Our Hockey Summer Reading interview series rolls on with Jason Cohen, the author of Zamboni Rodeo. Cohen spent the 1997-98 season with the now-defunct Austin Ice Bats riding buses and chronicling the day-to-day lives of minor league hockey players "chasing hockey dreams from Austin to Albuquerque". Cohen was given full access to the Austin, Texas-based minor league team for the entire season and the result is an entertaining and eye-opening look at the world of lower-level minor league hockey in not-so-traditional hockey markets. Cohen's publishers appropriately refer to Zamboni Rodeo as "Slap Shot meets A Season on the Brink". Jason was nice enough to answer a few questions about his experience.
Was there any apprehension from the Austin Ice Bats organization about granting you the level of access that you had?
Being minor league hockey owners, they just wanted me to pay for the privilege, or give them a cut of profits. But the former is bad journalistic ethics and the latter wasn't ever really gonna be an issue.
I had covered the team for Texas Monthly during its first season. One 14 hour bus ride (Austin to Albuquerque, just like the book's subtitle) buys you a lot of familiarity. And the new players were mostly young and unfazed by my presence, or excited to get the attention. I was mostly a pop culture journalist back then, and that also helped a lot. Like, "this guy has written about Courtney Love and Matthew McConaughey" and now he's writing about us? Cool."
I certainly don't think anybody dialed down the on-bus or locker room banter 'cause I was around. But some of them didn't even realize I would actually be willing to print "f-bombs" (Jeff Kungle expressed surprise at that once the book came out). It would be way harder to do now because I would probably have to blog as it was happening, which would raise more of those type of issues. That would be the case with hockey stuff as well - who knows what would have happened if I'd been blogging as coaches got fired and captains gave up their "C"? Let alone printing what the players thought about that stuff in the moment.
Oops, I guess I sort pre-empted this one. The day the head coach, Jim Burton, got fired, myself and the local paper's writer were riding the bus to Waco with the team, and we did get kicked off for him to address them privately. But nothing else really. I definitely lived in fear of being told, "well, it's the playoffs now, we can't afford to have you as a distraction," especiallly with a different coach (who was also one of the owners). But that didn't happen.
And the players were probably lucky that, more nights than not, when on the road, I was going to go back to the room and write up my notes, rather than party and keep taking them. But really, from a storytelling perspective, one or two nights of that was enough anyway.
Are there any good stories that didn't make it into the book?
Y'know, I can't really think of anything that was too hot to be printed. My favorite one is cleaned up and anonymized a little, but it's still in the book - a Burton anecdote about the large "equipment" of a future longtime NHLer he played with in them minors.
It all kind of blurs together now, since I covered the league for many years after the book. The "Santa Claus" jerseys are still a low point. I have a fond memory of the first year when they brought in the so-called Native American dancer "Koho" to break a losing streak. Live Mudbugs racing. The hideous Dodge Ram jerseys sponsored by local dealer were also brutal (paraphrase of my game story lead for the Austin American-Statesman that night: "The Ice Bats wore jerseys that looked like the front of a Dodge Ram truck... and played like they'd been hit one.") It was always funny when the players' parents would come down and be offended by all the non-hockey silliness. Hey, it's the entertainment business.
Of course, you can't top Manute Bol, which happened years later when the Ice Bats and Indy Ice were both in the CHL. Same thing - people got so high and mighty about that. As if he was really gonna play. And if he had, so what? Great promotion to get people to pay attention in an NBA/NFL city where hockey struggled (it was once in the old IHL and is now a junior market).
I think I was as scared of Shoe as all the 22 year-old forwards were. It's funny to see the video of him from that incident (in the ESPN clip) because he seems so young and soft-spoken then. But he totallly had the giant Viking thing going when he came to us. He sat in the back and didn't say much, and wasn't really on the team long enough to become a big character. He was definitely "color" though. The best part of that was that one of bottom-of-the-roster players, Keith Moran, was from Boston, went to Holy Cross, and had switched to defense late in the season. So he just looooved hearing his defense pair called with the name of this guy he watched play at the Garden.
I hope Shoe is in better physical condition in retirement than he was at that point in his career. I mean, it's bad enough what happens to some of those NFL guys, but to carry around lifetime injuries when you were mostly doing it in the low minors....
And Mad Men uses Christina Hendricks' body to sell sophisticated cable drama, right? Of course you know I'm from Philadelphia. And there's probably no need to rehash all the arguments about fighting in the game or American culture in genre. So: OF COURSE. I'm just not sure it's a criticism.
At that level it's just a legitimate part of the product. I still greatly prefer AA hockey and major junior to the AHL (and really, to regular-season NHL too) because I like fighting and I like a little rough-and-tumble and back-and-forth offensive play. The very things that the junior players are still trying to learn and the minor league players never learned (discipline, be it to a defensive system or not fighting) make the game more fun to me. If anything I mourn the increasing professionalization of the ECHL and CHL: good for those leagues and their business, good for the sport, good for the coaches and referees (and in the ECHL, players) who get to move up to the AHL and NHL, but not always as entertaining.
What was the biggest eye-opener for you during the season you spent with the Ice Bats?
First, that the world even existed. That minor boom had just started in the early '90s and I was totally oblivious. All I knew were the Flyers. When those guys got to town on the first Bats team, they'd already been kicking around the whole subculture for a few years, from Muskegon to Memphis to Austin.
I guess ultimately what I took out of it, simultaneously, was how dreary and not dreary it all was. It's not an easy gig, especially compared to the higher level of sports, but they were still playing hockey for a living (if a modest living) and wanted to do it badly enough to put up with that stuff. And to me that's even cooler than playing because you still have a chance to advance your career.
And then I remember being at Astros spring training for a story, and Craig Biggio, a player whose work ethic and grit is really not in question, was talking about how he was glad to miss out on one of those "long" bus rides - two hours or something. It's just a totally different perspective.
You wrote an in-depth "where are they now?" section at the end of the book. Since the book's release, have you kept in touch with any of the players? Are any of the players or coaches still involved in pro hockey?
A lot of opposing players, and people I saw in later seasons, have moved on to coaching: Hardy Sauter (Idaho Steelheads), Dan Wildfong (Texas Brahmas). Riley Cote played against the Ice Bats with Memphis, which was already quite a few years after ZR, and now he's retired and coaching in the AHL as of yesterday.
And I always think of Cory Clouston as the biggest success story even though he actually never had any involvement with that league - but his brother Shaun played in it and was the San Angelo coach back then.
I covered the Ice Bats for the Austin paper for a while and got to write about the minors a few more times, and also the Dallas Stars, for Texas Monthly. (http://www.texasmonthly.com/
And I definitely miss the Bats (here was my eulogy: http://slapshot.blogs.nytimes.
Thanks to Jason for taking the time answer my questions. Zamboni Rodeo is one of my favorite hockey books and is a great read for anyone that loves the game of hockey. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.