"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 Greg Rajan
reprinted from the Temple Daily Telegram, 12/06/01

'Zamboni Rodeo' a fun trip back to the ice age

Hockey in Texas. It's been a fascinating subject over the years, inspiring passion among both its devotees and detractors. Having covered the late, sometimes great, but never dull, Western Professional Hockey League for two years, Lone Star hockey is something near and dear to this scribe.

Apparently, Austin writer Jason Cohen feels the same way His recently published "Zamboni Rodeo: Chasing Hockey Dreams from Austin to Albuquerque" chronicles a season with the Austin Ice Bats.

Cohen's covered the Bats, a charter WPHL member and now part of the new Central Hockey League, since their inaugural 1996-97 season. He was given exclusive access to the team for the 1997-98 season and his final product provides a spellbinding look at the world of minor league hockey.

For fans of the gone, but not forgotten, Central Texas Stampede, there are some great anecdotes about the fierce Austin-Central Texas rivalry. As Archie and Edith once said, those were the days. The names in "Zamboni Rodeo," like Seguin, Haviland, Ross and Anderson, will be familiar to Bell County fans. But there's room for guys named Mailhot and Zurba, with a priceless story about the latter's postgame celebration after a Central Texas victory over Austin.

"I actually think Stampede fans will enjoy this book more than fans in any other WPHL city, just because it was such a great rivalry and they probably visited the Austin rink quite a bit during those years," Cohen said. "The truth is, I'm in trouble if anyone, including the Bats fans, only care about the book because it's about a particular Austin team. It's meant to be a universal story of the unique way of life minor league hockey players have in Texas."

Cohen, a Philadelphia native and life-long Flyers fan (we won't hold that against him), said he found something fascinating about Canadian and northern guys coming to the Southwest to play hockey in the low minor leagues.

"I was struck by the novelty and energy of hockey in Texas," Cohen said. "Mostly, I was blown away that there were almost 100 teams all over America doing the same sort of thing in relative obscurity. It struck me as a story that had never been told. "I found it both compelling and insane that these guys would come so far to play the game they love with so little chance of advancement."

"Zamboni Rodeo" takes the reader to places that unfor-tunately a newspaper can't. Like when the team bus breaks down in the middle of the night outside Ellinger or lunch at one of San Angelo's finest Italian restaurants.

There's also the night Cohen spent watching a game from the Austin bench. And you can find out what a player really thinks when he gets traded.

Ah, the players. Minor league hockey is driven, more than anything, by the players. The amount of affection and loyalty hockey fans have toward their favorite players is amazing. In what other sport can you find fans from Bell County, Texas, wearing the sweater of a player from Revelstoke, British Columbia?

The players are definitely the epicenter of Cohen's book, as they should be, and it's hard not to take sides as you get to know various Ice Bats over the course of the season.

So what did the author think of his subjects after spending a season with them?

"I don't know if I thought of anyone differently, other than to have a better idea of how many indignities they suffer just to be able to play, and what a wide range of characters go into a team," Cohen said. "I think when I went into it, I thought the story would be happier than it was, because of the 'love of the game' thing, but I soon found out that the politics, greed, in-fighting and strained relations with the owners made minor league hockey no different from the majors.

"And nobody learned that (lesson) harder than the fans in Bell County and Waco."

For fans of the Stampede, a month from today will mark the one-year anniversary of the team's final game.

While it's impossible to bring the Stampede back, the memories of the glory days of the WPHL are well-chronicled in "Zamboni Rodeo." It's a rollicking slap shot through Southwestern hockey's and a must-read for those that enjoyed Bell County's first "ice age." For more information on the book, visit its Web site at www.zambonirodeo.com.

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