Brian Greer moved to Taos to ski, but he got hooked on another winter sport. About 20 years ago, Greer’s son came home from kindergarten and said he wanted to play hockey. Greer didn’t know much about the sport—he grew up playing football, baseball and basketball—and decided to teach himself how to skate. Eventually, he started coaching his son’s teams. Today, Greer has been the coach for the Taos High School Ice Tigers for seven years, and has led the team to two state championships. His son Kenny, now 24, plays semi-professional hockey in Finland—boarding and college paid for.
“I haven’t skied now in about 10 years,” Brian Greer, a stocky, white-haired hockey dad with a big smile, says. “[I’m] coaching hockey instead.”
The father-son duo represents a hockey success story that’s rare in New Mexico. But people like Greer are trying to change that, and national trends may be working in their favor: For the past two decades, the National Hockey League has been expanding to southern markets like Phoenix and Dallas. USA Hockey—the governing body for amateur hockey in America—is headquartered in Colorado Springs, signaling the West’s importance in what was once known as a northeastern sport. Greer himself recently arranged a 1,800-mile trek for a high school hockey team from Kenora, a small town in the Canadian province of Ontario, to play in an all-star showcase against some of New Mexico’s best high school talent.
But even as hockey moves west, it may still struggle to gain a foothold in New Mexico. The state has never had a professional hockey team. An attempt to locate an amateur team in Santa Fe for players ages 16-20 looking to earn more experience before playing in college or the pros lasted just three years—from 2004 until 2007—before the team moved to Topeka, Kan.
Tom Miller, the ice arena manager for Santa Fe’s Genoveva Chavez Community Center, says that while more adults are playing, the number of local youths playing hockey has decreased over the years.
Part of that may be due to the recession, he says. Hockey is an expensive sport—a high-end stick can cost up to $200 alone, and those frequently break. (Miller says that, while there’s no shop in the area that sells hockey equipment, the Chavez Center offers $3 youth and adult rentals for all hockey gear.)
“[There are] very few local skaters,” he says. “So, when it comes to people thinking ice and thinking ice skating and thinking hockey—it’s a hard sell.”
Another problem may be that young, talented hockey players in New Mexico leave the state for better competition. Greer’s son, for instance, was recruited by a top amateur program when he hit high school, and he moved to Denver to play hockey.
And with reason: Last week, in the matchups between some of New Mexico’s best players and the Canadian team, the Canadians scored 37 goals to the New Mexicans’ three, according to Greer’s count.
On Saturday afternoon, Canada’s St. Thomas Aquinas Saints faced off against a ragtag crew of New Mexico talent, mostly from Taos High’s Ice Tigers and Los Alamos High School’s Hilltoppers.
“I’m worried as hell, to be honest,” Greer said before the games. “…Even an average team [from Canada] is pretty damn good.”
From the beginning, though, the odds were in Canada’s favor. The players from Kenora—where bitter, sub-zero winds from the 1,600-square-mile Lake of the Woods make outdoor skating possible for nearly half the year—grew up on hockey. Kenora officials often tout the Kenora Thistles, a long-defunct professional hockey team that won the Stanley Cup, professional hockey’s championship trophy, in 1907. The town of 15,000 is the smallest to host a professional team that won the Cup, and it has since produced at least six professional hockey players, including Mike Richards, a high-scoring star forward who helped lead the Los Angeles Kings to a National Hockey League championship just last year. In August, Richards brought the Cup home to Kenora, and 4,000 people reportedly turned out to celebrate.
“My son’s played since he was four,” says Angela Davidson, whose son Eric plays center for the Saints. Each week, the team has two practice sessions and plays two games. About half of the players are high-school juniors and seniors, and Coach Travis Butters says it’s “one of the best” Saints teams in years.
On Saturday afternoon, the mountain wind whipped in through the open-air hockey rink at the Taos Community Center—the perfect chill to form a hard, frozen sheet of ice that allows for faster skating, passing and shooting. It’s the type of ice that the Canadian players are accustomed to skating on all year—but the community center has the only rink in Taos, and it’s only usable during the cold winter months.
“Their season is eight months long,” Greer says. “The rest of the four months are spent on hockey…You can’t do in five months what [the Saints] do in a year.”
And while hockey is a national sport in Canada, it’s more of a niche interest here.
New Mexico had approximately 1,306 hockey players in 2011-2012, according to the USA Hockey website, up from 1,115 in 2002-03. The state has never produced a professional player.
Still, New Mexico played impressively the first half of the game, holding the Saints to a 3-0 lead. During intermission, the New Mexico team huddled and chanted, “USA!” They were fired up for a comeback.
A penalty against the Saints gave the New Mexico players a brief opportunity to close the gap, but then the Saints scored four goals in four minutes. In the end, they would beat New Mexico 11-0. It echoed their win the night before against the Cibola Cougars.
“We’ve never played a team like that,” says Kristen Molina, 16, one of the Cougars’ captains.
Greer says expanding hockey in New Mexico is important because it can “help children grow up into wonderful adults.”
“You just need to find—each kid [needs] to find that which they’re most passionate about and what they love,” Greer says. That, he adds, will “keep them working hard in a safe, positive direction”—even if it means taking a beating from a more experienced team in one of the fastest contact sports out there. There’s a saying in hockey, Greer says: When you fall down, you get up again.
“And isn’t life about that? I mean, how many times will life knock you down? It’s just real easy for the analogy of hockey,” he says. “Ain’t nobody learned to skate who hasn’t fallen down a lot.”