"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!

Tampa Bay Tribune by Joe Follick

Dreams On Ice

Tampa Bay area residents seem to have it good when it comes to displays of sports. World-class athletes in baseball, football and hockey display skills that are unimaginable to more than 99.9 percent of the world.

But the disconnect at major-league sporting events between the observed and the observers is huge. Average folks can barely afford to attend the events. Once there, the artifice overpowers the athletic as ceaseless promotions and gimmicks drown the actual sport. And, needless to say, the orbits of multimillionaire superstar athletes rarely intersect - in or out of the sporting arenas - with those of the fans who support them. Who we see at Tropicana Field or the Ice Palace aren't real ``men.'' They're composites of media imagery and promotion.

So maybe major-league bereft cities like Austin, Texas, have it better. Jason Cohen's ``Zamboni Rodeo'' makes a compelling case. The freelance author followed the minor-league Austin Ice Bats for one hockey season in the anti-Canada environs of Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico.

Austin fans watch players making as little as $300 per week playing strictly for the love of the game. That sounds trite, but how else to explain men with Ivy League degrees living in Texas to play third-line defense - if they're lucky. Only true love can explain a player leaving a well-paying job in Saskatchewan for six months on a flooded bus bouncing between Shreveport and Albuquerque.

The book's enduring lesson is that sometimes pursuing a craft is its own reward. The players in the Western Professional Hockey League, as it was known, had no illusions of bright lights in the Ice Palace or Olympic gold medals. They played hockey because that's what they've done since before they could remember. Trainer Gunner Garrett spits out R- rated criticism like a cranky Burgess Meredith. Young stars Ryan Pawluk and Tim Findlay have played with each other on the same line since they were in junior hockey in Ontario. Bruce Shoebottom is a grizzled goon who dishes out beatings on the ice while wincing with his arthritic knees.

The book, if anything, is packed with too many characters. By telling us about every player who plays with the Ice Bats before being traded to Waco or Shreveport, Cohen slows down the flow. And Cohen seems unaware of the, dare I say, lovely metaphors the book holds. The Ice Bats and the dozens of other minor-league hockey teams on the continent are made of men who are just working stiffs of the most admirable type. ``Zamboni Rodeo'' is a reminder of what sports at all levels should aspire to be. More important, it's a tale of how rich a spotlight-free life can be for diehard dreamers.


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