Hockey has come, and hockey has gone, in Rio Rancho.
Not once, but three times: The City of Vision’s Santa Ana Star Center, since renamed Rio Rancho Events Center, was the venue for the New Mexico Scorpions (2006-09) and the New Mexico Mustangs (2010-12); the New Mexico Renegades (2009-14) played at Blades Multiplex Arenas, now The McDermott Athletic Center (The MAC)..
That said, a former Rio Rancho Public Schools teacher is on a quest to see it “return,” in a way, enticing more youngsters to take up the sport.
Sandra Gray-Romero, the outreach coordinator on the New Mexico Amateur Hockey Association’s board of directors, is adamant about seeing the ice sport’s return.
To start her quest, she reached out to the Arizona Coyotes, whose National Hockey League team plays in the Gila River Arena in Glendale, a short slap shot away from State Farm Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
The Coyotes responded by sending its marketing team out to The MAC last Friday and Saturday to introduce the sport here. About a dozen youngsters showed up Friday to learn more about the game itself and even play a mock floor-hockey game, and more than three-dozen kids showed up Saturday to hit the ice there.
“I really have a two-fold goal,” Gray-Romero said. “One is to grow hockey in New Mexico, especially on this side of the river. … I want to grow hockey with these (Rio Rancho) kids, to come to love hockey the way our family loves hockey.
“I don’t want it to be, like, an exclusive sport; I want it to be a sport for everybody,” she said. “One of the things I want to do is reach out and see if I can get sponsors, people who want to grow hockey on this side of the river.”
After the July 16-17 activities, she said, “I think we’ve got a really good start to grow hockey here in our community. I talked to multiple parents who are ready to sign their kids up for the upcoming hockey season. In addition, we will continue to talk to bring (the Coyotes reps) back out in the fall. They were up in Santa Fe, too, but it seems our event saw a better turnout. Everyone was very happy today all around … kids and families had a great time.”
Ultimately, it’s going to take commitment to our community,” she explained. “The ice is very expensive, so that’s one of the things that keeps our kids from being on (the ice) often.
“We were hockey fans; we would watch hockey on TV,” she said. “One day, our son (Alex Romero) came and said, ‘Mom and Dad, I want to play hockey.’ He was about 11 at the time and we were like, ‘Well, that’s kind of strange to us,’ because me and my husband don’t skate.
“We were shocked, but we thought, ‘OK, he wants to do that. We’re going to support that.’
“We brought him (to The MAC) for skating lessons and he took to the ice; it was unbelievable,” she recalled. “After about three lessons, one of the teachers came over and said, ‘He doesn’t want to do this, he wants to play hockey.’ I said, ‘I don’t think he skates good enough to play hockey,’ and she said, ‘Yes, he does. Just put him on a team.’
“He’s been playing ever since; he was actually a late-starter,” she said, “so it just goes to show you — he started when he was about 11 years old and he’s been in NMAHA since then and now he’s with the Cougars’ (high school hockey team).”

Go east, young men

The Arizona Coyotes brought their inflatable mascot to place in front of The MAC during their recent visit.

How did she get the Coyotes to travel some 440 miles to Rio Rancho?
“I knew that the NHL has these outreach programs for communities … I have to say, the way they jumped so fast on this, I think I’m now a loyal Coyotes fan.”
Age divisions, set by USA Hockey, start with Mini-Mites (ages 6 and under) and range through high school varsity teams; Rio Rancho High School once had an all-Rams championship team. The Cougars are a composite team consisting of Cibola, Volcano Vista and Cleveland high school student-athletes.
Games are played October-February; home games are at The MAC, with away games played at rinks in Albuquerque (Outpost), Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Taos in New Mexico, as well as in Colorado and Texas (for prep teams).
For more information on hockey and/or the Learn to Skate program at The MAC, contact Gray-Romero at nmahaoutreach@gmail.com.