McALLEN — The ice is frozen in Hidalgo and the Killer Bees are back in the Rio Grande Valley for a third iteration of the region’s hockey team.
Tonight the Bees will return to action against the Laredo Bucks, an old-time rival that also had new life breathed into a dormant franchise when the USA Central Hockey League announced its formation about a year ago.
Fans of the quick-paced sport will have games in their back yards once again and the four-team league even sent down another set of local friends. The Texas Lawmen will operate and compete out of McAllen’s Frio Grande Ice Center, giving fanatics twice the ice to get their puck fix.
The four-team junior hockey league drops the puck for the first time tonight and the anticipation is turning to competition for the 16 through 20-year-old players who are set to get back to their passion.
Each young man’s route to the league was unique. Pennsylvania native and defenseman Patrick Sullivan made a last-minute change to take the leap of faith.
“I was thinking about where I wanted to go then on the phone with parents I was just like ‘Alright, I’m going down to Texas, I’m going for the Killer Bees, I want to be a Killer Bee,’” Sullivan said. “I had been hearing about it for a while and Monday I found out. I had other plans for what I was going to do but I just canceled those plans and came down here.”
The USACHL is similar in name to the Central Hockey League, which is where the original version of the team played from 2003 to 2012, but that league merged with the East Coast Hockey League. Instead it will more closely resemble the NA3HL, which was another junior league that the Bees played in four two seasons before relocating.
The rules mostly emulate the professional game, meaning fights are allowed which is something unique to a modern junior league. That’s a prospect that had the physical defenseman grinning.
“I like to be aggressive,” Sullivan said. “I’m really excited to have the fans come out when they see me making big hits and dropping the gloves. I’m just really looking forward to it.”
Sullivan is not the exception among the young players who landed in the Valley along a winding hockey road to try to advance their careers and stay on the ice in a competitive environment.
Lucas Radina a Czech Republic native, has played in North America for the past five years. He has made the adjustment to the style of the game that has many European-based players making the move to try to crack the top NA leagues.
“The ice is much smaller, there is less space on the ice so it’s more physical,” Radina said. “Not really too much west and east hockey, more south and north.”
Even though there are Czech players who have made a huge impact in the National Hockey League, Radina’s role model in the highest level of hockey is an American Olympian.
“My favorite player is T.J. Oshie on the (Washington) Capitals,” Radina said. “He’s just the type of guy that plays both ways: defense and offense. I also like his personality; he’s a great guy. I’ve met him before and he’s the type of guy I look up to as a person and as a hockey player.”
Wearing the “C” for captain will be Dominic Dumas, an Idaho-born forward who has played most of his junior hockey in the British Columbia Hockey League in Canada’s Pacific province.
“I played in juniors last year up in Canada so I guess I have the most experience at the highest level so far,” Dumas said about how he earned the captaincy.
Even though he’s one of the newest players to the area (he arrived two weeks ago), he’s hoping to see fan support and share the new experience with fans hungry for the sport’s return.
“The fans are what drive our team,” Dumas said. “We need fans out there to give us the motivation to score the game-winning goal and things like that.”
One constant that hasn’t changed about the players who have sat on the bench in Hidalgo, whether the team is semi-professional or amateur, is the passion.
“It’s just a love for the game,” Dumas said. “Everyone loves playing in front of a big crowd. (We have) nice rink and it’s been an awesome facility so far.”