In a land where people can trace their roots back farther than Chris Chelios’ rookie season, some traditions have withstood the test of time.
For the Taos Indians who have called northern New Mexico home for more than 1,000 years, their deep sense of community can be summed up in the tribal phrase, “we are in one nest.”
As their ancestors have done, the men and women of the tribe work together to tend to crops, build homes and care for the children. The elders pass on the values and traditions to their children and their children’s children, which keeps the Taos culture alive and well to this day.
That sense of community has drifted off the sacred Indian land in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and has transcended the cultural boundaries of the people who call this small New Mexican community home.
Nowhere is that sense of service and family more evident than among the small but passionate hockey community in Taos.
Like most cultures, the story of Taos hockey is loaded with colorful legends and tall tales that have been passed down from generation to generation.
There are the tales of how hockey got its start on a horse ranch in the shadow of the mountain, and how a small group of dedicated volunteers built the first outdoor rink in the town park, and how passionate parents marched on town hall after the mayor threatened to close the rink.
Then there’s the story of how one young hockey player would run three miles through the frigid early winter morning air with his hockey bag slung over his shoulder to make it to Saturday hockey practice.
To this day, 20-year-old Carlos Abeyta casts an embarrassed glance as the story is told yet again. As with any good tale, the miles increase, the route grows more treacherous and the winter mornings become more frigid each time it’s told.
Abeyta can only laugh when asked to separate fact from local fiction.
“To be honest, I don’t even know why I did it. I could have had rides if I wanted them,” says Abeyta, who now coaches the same Taos High School team that he led to four consecutive state championships.
“I guess it was something inside of me wanting to be better. I really like to push my limits.”
People in Taos are known for pushing themselves to the limit, whether it’s artistically, athletically or otherwise. The tiny town of 6,000 located 35 miles from the Colorado border, has long been a destination of world-renowned artists, ski enthusiasts and celebrities, such as Julia Roberts and Donald Rumsfeld, looking to get away from the bright lights and big cities.
While the rich and famous may call Taos home, it is also home to some of the poorest people in the region. For a town where the per capita income is $20,912, or more than $10,000 below the national average, keeping hockey affordable is the only way to keep it alive.
Parents elsewhere may spend more on hockey tape than Taos families pay to get their kid on the ice. It costs $125 for Mite and Squirt-aged players to suit up for a season, and those who do not have equipment can receive OneGoal loaner gear for a $50 deposit, which is refunded when the gear is returned at the end of the season.
Once bitten by the hockey bug, Peewees and Bantams dig a little deeper into their pockets for $250.
Keeping costs down is an essential part of enticing new players and parents to try hockey with relatively little to lose and so much to gain. There is also a scholarship program to help those families who still can’t afford it.
“We would never turn down a kid who wanted to play hockey. Never,” says Brian Greer, the director of the Taos Youth & Family Center who is also the high school coach.
First-time players are outfitted with gear provided through the OneGoal program, while those willing to take a return trip around the rink are helped out by older kids who pass on their used equipment like a winter coat gets passed down to younger brothers and sisters.
It also helps when an hour of ice costs $35 in the town-owed rink, and teams aren’t socked with whopping travel bills. Teams from around the state will drop into Taos to play what amounts to a doubleheader before heading home. Several times a season, Taos teams will return the favor by traveling to Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Albuquerque.
Twice a season, Taos will also play host to teams from around the region at a Thanksgiving tournament and the season-ending Coyote Classic.
Hanging from the rafters at the Taos rink are state championship banners dating from 1995, when Abeyta and his friends were Mites, through 2004, when the same group of kids were seniors in high school. The banners represent the glory days of Taos hockey, a time when the Coyotes were taking on bigger programs in Santa Fe and Albuquerque and beating them with some regularity.
The banners are a symbol of past achievements, and also serve as an inspiration to new generations of Taos hockey players.
Current high school players are so determined to place their own banner above the ice they’re willing to drag their bleary-eyed bodies to the rink four mornings a week before school.
For Greer, who was coaxed back behind the bench by a group of prep players, the high school program is an important means of exposing hockey to more Taos kids and their parents.
Marketing the game in non-traditional areas means more than just unlocking the rink and tossing some pucks on the ice. It means breaking down cultural barriers that exist in such an ethnically diverse area.
One of the oldest inhabited regions in the country, Taos has a multi-cultural history that includes the native Americans, Spanish settlers and white pioneers who were drawn by the area’s scenic beauty and fertile farmlands.
“It’s a very slow growing pyramid, but we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve crossed that diversity line and it’s gaining a broader acceptance,” says Greer.
“It’s pretty cool because there was a time when our town government, that is dominated by the Spanish, perceived hockey as something that was only for the Anglo kids. And now we have to be close to 50 percent of each [Anglo and non-Anglo].”
The Indian influence is everywhere in Taos, from the adobe houses to colorful artwork found in the myriad of galleries around town.
Several miles out of town, in the shadow of the Taos mountain, is the Taos Pueblo, the oldest inhabited dwelling in North America. According to the Pueblo’s Web site, it was probably built between 1000 and 1450 A.D., which means the Taos people were living in the Pueblo long before legend landed Christopher Columbus on American soil or the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.
While the Taos Indians hold on to many of their proud traditions close to home, they are also active members of the community. They work and shop in town, their children attend schools and participate in local athletic programs, including hockey.
“For the Native Americans, with their religious background and heritage, it’s a big move for them to come to a hockey rink. But then they realize that their kids love it,” Greer says.
“It’s slowly growing, which is probably the best way to put it. So we’re crossing all the barriers. But you have to remember, things move slowly in Taos.”
That was until 1997 when the mayor threatened to close the homemade outdoor rink located in Kit Carson Park near the downtown plaza. It angered local hockey people enough to march on city hall and pack a local city council meeting to demand a new direction in town.
“It seemed like the priority was heading in the wrong direction. It wasn’t going toward the kids and the families,” Greer says. “A lot of us parents wanted to put our energies into what was good for kids. We needed to convince the town that if they would just invest in recreation, invest in the kids and invest in the schools it would pay back for generations.”
Today, the Taos Youth & Family Center is a testament to the tenacity of the local hockey parents who helped the city council see the benefits of investing in their kids.
The rink, which was part of the initial construction, is open from November to March. It is part of a larger complex complete with indoor swimming pool, video arcade and skateboard park.
“It’s a very secure and satisfying feeling to see the boards and the glass and the ice and know that this is a real rink,” says Charlie Raskovics, whose relentlessness helped keep hockey alive in Taos.
“For years we got by with what we had and we were really happy with it. We didn’t know any better. Now it’s just very pleasing to know that what we have is here to stay.”
The rink is open on the south end with a full view of mountains. When the rink is closed down for the summer months it becomes a boxing ring, another passion in town.
Weather is one reason why there is no full-time ice in Taos. Another is that Greer and others in town encourage kids to play other sports, including soccer and baseball.
Greer continues to knock down the barriers that keep more Taos kids from playing hockey. Having tackled the cost issue, he’s set his sights on exposing more people to the game.
“In Minnesota everybody grows up thinking they’re going to play hockey. Here, nobody grows up thinking they’re going to play hockey, but still kids are attracted to it,” says Greer.
“That’s why we work so hard to make it so affordable because it is a great recreational alternative for kids. But we want to grow it more than we have. We haven’t reached a big percentage of the population yet. The awareness is finally there, and people understand it.”
What they do understand is how important hockey has been to the kids of Taos. It has given them a sense of purpose, a reason to go to school, and away to stay out of trouble.
“If it wasn’t for hockey I don’t know where I’d be,” says Abeyta. “It’s a great game and it can change people’s lives for the better. It did for me.”
And for those who have been involved in Taos hockey from the beginning to those who have taken that leap of faith by walking into the rink for the first time, they “are in one nest.” And that nest, as new as it may be, is a hockey community with a colorful past and an even brighter future.
“With the people we have in the program it feels like you’re coming to a family rink,” says Raskovics, who coaches numerous Taos teams.
“It’s a really good feeling to think about where we’ve come from to where we are today. Still, there’s always more stuff to do so you can’t spend time dwelling on it.
“Maybe when I’m sitting in a rocker when I’m older I’ll think about it. For now, there’s always something else going on at the rink.”