Probably the last place that you would expect to have a long hockey history that dates back 50 years, is Amarillo, Texas.
Out in the Texas Panhandle five hours from the heart of Texas hockey in Dallas, Amarillo boasts a strange history that both goes back decades and was short-lived. The town has seen three different teams play under the same name, was one of the first towns to have a viral nickname, and through it all, has found hockey stability over the last 20-plus years despite playing in three different leagues.
Hockey heads to the Old West
Hockey in the central part of America wasn’t really a new idea, with the then-Central Professional Hockey League forming in 1963, but most players who were worth anything trying to get to the then-six team NHL played in the IHL or AHL.
But when the NHL doubled in size for the 1968 season, so came the need for more farm teams for those new NHL franchises to keep their prospects. The Pittsburgh Penguins and founder Jack McGregor for some reason thought Amarillo, Texas was the place that their farm team should be, setting up the Amarillo Wranglers to play in the newly-named Central Hockey League, and the newly built Amarillo Civic Center, a 5,000 seat multi-purpose arena.
The Wranglers hit the ice in that 1968-69 season…and weren’t great both on the ice and in the stands despite the NHL affiliation. In the 9-team CHL, the Wranglers finished with a mark of 29-32-11 missing the playoffs by 11 points and finishing 7th in attendance at 1,990 fans a game. Not many players from that first season went on to long careers in higher leagues despite being a feeder to the Penguins, with defenseman Doug Barrie having the longest career at higher levels, playing more than 500 games in the WHA and NHL for Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Los Angeles, and Edmonton.
The poor play on the ice, and poor attendance caused the Penguins and McGregor and the team to cease operations for the 1969-70 season, and in an even stranger twist, the same group brought the team back for the 1970-71 season for round two of Amarillo Wranglers hockey.
It didn’t go any better.
The CHL was down to seven teams that season, and the Wranglers were DEAD LAST by a mile. Going 14-47-11, finishing last by 23 points, but more importantly, finishing dead last in the league in attendance. After averaging nearly 2,000 fans a night in the first season, the Wranglers 2.0 averaged just 1,646 fans. For comparison’s sake, the team that was 2nd worst in attendance that season was in Tulsa, where the Oilers averaged 3,419 fans a night. More than double the Wranglers.
So hockey, once again, was gone in Amarillo after McGregor and the Penguins again ceased operations. This version of the Wranglers did not come back.
An ambitious idea
Hockey fans in Amarillo did not have to wait long for their next crack at the sport, when the newly-formed Southwest Hockey League was formed, and Amarillo was granted one of the six founding franchises for the league in 1975.
The SWHL was not pro hockey, but sort of like a senior junior league, with players being 18-and-up, and going to school while playing. Teams gave the players room and board, tuition for a local college, and a $60 monthly stipend. Kind of think of it as college hockey for towns that didn’t have college hockey, but where players could move on to the NCAA or pro hockey after.
The league really wasn’t Southwest, while it had teams in Amarillo, Albuquerque, El Paso, and Reno, it also had teams in Butte and Billings, Montana for some reason. Not at all Southwest.
The Amarillo team in the SWHL was once again named the Wranglers. The third attempt at making that name work.
And the team was a hit on the ice! The SWHL Wranglers racked up a 40-30-2 record in their first season, giving up the fewest goals in the league and claiming the SWHL regular season championship. The Wranglers kept that momentum rolling, and captured the league championship on home ice, the first hockey championship for the Texas Panhandle.
Some of the star players on that championship squad included mac Severyn, who racked up 89 points in 62 games that year, Kelly Kehoe, who posted 85 points in 72 games, and Kirk Fyffe who netted 81 points in 65 games. Each of those three broke 40 goals, scoring 45, 44, and 43. The star in net was Doug Allan, who posted a 3.30 GAA that season, backstopping the Wranglers in 65 regular season games.
But the SWHL was not for long. It turns out having to pay for players’ college tuition as well as other costs is just as much as paying them salaries, and the SWHL was running out of money fast, with Amarillo one of the only teams who had enough fan support to be a viable team.
In the middle of the second season, the Wranglers owner sued the SWHL, forcing the team to change its name to the Amarillo Lone Stars, who never played with a logo, and borrowed jerseys from the team in Minot so they didn’t resemble the Wranglers.
The writing was on the wall for the SWHL, and on January 24, 1977, just past the halfway point of the SWHL season, the league and all six of its teams folded. At the time Amarillo was in second place with a 26-18 record.
After that, the Texas Panhandle would have to wait nearly 20 years for hockey to make its return to Amarillo.
Pro hockey returns
In 1996 minor league hockey returned to the southern part of the central United States with the newly formed Western Professional Hockey League.
The league started with six teams, mainly in Texas and Louisiana, one of which was the newly formed Amarillo Rattlers.
And the return of hockey proved to be a hit in Amarillo! The Rattlers routinely packed the Amarillo Civic Center, averaging just under 3,600 fans per game in the first season, despite finishing dead last that first season at 17-39-8. The Rattlers were able to keep that strong attendance going over their entire time in the WPHL, averaging around 3,400 fans per night.
Unfortunately for hockey fans in Amarillo, the team was BAD. Really bad. They never once made the playoffs in five season in the WPHL, and their “best” season was a 31-30-8 mark in 1998-99 for 70 points, where they still missed the playoffs.
But like the SWHL before it, the WPHL was not for long, expanding too quickly and hitting 18 teams in 1999-2000, before dropping to 14 the next season, the last under the WPHL name.
In 2001, the remaining WPHL teams merged with the new CHL (no relation to the old CHL the Amarillo Wranglers played), and this time, Amarillo was one of those teams, with the Rattlers playing in the Northwest Division. Despite an Amarillo-best 3700 fans a night that first season in the new CHL, the Rattlers still stunk on the ice, going 19-39-6, again finishing last.
But it was time for a chance, and with it came one of the wildest names in hockey history, one that still lives on in infamy today.
The Amarillo what?!
After the 2001-02 season, the Rattlers changed owners and with it came a new name.
As the radio voice of the team put it, you could have knocked over the crowd with a feather when the new owners announced the team would play the 2002-03 season as the Amarillo Gorillas.
And it kind of worked! The Gorillas maintained that fan base the Rattlers had built, drawing just under 3700 fans in their first season, but FINALLY making the playoffs with a mark of 39-23-1, finishing second in the Northwest Division, but getting bounced in the opening round.
But the Gorillas were able to maintain that on-ice success for the next four years, making it five-straight playoff appearances, including back-to-back trips to the league semi-finals.
The most notable accomplishment for the Gorillas during that time came in the 2005-06 season when forward Derek Hahn posted a stunning 114 points in 64 games, winning the scoring title by seven points and capturing CHL MVP honors.
While the Gorillas were steady in attendance the first four years, averaging around 3300 fans a night, as the economy turned for the worse, so did fan support in Amarillo.
Over the final four seasons of the Gorillas, attendance dipped from just under 2900 fans a night, to a sad 1,761 in the final season of the Gorillas, who announced that the 2009-10 season would be the final season in town for the team.
But unlike the last time hockey left town, there would be no wait to replace the team.
Junior hockey takes over Cow Town
With the down economy and many towns losing their minor pro teams, many of those towns turned to junior hockey as a way to fill the void of hockey in towns, while managing to do so at a cheaper price than the pro teams.
In 2010, the North American Hockey League came to town, bringing with it the Amarillo Bulls, who would play in the NAHL’s South Division, which had teams across Texas and even over into New Mexico.
And the Bulls proved to be a hit by NAHL standards, both on and off the ice! The Bulls, led by head coach Dennis Williams, dominated the NaHl from the start, reaching the Robertson Cup Playoffs, and even Robertson Cup Final Round, each of their first three seasons. The best stretch came in 2011-12 and 2012-13, when the team went a COMBINED 92-14-5-9 for 198 points over those two seasons. It all culminated with a Robertson Cup victory in 2013, when the Bulls made the final game, and rolled the Wenatchee Wild, 5-0 for the first championship since the Wranglers in the SWHL.
But since then the Bulls have fallen on hard times. Williams led the Bulls back to the playoffs the next season after the title, where they were eliminated in the second round. Following that season, Williams left, and has since made his way to the WHL and the Everett Silvertips, and since his departure, the Bulls have been trying to recapture that same magic.
Since Williams’ departure, the Bulls have missed the playoffs each of the past four years, and seen three head coaches come through the doors, bottoming out in 2015-16 when they posted a mark of just 13-43-2-2.
Currently at the helm is Rocky Russo, an assistant on the great early Bulls teams, who in his first season helped the team improve by three points with a very young foundation. Through it all, the Bulls have maintained a strong fan base in Amarillo, never dipping below 2,000 fans a night after the first season, routinely putting them among the Top-5 in the NAHL.
While the current Bulls work to get back to prominence, the players from those early great teams are starting to make their mark on hockey. Forward Brady Ferguson was the active NCAA scoring leader this past season in college hockey, and the team saw its first player reach the NHL, when goalie Colin Delia was called up to the Chicago Blackhawks late this past season.
And that, is more than 1,800 words about hockey in Amarillo, and just how far back the sport goes in a town nobody would think of as a hockey hotbed.