Minnesota bills itself as The State of Hockey, and Detroit calls itself Hockeytown. With only two NCAA Division I teams in the warmer climate of the South (Alabama Huntsville and Arizona State), it’s easy for Northerners to feel smugly superior. In fact, when I was interviewing for my current job here in the Dallas area in 2010, I thought I had blown the interview by mentioning hockey.
The talent coordinator for the company I was interviewing with asked me, in a way that made it clear she was skeptical that a Northerner would be happy in Texas, if I thought my family would adapt to the Dallas lifestyle. I told her I liked what I had seen so far, but “y’all don’t take hockey seriously.” She got this horrified look on her face and said, “Well, we have the Staahrs!” as she dragged out the “ars” sound in a drawl that you have to spend time in Texas to recognize.
I tried to explain to her I was interested in college hockey in particular, but it was clear she really didn’t know that college hockey even existed.
However, hockey is on the rise in the southern states, and most of the growth has been fueled by interest in NHL teams. In Texas, the Stars have been a major force in promoting youth hockey. But there is a lot more happening in Texas in the rinks scattered around most of the major metropolitan areas.
High School and Youth Hockey
There’s evidence that high school hockey in Texas actually started in 1925, with the construction of the Crystal Palace in San Antonio, the first artificially-refrigerated rink in the state. A high school league was formed and local teams played for a few years until the Depression led to the collapse of the league and the near failure of the rink.
Today, there are high school teams in many parts of the state. There’s a cluster of teams in the Panhandle, centered near Amarillo, and another group based in and around Wichita Falls. There’s also a four-team league in the Austin area, and another high school league in the Houston suburbs. However, the Dallas-Fort Worth area hosts the premier league in the state, the AT&T Metroplex League. For years, the Stars sponsored this league, and interest really kicked in after the Stars’ Stanley Cup win in 1999.
The AT&T league has three tiers, with eight teams in the top tier, and 16 more teams in the next two tiers. There are also 14 schools with junior varsity programs. Some of these are “combined” teams, fed by more than one school. In spring 2017, the combined team from Frisco won the US National Division 2 high school championship.
There are youth hockey programs throughout the state. The Texas Amateur Hockey Association had more than 7,300 registered players during the 2016-2017 season. Of course, Hall of Famer Brian Leetch hails from Corpus Christi, and, in the recent past, three players from the Dallas-Fort Worth area have played in the NHL.
Seth Jones—whose father, Popeye Jones, played with the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA for three years—played his minor hockey with the Dallas Stars U16 and U18 teams, and is now with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Flower Mound native Chris Brown played for the Michigan Wolverines and spent parts of three seasons with NHL teams; he’s now playing in the German Elite league. Finally, Stefan Nosek, from Plano, moved north to play with Compuware and the Plymouth Whalers before joining the Anaheim Ducks. Nosek is now a member of the New Jersey Devils.
Overall, the level of play is below what we might see in Michigan, Wisconsin, New York or Massachusetts, and far below the kind of amateur play that’s Minnesota’s trademark. But things are improving, and we could see a trickle of players reaching college or professional ranks in the near future.
Presently, there are four Texas teams in the NAHL. The Amarillo Bulls, the Corpus Christi IceRays, the Lone Star Brahmas (suburban Ft. Worth) and the Odessa Jackalopes all play in the South Division. There are also three teams (the Jr. Brahmas, Euless and College Station) in the NA3HL league. There are no USHL teams located in Texas.
Interest in college hockey is building, but there are no schools with a serious interest in NCAA-level play. In 2016, eight club level teams—all members of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA), the umbrella organization for club hockey—formed the Texas Collegiate Hockey Conference. Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, TCU, Dallas Baptist, North Texas, Texas State and UT-El Paso (all Division 2 ACHA members) vie for a championship each year. The UTEP Miners won the inaugural championship in the spring of 2017. Prior to the formation of the TCHC, A&M was the leader in Texas, gaining an at-large spot in the ACHA Regional Playoffs three times between 2009 and 2012.
The consensus seems to be that there won’t be any movement toward NCAA Division I play unless and until a donor emerges who wants to sponsor an arena and a program—the route Penn State took to DI competition. I also suspect that is unlikely in the near future. That could change if one of the TCHC teams started winning national championships.
The truth is that football is number 1, number 2 and number 3 in both high school and college sports in Texas, with basketball a distant fourth. Hockey is barely on the public radar right now. But Texans love winners, and nothing would stimulate interest like more national championships at any level.
Minor Pro Hockey
As it is everywhere, the minor pro hockey scene in Texas is littered with franchises that have come and gone. There have been at least a dozen different pro teams over the years, mostly in the now-defunct Central Hockey League. At the highest level of minor league hockey, the Texas Stars, playing out of Austin, are the American Hockey League affiliate of the Dallas Stars, and they won the Calder Cup in 2014.
The Allen Americans, in suburban Dallas, are the kings of minor pro hockey in Texas. They won back-to-back CHL titles in 2013 and 2014, and when the CHL was merged into the East Coast Hockey League, they won their first two ECHL titles in 2015 and 2016. The Americans play in a great arena, the Allen Event Center, with a capacity of 8,100 and plenty of free covered parking.
Currently, the Americans play as an affiliate of the San Jose Sharks in the Mountain Division of the ECHL, which includes the Utah Grizzlies. The Griz have a huge Husky flavor, as CJ Eick, Chris Leibinger, Cliff Watson and Angus Redmond are all on the roster. The Americans have a dedicated, almost fanatical following in the DFW area, and the arena is usually packed once the playoff season starts. The Old Dog and Mrs. Dog have had partial season tickets to the Americans’ games, and it’s a very good brand of hockey. It’s clearly superior to college play, and, with many of the players vying to climb to the NHL, most games are fast paced and quite entertaining.
The Americans do have one tie to Michigan Tech. Casey Piero-Zabotel, who signed to play with the Huskies in 2007 but fell short academically and never suited up for a game, has been a career minor leaguer after signing a contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008. He’s now in his second stint with the Americans, and was a member of their 2015 ECHL championship team.
Summing It Up
It will be more than a couple of years before there’s Division I hockey in Texas. For that to happen, the youth hockey programs will have to grow, the Dallas Stars need to become a fixture in the Stanley Cup playoffs and big money will have to be dumped on one of the universities in the state. However, once you’ve spent time in Texas, you come to realize that there really is more money here than you can believe, and it’s impossible to know when someone with a boatload of bucks will decide they want to have their name memorialized in some prominent fashion.
There’s a chance that one of those guys (and it will be a “guy thing”) will decide that hockey is the place to carve out a piece of history. When that does, you just might get a chance to see the Huskies playing somewhere deep in the heart of Texas.