A year ago, the City of Amarillo and its hockey fans were wondering what was next. Rumors were flying about what was going to happen, but one thing was clear: Change was in the air.
After 13 years, hockey in Amarillo needed a new direction and a facelift, so in stepped the Amarillo Bulls of the North American Hockey League (NAHL).
A big part of the original process beginning the season for the Bulls was educating the public about what the NAHL was all about. The Bulls had to create a totally new identity and introduce people to a different style of play.
“One of our biggest challenges this past summer was educating people on what exactly to expect from our guys and their goals as a hockey player, but once they starting arriving in town, playing games and becoming part of this community, I think the skeptics quickly went away and people started to understand why this level hockey is so unique,” said Bulls president and general manager Chris Laurie.
“We felt once the fans of Amarillo saw the product, they’d be hooked and that’s been the case,” added Gary Gelinas, executive vice president of Amarillo’s ownership group, Consolidated Sports Holdings. “We got a late start in selling so relying on the team’s play and getting our brand put in the community has driven sales.We hired very good people and the results have shown that. The staff has done a great job of executing the plan; the goal was to be in the community and get fans to see the product.”
Case in point was the 2,979 fans that turned out to watch Amarillo’s 7-3 win over Corpus Christi on Friday night. The crowd was the largest to watch a hockey game in Amarillo in almost two years and the Bulls raised over $10,000 for the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
The Bulls expect the crowds to get even bigger as the playoffs near.
“We’re building a solid fan base and exceeding where we thought we would be at this time,” remarked Gelinas. “We have to thank the fans and the community for the support and look forward to many great years building the program.”
“The reaction from the community has been very favorable for us on the ground here in Amarillo,” added Laurie. “The most common feedback I’ve received is that the product is entertaining because of the level of excitement, effort and intensity that our players give on a nightly basis.
“Our fans can expect a 100-percent effort from our players each and every night. Combine that with the fact they’re watching the NHL and NCAA stars of tomorrow, I think they understand why this level hockey is so much fun and addictive to watch.”
Everybody loves a winner, and Laurie is right when he says the fans have responded in large part thanks to the immediate on-ice success of the Bulls this season.
In his first season behind the bench, head coach Dennis Williams has a team that’s contending for a division title in March. The second-place Bulls became just the second team in the NAHL to clinch a playoff spot this season.
“People come out and have a good time because it’s entertaining to watch, win or lose,” said Laurie. “Fortunately, we’ve had some great success on the ice this season, which is a tribute to our coaching staff and our players and has our fans very excited for the playoffs and the future of this team.”
SOUTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
CORPUS CHRISTI ICE RAYS: After a tough outing on Friday night, IceRays goaltender Pheonix Copley redeemed himself on Saturday night in Amarillo as he stopped 45 of 48 shots through overtime and all four Bulls shooters in the shootout as Corpus Christi earned a weekend split on the road against the Amarillo Bulls. Mike Benedict and Beau Walker each had four points on the weekend, while forward Josh Obregon scored in both games as well. The IceRays’ penalty killing shined over the weekend, as they killed off 12 of 13 Bulls power plays. Cody Milligan’s goal in the shootout on Saturday sealed the win for Corpus Christi. With just nine games remaining, the IceRays’ playoff hopes are still alive as they open up a four-game homestand beginning this weekend with two against Amarillo.
NEW MEXICO MUSTANGS: The Mustangs dropped two of three road games last weekend, but managed to pick up two points in a Friday win at Wichita Falls. Goaltender Lukas Hernandez got his first start in Friday night’s 3-2 win and made 38 saves for his first career NAHL win. The next night, Hernandez again got the start, but his 35 saves weren’t enough in a 4-2 loss against the Wildcats. Patrick Anderson scored in both games against the Wildcats, snapping a three-game scoreless drought, as he now leads the Mustangs in goals (16) and is tied for the lead in points (28) with Adam Chapie. The Mustangs will host the Texas Tornado for two games this weekend during their annual Pink in the Rink weekend.
TEXAS TORNADO: The Tornado crowd of 4,080 on Saturday night was the largest to watch a regular-season game at the Dr Pepper Arena in Frisco in almost six years. As crowds go, it was in the top 10 all-time for the Tornado, which partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Collin County for the event. The Tornado fell on both Thursday and Saturday to the Topeka RoadRunners. Tornado forward Jack Prince, who now leads the team in scoring with 48 points, scored a power-play goal in both games and linemate Nate Sliwinski had a goal and assist in Thursday’s 3-2 loss. Texas will host the Amarillo Bulls on Thursday in a battle for second place before traveling to New Mexico for two road games on Friday and Saturday.
TOPEKA ROADRUNNERS: The first-place RoadRunners sweep of the Texas Tornado last weekend marked the first time in history the RoadRunners organization had won all their regular-season games on the road against the Tornado in the same season. On Thursday, Nate Milam’s shorthanded goal with less than five minutes remaining gave the RoadRunners a 3-2 win. Milam also recorded a goal and assist in a 4-2 win on Saturday night. With a 17-save performance on Saturday night, goaltender Eric Rohrkemper extended his regulation unbeaten streak to 15 starts. The last time Rohrkemper lost a game in regulation was back on Oct. 29 in Springfield. Topeka looks to continue its hot play this weekend with two home games against Wichita Falls.
WICHITA FALLS WILDCATS: The Wildcats split with the New Mexico Mustangs at home last weekend to stay firmly in fourth and final playoff spot in the South Division. On Friday, despite outshooting the Mustangs 40-26, the Wildcats fell 3-2 in front of over 3,000 fans. Both Wichita Falls goals were scored in the final stages of the third period by newcomer Russell Blaser and Chris Leone just 17 seconds apart. On Saturday, the Wildcats got multi-point nights from Tanner Fahlstedt, Drew Allen and Dakota Klecha in a 4-2 win. Goaltender Eric Garavaglia was the night’s first star, stopping 35 of 37 Mustangs shots. The Wildcats will go on the road this week to face the first-place Topeka Roadrunners on Thursday and Friday.