El Paso Rhinos, Mexico national team play, ‘unite communities’

Game brings people together to celebrate hockey, honor recent shooting victims

Jose Aleman stood at the glass wearing an El Paso Rhinos jersey while his wife Carmen wore the green, red and white jersey of Mexico’s National Under-20 team as the two teams warmed up on the ice.

“I was born here but I was raised in Juarez, Mexico,” Jose Aleman said. “The Rhinos are my hometown team, but my blood is Mexican. I have my Mexican flag with me, but my hometown team jersey.”

The Rhinos, a junior team, defeated the visitors 10-0 on Saturday night in the first of a two-game series at the El Paso Coliseum Event Center.

But the evening was about more than a final score. It was a night of hockey and remembrance, a moment to help this border city of nearly 700,000 people heal from the Aug. 3 shooting spree at a Walmart where 22 people were killed and at least 24 others were injured.

“I never thought I’d be doing this,” said Rhinos forward Sam Sykes, who scored three goals and was named first star of the game. “It’s definitely cool, just playing against a national team, what it means for the city, for them and for us in growing hockey here.”  

A somber ceremony preceded the game, with players from both teams skating side-by-side onto the ice. 

An “El Paso Strong” music video produced by a local television station was shown on the video screen. Two Rhinos players and a Mexican team member skated onto the ice carrying the American, Mexican and German flags as the names of those who died were read.

The arena observed a 22-second moment of silence to honor the victims.

“Right now, anything in the El Paso community, anything that brings people together is something that helps with the healing,” said Brittany Delk, president of the Crash, the Rhinos booster club. “Everybody was really excited when they unveiled the ice and we had the ‘El Paso Strong’ on the ice. I think it kind of united us just as a hockey community.”

Diego de la Garma, coach of the Mexican team, said they were honored to come to El Paso to help the city and to show that, when it comes to hockey, there are no borders.

“This is a chance to show the world that we can play hockey, that we do have hockey, that’s talking about the sports side of the thing,” de la Garma said. “But most important, to come here as the Mexican team after what happened in El Paso, it’s great for us to try to unite communities through sports.”

El Paso is close enough to the border that Team Mexico entered the U.S. Friday by walking — sticks in hand, equipment bags over shoulders — across the Zaragoza Bridge from Ciudad Juarez. 

A boisterous, largely Hispanic sellout crowd exceeding 2,0000 cheered on the Rhinos, the back-to-back champion of the Western States Hockey League, but also expressed a sense of pride in seeing the Mexican team.

“I was born and raised in Mexico, this is my adopted country,” said Fabian Calderon, an El Paso resident whose son plays hockey for the University of Texas-El Paso. “To see these Mexican boys come up and play the Rhinos is just awesome. It’s such a great, great treat to see these boys come up and play.”

Players on both teams said they were grateful for the experience. For the Rhinos, it gave players the rare chance to face international competition.

For the Mexican team, the games in a loud sold-out arena are the perfect tuneup for their appearance at the 2020 IIHFUnder-20 World Championship Division III in Sofia, Bulgaria, from Jan. 13-19.

“We have a lot of young guys. This will help get them ready for international tournaments and get them hyped for that,” said forward Luis Cruz, the team’s captain. “It’s kind of important to show them how a team works and what we expect from them.”