Rampage On Ice 

It’s unusually quiet in the AT&T Center, except for the sound of blades gliding over ice and pucks striking Plexiglas, echoing throughout the virtually empty building. At the center of the arena, a freshly glazed hockey rink radiates cool air and bright light as San Antonio Rampage Head Coach Pat Conacher and Assistant Coach Gord Dineen lead their young men through practice. The players move with a speed and fluidity that belies their size, and though they are skating fast and striking hard, a calm steadiness hangs in the cold air as they move from one drill to the next.

Sporting their new team colors, a familiar silver and black, the Rampage are an affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Phoenix Coyotes. Celebrating their fifth consecutive season in the American Hockey League and in the Alamo City, the team is, in minor-league-baseball terms, roughly a Triple-A squad. The Rampage are looking to turn things around this year after posting the worst record (23-50) in the AHL last season.

As the surprisingly quick Zamboni smoothes the ice and the players take a break, I chat with Rampage spokesman Tobin Ernst, who recalls failed San Antonio hockey franchises like the Iguanas and Dragons, and is genuinely optimistic about his team’s chances to compete for a Calder Cup this season. According to Ernst, the Rampage are stocked with great goaltenders and, thanks to the acquisition of players like Don MacLean (last season’s AHL MVP) and Bryan Helmer (a second team All-Star), possess solid depth throughout their roster. MacLean and Helmer were plucked from the Grand Rapids Griffins, who posted the best record in the AHL last year — and face the Rampage in SA’s home opener.

After practice, I talk with Jeff Taffe — a returning player originally from Minnesota, who began playing hockey at the age of three — about last season’s struggles and the mounting optimism for the current campaign.

“I’ll be the first one to say I had a terrible year last year, and it just didn’t sit very well with me all summer,” admits Taffe in his Midwestern twang. “So I put a lot of work in this summer to get myself ready, and this is as good as I’ve felt in five years playing pro hockey. This time around, I think everybody’s a little bit more comfortable … I think guys know that we have a good team this year and it’s just a little bit lighter. Last year, it was kind of hard to come to the rink when you have a losing team.”

Coach Conacher, who played five seasons with NHL legend Wayne Gretzky and is in his second season with the Rampage, is equally positive: “I really feel we’ve added an elite core of veterans that have either played at the NHL level or American-league level, and had success individually and as members of championship teams,” he says. “When you bring in people that have won before, it kind of rubs off on other people that haven’t had the opportunity yet and it has a great influence on which way your team goes. Expectations are always high. No matter who your personnel is, you’ve got to set those goals and go from there.”

Don MacLean, who Conacher refers to as a “game-breaker,” is eagerly anticipating the upcoming home opener with his former team. “I think for everybody it’s gonna be high-tempo just because it’s the first game of the season,” says MacLean. “There’s gonna be a few mistakes, because a lot of guys are playing together for the first time and some rookies in the lineup will be a little nervous on both sides, but I think overall everyone’s gonna be excited and it’s gonna be a hard-fought game.”

The former MVP hopes his presence will be a factor — both in the win column and in the effort to draw more than last year’s average of just over 4,000 fans per game to the AT&T Center.

“As far as a team, I wouldn’t expect any less than the playoffs,” MacLean bluntly proclaims. “I’m not gonna stamp the Calder Cup already, but I think we’ve got `as` good `a` shot as anybody on paper so far, but 80 games is a long season with call-ups, injuries, and what not. I think the fans should expect a much more competitive, exciting, offensive style of team than they have had in the past.”

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