Joe clark, coach of the Odessa Jackalopes, reviews the medical report on his gypsy gladiators a half hour before a Western Professional Hockey League (WPHL) road game in Albuquerque against the New Mexico Scorpions. With a shinbone fractured in 20 places, right wing Joakim Blink, from Upplands Vasby, Sweden, will not play. Right wing Pat Barton of Burlington, Ont., is suffering from postconcussion syndrome and will remain out of the lineup until he can remember his name. With 33 fresh stitches above his lip, center Craig Stephenson of Big Spring, Alberta, also will take a pass. "Nasty gash," says the coach. "He could have his teeth cleaned without opening his mouth."
Clark, who's standing in the cramped visitors' dressing room at Tingley Coliseum, then examines the lineup card for the last-place Jackalopes. Even among those able to play, more than half are nursing either a stress fracture or a shoulder separation. The battered tissue around the eyelids of many players on the roster offers the hues of a Polynesian sunset.
Not that any of the Jackalopes are complaining. Each seems grateful for the chance to play in the WPHL, with its $400-a-week wages and 5,000-seat arenas and up to 10-hour bus rides. What more could a man ask for in life?
Having seen minor league hockey blossom into the Confederacy's most unlikely growth industry in the early 1990s—who could have envisioned a Central League franchise called the Macon Whoopees?—WPHL founder and president Rick Kozuback in 1996 persuaded Canadian investors to support his new league, which would be made up of 12 teams in Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico. Thus were born not only the Jackalopes and Scorpions, but also the Amarillo Rattlers, Austin Ice Bats, Central Texas Stampede (which plays out of Belton), El Paso Buzzards, Fort Worth Brahmas, Lake Charles Ice Pirates, Monroe Moccasins, San Angelo Outlaws, Shreveport Mudbugs and Waco Wizards.
Kozuback's business plan is based on the theory that a novelty like hockey can be an appealing entertainment alternative in locales where Bloody T-Shirt Night at Bo's Tavern ranks as the top spectator draw. Kozuback says that if WPHL franchises watch their nickels and dimes, they can realize a profit by averaging 3,000 customers per home game. "That's 3,000 paid, not counting the freebies," he stresses, "and so far only two of our 12 teams [Fort Worth and Waco] aren't meeting financial expectations. Some franchises—Austin, Lake Charles and San Angelo—are thriving, and next season we're expanding into Corpus Christi, Little Rock and possibly the Rio Grande Valley."
WPHL teams hold down overhead in part by paying their players Burger King wages. "But these guys are enjoying life to a greater extent than the players in the NHL," says New Mexico coach Garry Unger. Yes, that Garry Unger, who played 16 seasons in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues, among other teams. "I can confirm that major league salaries bring major league headaches."
He adds that few players in the WPHL will ever be able to dispute that, because the NHL prospects of most of these players are nil. "There are guys here with certain NHL skills, but not the complete package," Unger says. "But they're realistic, and their objective is the I [International Hockey League] or the A [American Hockey League], not the N."
A half hour later Unger's Scorpions, the second-best team in the WPHL, skate out and begin demolishing the Jackalopes, who are approaching the merciful conclusion of a stretch that has had them playing 12 games in 17 nights. In Tingley Coliseum, where the lighting is better suited to a seance than a hockey game and vertical steel beams obstruct many of the fans' views of both creases, New Mexico determines the outcome in the first three minutes with three goals. Backup Michael Tornquist replaces veteran Billy Pye in the net for Odessa when the score reaches 6-0 early in the second period, but Pye is soon back on the ice after Tornquist receives a game misconduct for attempting to fillet a Scorpion's thigh with his goalie stick. In the course of the game, four fights break out; New Mexico wins them all. In the final minutes of the 9-0 Scorpions victory, Pye sips from a plastic water bottle and appears oblivious to the crowd behind him that is gleefully chanting, "Goal-ie! Goal-ie! You suck! You suck!" When the debacle concludes, the Jackalopes quickly shower, dress and pile into two vans for the trip back to the local Sleep Inn, where they will try to forget about their dismal performance.
Pye has seen more glorious days. In 1991 he watched in gratified exhaustion when the red light flashed at the opposite end of the ice as Northern Michigan, for which he played, won the NCAA final in a triple overtime classic against Boston University. That summer Pye signed a contract with the Buffalo Sabres. He was assigned to Rochester of the AHL and began fine-tuning his game in anticipation of a trip to the NHL.
His career never took off. Seated in a diner across from the Sleep Inn several hours after the loss to New Mexico, Pye, 29, lists the teams he has suited up for in the last seven seasons: "Let's see, there's the Rochester Americans, the Fort Wayne Comets, the Columbus Chill, the New Haven, uh, somethings—the Falcons, I think—the South Carolina Sting Rays, the Waco Wizards and the Odessa Jackalopes."