tough to keep the ice cold when it's 90 degrees outside the arena and there's a fog warning inside it. For another, some odd traditions have been added to make the game more appropriate to the location. At one memorable juncture in writer Jason Cohen's season with the Austin Ice Bats of the Western Professional Hockey League (WPHL), a crawfish race provides some entertainment during a lacklustre game with the Shreveport Mudbugs: "Four fans run to center ice," writes Cohen, "scoop up as many live, squirmy crustaceans as they can, then go around some pylons at the blue line. When the competition is over, the little mudbugs are quickly taken off the ice, lest they sneak into Austin's zone and score at will."

An insider's look at the Ice Bats' 1998-99 season, Zamboni Rodeo is a funny, gritty take on minor-league hockey in one of its strangest recent chapters: the Texan hockey boom. Begun in 1996, the WPHL quickly grew to a peak of 18 teams, mostly in Texas and Louisiana (it merged with the CHL last year). The boom ended, but as of June 2001, Texas still had 10 pro minor-league teams and one NHL franchise.

Like the rest of the WPHL teams, the Ice Bats have a roster that's
dominated by Canadian players. Some are too green or too small to be taken up to the show, but talented enough to shine in the minors. Others are mature guys whose stints in more prestigious leagues are long over, but who know that playing hockey is better than a lot of jobs, even if the chances of getting punched in the face are high.

Cohen, a long-time contributor to SPIN and Rolling Stone, delves into their lives and exposes some of the least glamorous sides to pro sport -- the endless bus trips, the punishing physical regimens and the lack of job security. When the Ice Bats' fortunes slide, no one's role is safe from the machinations of manager (and former Maple Leaf) Blaine Stoughton. Zamboni Rodeo is like reading a story in which even the most valiant hero is always in danger of being shipped off into another book in exchange for future considerations.

The large and ever-changing cast of characters sometimes makes the book hard to follow. But Cohen successfully conveys the camaraderie and conflict within the Ice Bats camp, and brings some sense to an often surreal set of circumstances.


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