Rhinos general manager Corey Heon knew the games this Saturday and Sunday in El Paso would be somewhat historic, the first time a team of Mexico's top players would play against a junior team from the United States, which just so happens to be back-to-back Western States Hockey League champions.
But the games in the border city have additional meaning following the Aug. 3 shooting at a Walmart where 22 people were killed and at least 24 others were injured. Highlighting the hockey bonds between El Paso and its southern neighbor has become part of the healing process.
"That's the goal. Obviously it wasn't the goal back then, but it's developed into something along that line," said Heon, whose team has pledged $10,000 to the El Paso Community Foundation to help shooting victims and their families. "We're going to do a special ceremony to honor the three different countries of the people that were killed -- Germany, the U.S. and Mexico. Hopefully the unity will bring us together as a whole."
Hoen and Joaquin de la Gama, president of the Mexico Ice Hockey Federation, said the exhibition series at El Paso County Coliseum Events Center seemed like a natural fit to promote hockey within the Hispanic community.
The Rhinos play in a county that's nearly 82-percent Hispanic, and the Mexican national hockey program is trying to raise its profile in-country and internationally.
"Our youth program is probably 95-percent Hispanic as well as our fan base," Heon said. "They just love the game, they thrive on the energy of it, the quickness of it, the physicality of it."
Hoen said the idea for the series came from brainstorming sessions he had with Rhinos coach Cory Herman about ways to grow the game in the area.
With the Rhinos' arena located about 2,000 feet from the border, they decided, "Let's go south of the border, let's maybe try to get the national team to come," Hoen said.
He traveled to Mexico City in the spring and pitched the idea to Joaquin de la Garma, president of the Mexico Ice Hockey Federation. The games were announced about a month later.
"It's very important for us," de la Garma said. "People from the Rhinos organization called me, came to Mexico to talk with us and they proposed with us to have a program together to develop Mexican hockey, and Rhinos hockey too. We say, 'OK, why not?' It's good exposure for Mexico hockey."
The development process is well underway; in April, the Rhinos' Under-16 team invited some youth players from Mexico to travel with them to a tournament in Las Vegas.
Last week, Andres de la Garma, a goaltending coach and Joaquin de la Garma's son, arrived in El Paso ahead of the series to work with the Rhinos' goalies, who are without a full-time coach.
Heon said the visit could turn into a goaltending consultant position for de la Garma.
"I thought, what a great idea to bring him in earlier to come help us evaluate what we have on the ice, just to get a different perspective of the game," Heon said. "His resume speaks highly of what he's done, because there are some big-time goalies in the national program. He's also going to work with our youth program as well because, again, what better way to unite two different cultures, if you will, than the game of hockey? Why not learn from each other?"
The Rhinos also have a player from Mexico, defenseman Chris Mendez, on their training camp roster. Jorge Duenes, a Mexican national team forward/defenseman, played for the Rhinos in 2015-16 and currently plays for the University of Texas-El Paso, a Division II team.
Most people don't associate hockey with Mexico, but the country has been an International Ice Hockey Federation member since 1985. Joaquin de la Garma said the country has more than 3,000 registered players, most of them youth.
Mexico has 18 indoor ice rinks, and Mexico City will host the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Under-18 Women's World Championship, Division II, Group B, from Jan. 30-Feb. 2.
The men's team will compete in the IIHF World Championship Division II, Group B, in Reykjavik, Iceland, from April 19-25.
The women's team is ranked 26th in the world by the IIHF, and the men's team is No. 36. Mexican hockey officials are aiming to qualify the women's team for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
"With the men, it would be impossible," he said. "To play in the Winter Olympics, the men's team, you need to have at least seven, eight, or maybe nine professional players playing in European leagues or the American Hockey League, and we don't have anything like that. With the women, we will try and think we can [qualify]."
Photos courtesy of El Paso Rhinos