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Books | Sports

May 1, 2009

The Cowboys of the Zamboni Rodeo

Jason Cohen tells Gelf about his six months touring with the Austin Ice Bats of the Western Professional Hockey League.

David Roth

It's tempting to write that Jason Cohen is the only hockey writer to have penned a Rolling Stone cover story (about Hole, in 1995), been recognized by the Sex Positive Magazine Awards—in 2008, for his Portland Monthly piece about Mary's, a strip-club institution in the Rose City—and written an appreciation of goetta, Cincinnati's peculiar indigenous porky breakfast treat, in Cincinnati magazine. But it'd be wrong, since Cohen's not a hockey writer; he's a freelance writer who happens to be a hockey fan.

Jason Cohen. Photo by A.P. Heller.
"There were certainly a few guys on the Ice Bats with NHL skills, an AHL head, and a WPHL heart."

Jason Cohen. Photo by A.P. Heller.

If the freelancer part of his brain knew that following the minor league Austin Ice Bats in their adventures around the Texas-centric Western Professional Hockey League a dozen years ago was a perfect story for Texas Monthly, it was a combination of freelance-honed instincts and old-fashioned hockey-love that led him to spend six months touring with the Bats. Those journeys resulted in 2001's Zamboni Rodeo, a book that is—as much as I'd hoped to avoid using this word—rollicking in all the ways one expects a book about the boozy, brawly, wild world of minor-league hockey to be, as well as illuminating and moving in some less-expected ways.

Cohen is my colleague at the sports blog Can't Stop the Bleeding, and while I knew of his career as a freelancer—I didn't know about Zamboni Rodeo until I was offered the opportunity to interview him for Gelf. I'm glad to have found out about the book, even eight years late. The Ice Bats and the WPHL are no more—a common fate in the flux-intensive world of minor-league hockey (the WPHL was merged into the Central Hockey League)—but what makes Zamboni Rodeo so endearing is what makes it enduring: It's about people and jobs and aspirations, but also has fights and people periodically throwing crawfish onto the ice when one of the teams scores a goal.

I was most interested to find out what Jason—a nice Jewish boy from the suburbs, like myself—was doing riding a bus between Austin and San Angelo with a bunch of hockey players. That question is answered in the interview below—conducted via email and edited for clarity and length—as are ones on fighting and the possible relationship between the demise of the creative sports nickname and that of rough-and-tumble minor-league hockey. (Plus, there are at least two more references to forgotten '90s hack-rockers Candlebox than I expected.) You can hear Cohen and other hockey writers, or writers about hockey, read from and talk about his work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, May 7, in DUMBO.

Gelf Magazine: So much of what got me into sports as a kid was a kind of hopeful mirroring—I saw baseball players, basketball players, even football players and kind of always wanted do that, at least until the undeniabilities of my physiognomy and athleticism shut those dreams down. But a lot of it was a sort of emotional note-taking, my trying to figure out how to be like Strawberry or Mookie Blaylock or whoever. That never connected for me with hockey, and one of the things I most wanted to ask was how you—someone who never really played organized hockey, who hasn't even played much pickup hockey—wound up so taken with the game.

Jason Cohen: Well, there's no doubt that the Big Three sports remain more popular than hockey because anyone can throw a football, shoot some hoops or have a game of catch—and that hockey is so popular in Canada because the kids there grow up playing it. What initially grabbed me, of course, was that the Flyers won two Cups. I remember almost nothing about those actual games, but do remember playing street hockey in my garage, pretending to take on the Sabres.
But I don't really feel like watching sports has much to do with playing sports—for me it's as much about the mass hysteria/emotion/sense of community you get by being at a game or rooting for a team as it is the actual displays of talent or the final score. Unlike Chuck Klosterman (but like Bill Simmons) I am for its tribal aspects too—being a sports fans is part of my Philly-ness in the same way bagels or Manhattan is part of my Jewishness.
And of course I don't believe you have to play the game—or even understand it at a higher level—to write it about. Before I started Zamboni Rodeo I attended one of the late Roger Neilson's coaching clinics, which was cool, but what I learned about how a d-man is supposed to play the two-on-one didn't make me a better storyteller. It also didn't prevent me from saying a "flamingo" is when you don't keep your head up—a gaffe that's in the book and got past lots of Canadian editors, too. (It's when you bend your legs to avoid blocking a shot.)

Gelf Magazine: Was there ever anything about hockey that struck your literary tastes as a kid, or now? I know for me, reading about baseball and basketball was part of what made the game seem cool.

Jason Cohen: As a kid I loved to read those youth biographies of Christy Mathewson and Bob Feller and so forth, as well as active players like Brooks Robinson. But if I ever read one about Gordie Howe or Bobby Orr, I don't remember. And Dan Jenkins never wrote a hockey book (though my Texas Monthly colleague Gary Cartwright did).
By the time I was 15 I was more interested in fanzines and detective fiction and eventually, "serious" novels, plus music and cultural studies in my college/grad school/rock crit years, so it's possible I'd never read a hockey book before I started working on Zamboni Rodeo. I consumed a bunch of them in preparation for reporting (and then none at all while writing). There is certainly a deep tradition of Canadian hockey literature that comes from the same place as baseball books. Even though hockey is not a ruminative game by comparison, there is something equally pastoral and deliberate and nostalgic about its place in the Canadian identity, which makes it an endlessly ripe subject whether you are celebrating that or debunking it. Jeff Lemire's Essex County comics trilogy is a great recent hockey book. Ken Dryden's The Game is justly revered. George Plimpton's Open Net would probably be more famous if Paper Lion hadn't come first. It's just hard to find hockey books on the shelves of an American Barnes & Noble.

Gelf Magazine: Can you describe at all what it was that, after working on the initial Texas Monthly article, led you to believe that you were not yet done telling this story, and that you needed to do Zamboni Rodeo? As a writer, I'm always interested in this creative tipping point, the moment when it becomes impossible to stop pulling a story's threads once the piece itself is filed. It must've been obvious that you had a lot of work—a metric shit-ton of bus travel and time away from home, a lot of note-taking, a lot of hanging around stinky locker rooms and eating in Dairy Queen—ahead of you.

Jason Cohen: Yeah, mostly it all just seemed like fun to me. I was actually willing to go do that for six months, without making enough money to justify it, and there hasn't been anything I can say that about since (a couple of weeks of reporting and a month of writing is more than enough). It just seemed like a story people didn't know about—that this bush-league, Slap Shot-is-a-documentary world actually (still) existed, and that it was so prevalent in Texas. A fish-in-frozen-water story, if you will. Until the Ice Bats started up I didn't know about the teams that were already in Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio myself.
The other thing that made it seem like a new story to me was the fact that all the players weren't moving up the hockey ladder (even if a few of them still didn't know it). Most people's interest in or knowledge of the minors is inextricable from The Show—like, I followed the Hershey Bears because I cared about the Flyers prospects. Conversely, a big part of the satisfaction of being a Hershey fan is seeing your guys "graduate" (these days, to the Caps).

Gelf Magazine: The minor leagueness of the WPHL is very much in the forefront in Zamboni Rodeo—the cattle-show arenas, the sparse n' boozy crowds, the ridiculous bus trips and cheap owners and general shoddiness of the athletes' quality of life. How important was it to you to capture the minor league vibe, without falling back on the clichés—earned and true though they might be—that kind of define the bush-league picaresque?

Jason Cohen: I guess I felt like the fact that it was never going to get any better for most of these players is what gave the tropes new life. I remember a few years ago I was covering Astros spring training and had to reschedule a short interview with Craig Biggio because he wasn't going to be at the next game due to the "long bus ride." Which was two hours. You ride those buses in the minors hoping you will end up being that guy. But when the grind just never stops, as a writer you keep describing it, because the endlessness is kind of the whole point.

Gelf Magazine: Hockey is probably unique among the major sports in the US in having a bunch of minor-league teams that don't have any obvious player-development focus. There are a few of these in baseball, but even something like the Atlantic League gets veteran pros involved because they know people have been called up from there. There's some discussion of the informal networks in these unaligned hockey leagues, but what kind of sense did you get of that network's shape and size? And who's making money on this underground hockey economy, exactly? Besides, you know, not-the-players.

Jason Cohen: It's pretty much a free-for-all. All these leagues have salary caps, but there's always a ton of skepticism about who follows them, as well as weak sisters who stay far below it. The best players know where they want to play—where the money is, where the bus doesn't suck, where they might be provided with a car, etc. With the really good teams, it reminds me most of college football—recruiting wars, perks, under the table whispers, facilities escalation. My standard line is that "every top-notch minor-league hockey player has been paid under the table, except by his current team."
Sadly, I didn't know as much about this stuff at the time I wrote the book (a lot has also happened in the league since then). And I have mixed feelings about it, because I don't begrudge individual players the chance to get theirs. But the CHL today is as unbalanced as Major League Baseball, if not because of shady stuff than simply because certain teams have significantly better buildings, revenue streams, fan bases or just an owner with more money—the owner who will get the sleeper bus and team logo track suits that the Ice Bats of my book did not. So there are CHL equivalents of both the Yankees/Red Sox and the Royals/Twins.
The CHL was unionized for the first time last year, though. And as bad as the players were treated back then, literally scores of minor-league hockey teams have gone out of business in the past 12 years, with more to come, so I'm not sure it would have been possible for that many people to have jobs playing hockey in the southern US without them also being shitty jobs.

Gelf Magazine: To the extent that the book has villains, they would have to be the Ice Bats' owners, most notably the ex-NHL players Blaine Stoughton and Paul Lawless. They come across as venal, meddlesome, silly, and superior in the book, but the small-timeness and third-class-all-the-way cheapness really made me wonder what they were even doing running a hockey team.

Jason Cohen: Well, I assume those guys made some money in the first two years, both by paying themselves salaries, and also potential profits. But then they poured a bunch of money into the [WPHL's] Little Rock [Glacier Cats] franchise, which failed (as did the ECHL Little Rock franchise that started one year later), and I expect they're all working for a living now. Meanwhile, the Ice Bats franchise, which they sold in 1999, was never profitable again. The second owner tried to run a successful franchise for as long as his backer would allow it, and had a great coach, a largely happy team, and two trips to the finals. Then there were two more owners after him before the franchise folded.
I've always assumed a lot of people got into the hockey business because a) they just loved hockey and could afford to lose some dough; or b) they wanted to lose money. And then there's the people who started the WPHL: They got into the arena building business and have generated revenue for themselves that way. A massive conflict of interest, certainly.
I should say, I still think the book has that "for the love of the game" thing in a way that's really genuine, but overall, the lesson was probably not that minor-league hockey is where people aren't in it for the money, but rather, that minor-league owners often make it seem like it's about the money just as much as in the bigs. Right down to the Steinbrenneresque interference.
I think the main problem there, as in all sports, is that the owner should stay out of the way and let his coach and general manager (at this level, usually the same person) do their job. But when the owners are hockey people, how could they resist? I think the players felt that Blaine (who coached in Season 1) simply had no interest in living the WPHL lifestyle for a second year. And I seem to recall (maybe it's even in the book) that Paul Lawless simply couldn't fathom why Bats players couldn't make a pass as well as he could. There's always that question, in every sport, of whether a skilled player can successfully teach and relate to a less-skilled player (let alone bush leaguers).

Gelf Magazine: The upside of the WPHL's relative lawlessness is the fact that it seems to be able to play a hockey that's been more or less regulated out of existence in the contemporary NHL. I'm bullshitting, kind of, and working off some old stereotypes, but do you think the brawly tenor of the league had anything to do with the WPHL being so heavily North American—this being the indigenous hockey style of the continent and all, relative, as the cliché goes, to the slicker European style? As someone who grew up with the Broad Street Bullies, was it bracing or fun to see this sort of brawling, wild, '70s-style hockey again, or did you have a different perspective seeing it happen in, say, Monroe, Louisiana, in front of 1200 people?

Jason Cohen: Let's not get all Don Cherry here about the Europeans. But yeah, I like the fighting. I like a bunch of crazy Texans going crazy for the fighting. Like they say, nobody sits down for a fight. And I've never understood the argument that fighting needs to be toned down for "American TV." Who, NASCAR and MMA fans? People who watch The Hills?
At the same time, I could be totally OK with the NHL getting rid of fighting since it's already been so neutered. What's great about the minors is that even though there's still a designated goon—and one who's certainly more colorful than his NHL equivalent—you can also see some fights between guys who can really play. Some even happen spontaneously. All the arguments about fighting being part of the game and a way to shift momentum and a way to hold players accountable for cheap stuff makes a lot more sense if all the players are actually accountable. The fight in last week's Pittsburgh-Philly Game 6 wasn't exactly between two all-star choirboys (Daniel Carcillo and Maxime Talbot) but at least they were good enough to play in the series, which was not true of their two designated fighters (Philly's was injured, though).

Gelf Magazine: There's a great bit in there in which you mention in passing that you sometimes got called "Cozy," and seem kind of proud of that nickname, but then lament the passing of really interesting nicknames from the hockey scene in favor of the duller "-sy" or "-er" constructions. Is this just a reflection of jock culture in general, or do you have a grander theory on the decline of the great hockey nickname?

Jason Cohen: If I'd been a working beat writer, I'd have to be ashamed of that! (I did eventually cover the team for the Austin paper; fortunately most of the characters from the book were long gone by then.)
It's not just hockey, certainly. We lament this about baseball all the time on the Phillies listserv I belong to. I'm sure we could come up with some kind of theory that's related to the professionalization and specialization of youth sports. Probably it's just that the culture is so insistent on having a diminutive to use that there's no time to wait for the player to do something stupid or interesting to actually earn a nickname. I mean, if every kid who joined the Army or a frat house was just "Cozy" or "Roth-er" from Day 1, we'd never have a "Brooklyn" or a "Pinto," right?
Two other pet peeves here—nicknames that are other people's names (Bats player Ken Ruddick was "Razor" like the boxer, Keith Tkachuk has always been "Walt" after another NHLer, Walt Tkaczuk) and every athlete named Campbell who is known as "Soupy."

Gelf Magazine: Nicknames aside, to what degree do you think that leagues like the WPHL and teams like the Ice Bats have escaped the flattening, corporate mildness of the new, brand-managed NHL? Maybe it's just that you described him so vividly, but I got the sense that Bruce Shoebottom—the old Bruins goon who shows up at the end of the season—was someone who couldn't really have gotten a job (playing hockey or maybe doing anything else) anywhere else. There are obviously still goons in the NHL, but Shoebottom basically sounds like Bigfoot, while an NHL assassin like Donald Brashear has the polish of a fancy nightclub bouncer in comparison. There's a sense with all the players that, beyond their individuated size/speed/skill/toughness issues, their personalities may have a lot to do with them being in Austin as opposed to a more prestigious outpost.

Jason Cohen: Times have changed, even in Texas. Over the years the CHL has become a better league but also a less entertaining league. Higher quality of play equals fewer mistakes and less anarchy. And almost every current team plays in a gleaming new building. My favorite old places (El Paso, San Angelo, Shreveport, New Mexico, and Austin itself) to watch hockey back then either don't have a team or have given way to a new arena, while every city that has joined the league over the past eight years has done so with its own brand new facility. In some of these places, long-term viability remains in doubt, even with the new arena (the Simpsons episode with Mark Cuban was completely on the money).
I definitely think that many Ice Bats players became Ice Bats players not because they didn't have the size or speed or skill to make it at higher level, but because they didn't have the obsessiveness or work ethic that might have allowed them to make up for that. And there were certainly a few guys with—this must be in the book—NHL skills, an AHL head, and a WPHL heart. Which usually meant some great player who simply couldn't figure out the concept of team play or defense. Those things were more common than a player being a little too crazy or unpolished. It's true that you can't imagine the Shoe of 1992 playing in the NHL of 2009 (by the way, he's still beloved by Boston hockey nuts). And it all seems kind of pointless that the NHL doesn't have the fun part of the Broad Street Bullies days, but it never seems to be lacking in suspendable hits, to say nothing of the McSorley and Bertuzzi incidents.

"I like a bunch of crazy Texans going crazy for the fighting. Like they say, nobody sits down for a fight. And I've never understood the argument that fighting needs to be toned down for 'American TV.' Who, NASCAR and MMA fans? People who watch The Hills?"
Gelf Magazine: Not to focus too much on the goonery, but the designated fighter/knock-down guy struck me, again, as a unique job in sports—even in football, there isn't any player whose job is to go out and deliver such routinized, personalized violence. You talk a bit about how some of these guys—Kyle Haviland, notably, and Shoebottom later reveals himself as kind of a violent drunk—maybe have some anger issues.

Jason Cohen: I actually think if we were to generalize, the goons and fighters tend to be more easygoing/steady than the other guys. Jeremy Thompson, from the book, for example, is now a father of two and Medicine Hat city councilman. And if I painted Havs as something of a raging bull, that just seems like mythmaking to me now, the same way all goalies are supposedly crazy. There are plenty of dysfunctional hockey players, and I tend to think the whole sport is something of an alcoholic culture (with documented instances of domestic violence and sexual abuses, as one of the other authors at Varsity Letters will discuss), but those things can manifest themselves in a 50-goal scorer just as easily as a fighter. The fighters may be more likely to be hooked on Vicodin or have a The Wrestler-like movie made about them, granted. But the mundane backstage friendliness we saw in that film is what you find among the designated fighters, too.

Gelf Magazine: The Ice Bats are an interesting study in class contrasts, in part because of the different roles of hockey in Canada and the US. The Americans generally seem to have come from middle-class families and played in college at places like Holy Cross, Brown, St. Lawrence; the Canadians, in many cases, dropped out of high school for juniors.

Jason Cohen: Hockey's expensive, especially if you can't just skate on a pond. I guess it's just a given that all Canadian kids will play it if they can, and all parents will sacrifice the money, time, and miles for their kids. It does seem like more of a privileged sport in the US. But plenty of American kids and even more Canadians also use hockey as their ticket to an education—the two players who went to Brown and St. Lawrence were actually both from Saskatchewan.
I think there are various hockey caste systems that are not quite as specific—Western kids vs. Ontario kids, Canada vs. America, Major junior vs. college (which is a variation on Canada vs. America). But overall, at best, the room is merit-based—maybe the tough players look down on the soft players, but it doesn't mean the tough guy didn't go to Holy Cross—that particular player, Keith Moran, was almost the team's "Rudy," and totally lunch bucket.

Gelf Magazine: A lot of the off-ice stuff in the book seems pretty well unchanged since Slap Shot: boozing, partying, skirt-chasing, the overt non-intellectualism and emotionalism. At any point did all that remind you of your days of writing about rock musicians? There seems to be a point at which the stereotypical road-blind, half-rote hedonism of both clichés kind of collapse into each other.

Jason Cohen: Well, most interesting rock musicians are a lot more self-conscious and intellectual (or self-consciously intellectual). Really the handiest thing for me was back at the beginning: When these guys didn't know from Texas Monthly or believed there'd be a book, they were still impressed that I'd hung out with Courtney Love and Sandra Bullock. Silly, but useful.
I dunno, I once wrote about Candlebox, and the scene at the Kansas City Marriott (actually I don't really recall which hotel chain) was about the same as being in a West Texas bar with Odessa puck bunnies. I've also written about strippers and decided there that many of the stereotypical hedonistic things that we associate with strippers are basically true of any drunk, sexually active 23-year-old, regardless of profession or gender. And I suspect that's true of both rock bands and hockey players and, most recently, young hedge-fund managers. Extended adolescence is extended adolescence.
For me the parallels are more positive—it comes back to the crowds—everybody sort of experiencing the same rush. Being in the moment of a song, a shot, a great save, a guitar solo.

Gelf Magazine: You've moved away from Austin, and from writing about hockey—even at Can't Stop the Bleeding, you're as likely to write about the Phils or college football or some current-event-in-sports thing that strikes your fancy. Your old blog—hockeyblog-dot-com, which is so OG that you actually got that name, which to me is like being asmith or bjones@gmail—has been asleep for years. Where would you peg your interest in the sport, now?

Jason Cohen: Yes, I'm proud to have been an early hockey blogger, but despite its universal URL, it was very much about the CHL, and was mostly based on reporting (and informed speculation), so I couldn't really keep it going once I wasn't covering the league. I left Austin the same year as the NHL lockout season, and also got a full-time job (otherwise I've only ever been a freelancer since 1992) so that sort of killed off any chance that the blog might evolve into a platform for more general NHL stuff. And after, probably, two or three hundred Ice Bats games (and another 50 in Dallas, despite the three-hour drive), I didn't mind a break.
Following the Bats had also stopped me from following the NHL regular season, and that's kind of where I am now, more your typical post-Christmas fan who turns obsessive when the playoffs hit. This year was extra-weird, though, because the Phillies won the World Series, so by the time November rolled around I felt like I'd already used up all my fan energy (and not a little bit of money) and it was all I could do to enjoy the last few months of college football. Living on the West Coast doesn't help either—it's one thing to hole up for the playoffs, but to plan your whole afternoon around getting home by 4 p.m. for a mid-February Flyers-Islanders game is a little much.
Meanwhile, at this very moment, I'm not sure what my interest is, because I'm trying to figure out who I'm going to pull for in the absence of the Flyers (and the Stars). I'm a "fan of the game," as they say, but I can't just sit back and admire pretty plays and a close contest. I've got to have a rooting interest.

Gelf Magazine: The internet, I have to assume, is where a lot of the next wave of writing is going to be. I feel like we're doing some good work at CSTB, but I'm sometimes kind of disheartened to think that the sports blogosphere seems so thoroughly dominated by these here's-a-tennis-player's-camel-toe bro-sites. Do you think the boom in this particular part of the sports discourse means anything, in terms of the future of the way we'll read about sports?

Jason Cohen: Hey, I like scantily clad women as much as the next guy (I even married one). I can honestly say I don't go to the sports blogs that focus on them all that much, but I'm not above clicking on Extra Mustard or looking at a picture of that pole vaulter. I dunno. I don't read a ton of sports blogs, hockey or otherwise, and while I tried (and try) to have a high blogging standard when appropriate (I've got nothing against the odd rushed breaking-news clip job either), I guess I never saw any reason to expect anything more from them than the verbal equivalent of sports-talk radio, which is something I am completely ignorant of, rather than the virtual equivalent of Inside Sports or The National (both considered highbrow in their time, I believe). It's enough to be grateful for the good blogs. Maybe this comes back to my music background—I never really sat around wondering why Candlebox were more popular than Pavement, either.

David Roth

David Roth is co-author of WSJ.com's Daily Fix, football columnist for The Awl, and contributor to Can't Stop the Bleeding.







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- Sports
- posted on Dec 11, 09
Shea

Hey now guys, I like Candlebox(they are actually putting out music again), they just got labeled as "grunge" when they are more old-school, bluesy rock, which ain't a bad thing. Oh, and I miss the WPHL days.


Article by David Roth

David Roth is co-author of WSJ.com's Daily Fix, football columnist for The Awl, and contributor to Can't Stop the Bleeding.

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