"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 DAVE SHELLES
Reprinted from the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal


Jason Cohen has seen it all in the sport of hockey. And he never had to leave the Austin Ice Bats organization.

The Austin-based freelance writer spent the 1997-98 season behind the scenes with the Ice Bats and watched, among other things: A rookie goaltender work under the hood of the stalled team bus; A game be called by fog; A team go through two coaches and two captains.

"I think probably more teams than not have a circus atmosphere," Cohen said. "It was extraordinary for an ownership group to have six coaches in three years (as the Ice Bats did). It seems weird stuff happens no matter what."

Cohen's chronicle became a book called _Zamboni Rodeo; a season in the life of a minor professional hockey team_. However, don't try looking for this work in your local book store; it's only being published in Canada by Greystone.

Because of that, Cohen has been barnstorming through the league with the Ice Bats selling his book. Cohen and the Ice Bats visit Municipal Coliseum today for a 7:05 p.m. faceoff.

The book has been well-received, Cohen said, in spite of slow sales numbers. Those numbers are no doubt affected by the lack of availability in the U.S. though Cohen said he has more promotional plans in store.

"I haven't really been pushing it because it's not available in the States," he said. "I've got some things planned with the Ice Bats' organization; we'll have a Zamboni Rodeo Night in December."

Cohen grew up in Philadelphia cheering for the Flyers (he was born the same year the Flyers started play — 1967). However, he didn't know about the low-level minor leagues like the Western Professional and Central Hockey Leagues until he moved to Austin in the early 1990s. An article he wrote for Texas Monthly in 1997 about the Ice Bats and the Western Professional Hockey League made him realize there was more to professional hockey in Texas than what he could express in a single magazine article. Plus, the idea of spending a season with a team with the goal of writing a book is tried and true - witness John Feinstein's "A Season on the Brink," a chronicle of Bob Knight's 1985-86 Indiana basketball team.

The concept of a year in the life of a team is not original," Cohen said. "There's a lot of books out there.

"I grew up in a hockey town but I was pretty ignorant about minor league hockey. So when I went to Texas ... hearing these guys talk about their lives, I didn't know (such leagues) existed. I didn't know that when you played college or juniors and finished up, there was someplace else to go. I thought (since) I didn't know about it, no one else does."

He was granted complete access to the Ice Bats, including team meetings, bus trips and a night in the penalty box. In fact, Cohen said ownership and players alike welcomed the scrutiny, a departure from the scant coverage the sport receives in the States. "They were comfortable," he said. "Nobody's tried to beat me up since the book came out. They're accustomed to scraping for coverage, as opposed to having it lavished upon them."

Unlike a novel, however, this story doesn't have a happy ending. The Ice Bats didn't win the league championship; rather, they were bounced from the WPHL playoffs in the first round by the Fort Worth Brahmas — under the direction of current Cotton Kings boss Bill McDonald. Coach Jim Burton started the season, but Paul Lawless finished the season. As with any journey however, getting there was more than half the fun.

"You read the opening chapter (with goalie Brian Fairfield trying to fix the bus), it's a dream come true for an author," Cohen said. "The (general manager) said to me, 'You're probably the only person happy about this.' I was literally introducing myself to them at 4:30 in the morning.

"I figured it wouldn't matter how the season ended," Cohen added. "It was still a good story."


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