"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!


October 10, 2002
Action-packed summer
CHL continues to undergo changes following merger with WPHL


By JASON COHEN
Faceoff.com correspondent

One year after combining 10 clubs from the Western Professional Hockey League with a half-dozen of its own, the Central Hockey League remains in flux.

There are four new coaches, in Indianapolis, Corpus Christi, El Paso and New Mexico. Four teams changed owners: President's Cup champs Memphis, plus Amarillo, Bossier-Shreveport and San Angelo. Two clubs took on new identities - the Rattlers have become Gorillas (it rhymes with "Amarilla"), while the Outlaws were transubstantiated into Saints, partly because deposed owner Dick Moore was allegedly taking season ticket orders under the old name (even as he declared bankruptcy and sued the city of San Angelo).

There's expansion in Laredo, involuntary contraction in San Antonio and a brand new NHL-caliber arena, the Ford Center, in Oklahoma City. Blazers icon Joe Burton got some honorary shifts with the Phoenix Coyotes in an exhibition contest, while the entire Austin Ice Bats organization received a call-up, pending the results of a referendum in suburban Cedar Park, the team will be purchased by the Dallas Stars, moved into a cherry rink, and likely transferred to the AHL.

Voters in El Paso are also considering a new building. Commissioner Tom Berry became commisioner Emeritus, the final confirmation of what everyone already knew - though the merger preserved the name of the more historic circuit, the WPHL brass is in charge of operations. And finally, two more teams are slated for 2003 - Hidalgo, Texas (an area known as the Rio Grande Valley) and Fort Collins, Colorado (where the franchise, co-owned by former Montreal Canadien Ralph Backstrom, has already adopted the name Eagles).

Yup, just another off-season in the tranquil world of lower-level minor pro. With training camps under way and a pair of openers Oct. 17 (Memphis at Bossier Shreveport in a semifinal rematch; Laredo at Corpus Christi in the first of many South Texas showdowns), here's a few things to watch out for.

THE SAN ANTONIO EFFECT The Iguanas are no more, forced out of the market by the American Hockey League Rampage (a Florida affiliate co-owned by the San Antonio Spurs), but its players do live on.

Several teams are hoping Iggie refugees will take them up a notch, including Oklahoma City (chippy Jonathan Dubois, playmaker Blair Manning), Amarillo (stud offensive d-man Mark DeSantis, flashy winger Henry Kuster), Odessa (gritty scorer Greg Gatto) and Corpus Christi (goaltender Brent Belecki, youngster Russell Hogue). Iguanas head coach Chris Stewart has moved on to the Eagles, giving him a full year to prepare.

YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN Goaltender Ken Carroll is back with Bossier-Shreveport after one season in the East Coast Hockey League. He posted a 1.89 GAA and .935 save percentage in '00-01, earning WPHL rookie and goaltender of the year honors.

Super-sniper Kyle Reeves (192 goals in three WPHL/CHL seasons) is now a Fort Worth Brahma, after a one-year suspension for confronting an official off the ice.

'99-'00 CHL defenseman of the year Brett Colborne (81 points, 176 penalty minutes) comes to Corpus Christi after a season each in the United Hockey League and Deutschland.

'00-'01 CHL rookie of the year Derek Reynolds has signed on in El Paso, while Derek Landmesser, defenseman of the year that same season for his plus-59 performance with the RiverKings, is once again in Memphis, leaving behind Muskegon of the UHL.

Jamie Thompson, who led El Paso to two championships and became the first WPHL player to earn a big-league contract (with St. Louis, though he never got there) hopes to recreate that magic for San Angelo under former Buzzards teammate Brent Scott. Thompson is coming off an injury-plagued season for Worcester and Providence of the AHL.

Last season with the UHL's now-defunct Asheville, Jeff Petruic was the top scorer in all of North American hockey, with 57 goals and 57 assists. A one-time Alexandria Warthog in the "Wiffle," he'll play for Wichita this year.

ENCORE, ENCORE The Austin Ice Bats return the "STP Fuel Line." Brett Seguin, Gerald Tallaire and Dan Price were three of the top four scorers in the league last year, with Price taking the title.

The guy at No. 2, Most Valuable Player Don Parsons, is back to lead the RiverKings' in their defense of the Cup. Memphis head coach Doug Shedden has won three CHL championships (the first two with Wichita) as well as a UHL crown (with Flint).

"Smokin' Joe" Burton returns for his eleventh season with the Blazers. The league's all-time leading scorer, whose number already hung from the rafters of Myriad Arena, has said this year will be his last.

Regular season champion Odessa returns eight players, including last season's goaltender of the year Mike Gorman and all-star rearguard Scott Hillman. The neutral-zone trap monsters hope to erase the memory of last year's first-round upset by El Paso.

COACHING CAROUSEL Players with NHL experience are nothing new, but Al Sims is the first CHL head coach who also held a top job in the Show. The former San Jose Sharks and IHL Milwaukee Admirals boss is the new man in Corpus Christi, replacing GM Taylor Hall (Hall, the coach from 1998-2001, took the job again last December when Dale Henry got the ax).

Meanwhile, New Mexico GM Pat Dunn adds bench boss to his portfolio, longtime Austin assistant Ken McRae will run things up in Indy and Craig Coxe, who previously coached defunct Huntsville but is best-known for fighting Bob Probert, takes over in El Paso. Elsewhere on the Mexican border, Terry Ruskowski guides the expansion Laredo Bucks.

POSITIVE "DEVELOPMENTS"

No matter what the press releases say, even with a "veteran's rule" (five players per team with 260 games or more experience) the CHL is entertainment first, player-development second. But the post-merger circuit continues to make strides. This fall a few dozen CHL players got a look-see from the AHL - some in training camp, some with two-way arrangements that will continue through the season.

Shedden had the most high-profile prospect last year, when Toronto trusted their former player with goaltender Sebastien Centomo. All he did was become CHL rookie of the year, then the starter in St. John's. The Baby Leafs also got playoff production from forward Robb Pahlahnuk, who spent most of the season in the CHL. This year, Memphis has goaltenders Mike Minard and J.F. Racine and defenseman Vaclav Zavoral to work with.

The Ice Bats, which had a long relationship with Houston during the Aeros' IHL days, will reunite with coach Dave Tippett now that their affiliation is the Stars. Laredo is receiving several players from the Rampage. And the Scorpions are partnered up with Phoenix, which hopes to make Albuquerque a Coyotes market (if the city's football preference is anything to go by, they'll have to win over Avs fans first). No players have been assigned yet, but Phoenix vice-president and general manager Mike Barnett was enthused about the future.

"I would think that over the next few years," Barnett told the Albuquerque Journal, "[the CHL] will take on a whole new meaning in terms of potential pro development at the National Hockey League level."


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