"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!

By Paul Kopasz
LEO
January 2, 2002

I must admit that when I first heard about the premise of "Zamboni Rodeo," I was skeptical that it could amount to much more than a curiosity. At that time, minor-league pro hockey in the South was nearly a phenomenon, though -- teams were springing up everywhere from Florida to Texas and New Mexico and Alabama and Louisiana. Tennessee had a strong team. Kentucky had two teams! (Now both sadly gone.) The Dallas Stars actually captured the Stanley Cup -- the most prestigious honor bestowed by a sport long considered the exclusive domain of slavic Europeans, snow-bound Yankees and wayfaring Canadians. Hockey in Dallas? Hockey in Dallas at the championship level? It was almost mindboggling.

Jason Cohen, a free-lancer for Rolling Stone, TV Guide and Spin, with one other book (a satirical look at pop culture called "Generation Ecch") under his belt, decided that the lower rungs of the game's ladder might hold some good stories. More importantly, he decided that these were stories that had yet to be told. He was able to imagine the relative ignominy of the average twentysomething Canadian farmboy suddenly transplanted to a place like Texas to ply his trade in an undistinguished league that will hopefully (but probably not) one day help him qualify for the NHL. It should go without saying, then, that much of "Zamboni Rodeo" is stingingly poignant.

I do think Cohen is slightly wrong about one thing, though: This story (these stories?) has in fact been told more than once before. This is basically the tale of the lovable loser whose joy in his occupation dwarfs his obvious dissatisfaction with his low level of success. This is the Chaplin "Little Tramp" story or "A League of Their Own" or even "The Bad News Bears," but with much more focus and much, much better prose.

The little tramp of "Zamboni Rodeo" is a man named Jim Burton ("Burty" to his ragtag team). Burton had behind him a somewhat enviable career playing pro hockey when he agreed to helm the ill-fated Austin Ice Bats. Burty is a good coach and a fine, fair administrator; that might be his one fault -- he's too nice. His players love him, management isn't so sure and the coach himself seems largely ambivalent about his less-than-prestigious job posting.

Cohen captures the spirit of the game and the personalities of individual players adroitly. He spent about a season and a half traveling in low style on the rickety tour bus that hauled the Bats from one game to another, often 6- or 8-hour trips between locales as exotic as Shreveport, El Paso and Houston. At times the book fairly reeks of sweat and friction tape.

It all adds up to something approaching an athletic version of "Spinal Tap." But where sports stories like "Major League" or "Slapshot" lean heavily toward low comedy, "Zamboni Rodeo" depends, for much of its impact, on a sort of muted tragedy. Much is made of the players' families (back home in Canada, more often than not), their off-season jobs (farming, maybe working the oil rigs), their difficult economic circumstances (most of these minor-leaguers only earn about $300 a week) and the essential elusiveness of their hockey dreams (goals?).

The only sports books I've read with the emotional scope and power of "Zamboni Rodeo" have been books about boxing -- and this makes sense. Boxing is the only other mainstream sport that demands so much of its competitors and gives back so little in return. Were Cohen so inclined, he could probably establish himself as a Norman Mailer (or Nick Tosches) of hockey -- clearly he loves and understands the game. And until the River Frogs or the ThoroughBlades come hopping or galloping back to these parts, "Zamboni Rodeo" is the best recreation local hockey fans are likely to find.


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