At the ripe age of 15, I boarded a pale white bus in South West Texas, to traverse the pristine, unfettered waters of the river simply known by locals as “The Devils”. The bus ride itself was an adventure. You felt the weight of each bump as we careened side to side to avoid each ditch-like hole in the ground. The driver, a man in his 50’s, sang classic country tunes to himself, but was willing to share with the rest of the touristico on the 30 passenger, dilapidated school bus.
The ride eventually came to a halt as we reached a portion of Devils River. The river itself, only 90 miles long, has often been considered one of the mightiest in Texas for its rugged, unforgiving tendencies. Indeed, as a 15 year old high school student the thought of taking a canoe trip down its relentless being had me exhilarated. The goal was simple. Grab a thin boat, two oars, a lunch pail and canister of water, and begin the adventure of a lifetime.
Float trips were nothing new to me. In the span of three years I endured nearly a dozen of them from the White River in Arkansas to the Red River in Southern Oklahoma, I really enjoyed the scenic tour as God intended the world to be viewed. One of the things that I learned, despite my awkward teen years being filled with crippling shyness, was that these trips were better experienced with someone. Not only for the enjoyment of togetherness, but rather for safety. I would soon find out just how important my fellow paddler would be.
As we began the trip, we were told by our guide that we were 100% free to roam the river how we would see fit. We were given one very simple rule – “Don’t get out of the boat” – we all nodded, and we were off. Our guide, who was probably only 3 or 4 years older than myself, paddled ahead of us and within 10 minutes was completely gone from our sight. As time wore on, in the first 10 miles or so, it was just one canoe and the mighty river. Alone in a rough and tumble wilderness, pristine water beneath, the echo of each paddle stroke bouncing off the rock faces that jetted from the earth like sugar stick candy – it was mesmerizing. My paddling companion and I didn’t speak for nearly and hour and a half as we viewed the spectacle of the waters edge, the wildlife, the lack of human domination. THIS was life along the Devil’s River, the portion of the Rio Grande that eventually led to Del Rio.
A brief stop for lunch catapulted my curiosity. We paddled our canoe to the edge of the river, found an embankment to waddle up, and immediately broke rule number one given to us by our guide – don’t get out of your boat. As we stepped foot on the muddy clay we felt like explorers making our presence known in this new world. A handful of large lizards were baking in the sun on a nearby log as we unpackaged our peanut butter sandwiches and Cool Ranch Doritos. As I took a long, bitingly cold drink from my steel canister I had a thought. Directly across from where we enjoyed a meal fit for a king was a 50 foot rock face with what seemed like a path worn over time by adventurious souls like myself. The path, just wide enough for a goat, started near the bottom and gently weaved its way side to side up the large hunk of God-made earth. I’m not sure if I said it out loud or if we were just on the same wave length, but my companion and I immediately nudged our canoe off the embankment, and landed at the bottom of the rock face where we would make our descent towards the 50 foot heights.
I manned up, climbed to the top, and immediately peered over the edge. The clarity of the water was remarkable. At only about 25 feet deep, the water beckoned me – “Jump, Jump”. Then I heard my friend at the bottom echo that sentiment – “Jump, Jump”. I paused momentarily, saw the face of my guide like a vision that whispered in my ear, I took a breath, I jumped. As my legs hit the water, my body reacting to the crisp, cold feeling of the water, I plummeted to the bottom rather quickly. 50 feet was no joke. I came close to hitting the bottom of the riverbed so I feverishly kicked my legs as I pushed my way to the surface. No problem, I thought.
I emerged, took a deep, harrowing breath, and doggie paddled for about 20 feet. I soon realized that the current was much swifter than I had expected, and a fight had begun. My legs were challenged by the cold and by the swift moving rapids that seemed so calm when I was in the confines of the boat. As I started to struggle to get back to the canoe I knew that the safest bet here was to get to the top of the water. I somehow managed to find the strength to kick and swing my arms towards the bottom of the rock face where our canoe had been nestled for only 10 minutes. For each stroke I took I’d move a half foot towards the boat, but 3 feet down river. I was fighting a losing battle. As my muscles seized, and my breathing became shallow I became fearful of what might happen if I didn’t make it back across.
They say your life flashes before your eyes in moments like this, but quite honestly, all I could think of is “How stupid am I?” or rather “What an awful way to go out!” I often think back to this time in my life and realize the errors of my ways, sometimes I laugh, sometimes I immediately remember that near-death moment, and count myself lucky.
Somehow, some way, and by some luck I found myself clinging to a tree branch, the only one for 500 yards in either direction, as I attempted to refill my lungs with air. As I turned to look back upstream, in the direction of the canoe, my paddling friend was nowhere to be found. That’s when I saw him take the plunge. I wasn’t cheering for him to jump, as he had done me, but rather I knew the struggle that was forthcoming. I knew the fear, the pain, the danger. So I awaited his journey to end as mine did, stuck to a broken tree limb 200 yards from where we both entered the water.
Indeed, he struggled. I watched him go through the entire range of emotions that I did as he struggled to connect his muscle movements to what was raging through his synapses. As he bobbed up and down in the water I yelled at him to push for the tree, and he did. After a solid minute of quiet he looked at me, with no emotion, and simply said, “Why did we get out of the boat?.” Agreed.
As we planned our escape from our glorious tree branch we contemplated the cost of going back in the “The Devil’s” waters. The swim sideways, downstream was nearly insurmountable, and thus the thought of going upstream, in our worn-out condition, seemed impossible. Around the bend of the river, where we had left our canoe, another paddler emerged. We yelled, he secured our canoe to his, and he saved our weary 15 year old bodies. We were grateful for his assistance, both knowing we might have been stuck on that branch for days, and we hopped back into our vessel. Before the man loosened his canoe from ours, he turned, and said something that I’ll never forget – “Don’t get out of the boat”.
Rules, not made to be broken, often times protect us from ourselves. Like me, 15 years old and making a decision that nearly cost me my life, we have to learn these things the hard way. At the time, it seemed that the rule was a suggestion, not even a guideline, but something to consider rather than an actual cold hard fact. Had I adhered to this protective rule while on the Devil’s River I wouldn’t have spent the next 30 or so miles post-rock-jump throwing up over the side of the boat as a result of dehydration and nerves. The rules – they exist for a reason.
Rules. Todd Nelson, the coach of the Oklahoma City Barons, is a stickler for them. Don’t let his laid back charm fool you, he knows that the teams that he coaches are bound by unchangeable rules that keep them above the water line. Without them, the challenge to stay alive isn’t even worth considering.
His rules are simple. Play the system. Make few mistakes. Trust that both will qualify your successfulness. That seems like a minimalist approach to coaching the game of hockey, but through its zen-like mantra these rules alleviate the struggle.
Who on God’s green earth could have predicted that in late April of 2014, nearly 140 transactions, 9 goaltenders later that Todd Nelson would have a Calder Cup postseason team? Not me. But then again I know the rules. I have watched them work beautifully for three seasons prior. I fully embrace them, expect them, and plan on them working. And this is where we are right here, right now, seeing the Barons barely making the playoffs, and facing off against the Texas Stars in the first round of the AHL postseason.
Like the “Devil’s River”, the Texas Stars are an unforgiving lot. They are tough defensively, potent offensively, and net strong each and every night. They are rough, and strong, and capable of surprising even the most formidable of opponents. No team is too large, too big, too tough, too powerful for the Stars to overtake.
Startistically speaking, they are the best team in the AHL this season, and boy are they dangerous of late. 8-1-0-1 in their last ten games leading up to the postseason, they are a squad that own 3 of the top 20 point scorers in the league (with only two of them currently on the team; Sceviour playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Dallas).
They have two of the best goaltenders in Cristopher Nilstorp and Jack Campbell. They have a defense that doesn’t score a whole bunch, but does exactly what you want them to do, and that’s protect their blue line. Names like Fortunas, Gaunce, Oleksiak keep the defensive stoutness together on a nightly basis. Their scheme is simple, yet effective, and that’s to keep forwards out of their zone. They are a force.
Historically speaking the Oklahoma City Barons and Texas Stars have matched up fairly well. From an OKC perspective the last four years have seen the Barons go 24-15-2-3 against Texas. That’s a good number, but it’s not dominant by any stretch of the imagination.
You’ll recall that only a season ago the tables were turned, and it was the Oklahoma City Barons that were the league-wide force to be reckoned with. A second round meeting of the two teams ended with OKC giving them very little chance of surviving in an eventual 4-1 series victory en route to the Western Conference Finals. One game from the Calder Cup Finals.
The saving grace, if you want to call it that, for the Oklahoma City Barons against this year’s Texas Stars is that Dallas has made the playoffs. This doesn’t mean that the Barons have the edge even in a quick five game series that starts in OKC. No, the Texas Stars have won consistently regardless of the positioning of the Dallas Stars, but it at least alleviates the blow just a bit.
Travis Morin. Curtis McKenzie. Justin Dowling. Brett Ritchie. Scott Glennie. The Stars are littered with players with incredible scoring skills. Meanwhile Oklahoma City is the complete opposite. They find their success in playing “gutted” hockey that relies less on skill and more on challenging their opponent to beat them. In the end, the Barons are going to have to really challenge the Stars in every possible sense of the word.
Here is the current roster for the Stars:
Notice that Colton Sceviour and Chris Mueller are absent from the current roster. They are in Dallas playing against the Anaheim Ducks. Likewise, defenseman Patrick Nemeth is in the same boat.
Here is the current roster for the Barons:
The Barons have 22 forwards, the Stars 16. The Barons have 10 defenders, the Stars 8. The depth for Oklahoma City is obviously much greater, but sometimes quantity isn’t quality, and that pretty much explains this situation perfectly.
Oklahoma City is a youthful squad with not a ton of experience, and that might be the deciding factor in this series. Texas is built for speed and strength, and the young Barons might be left in shambles as a result.
With the first game being this Wednesday (4/23) it is absolutely critical that the Barons win at least one of the games in the 2-3 best of five series. OKC will have to overcome the young tendencies in their squad, and rely heavily on former Stars goaltender, Richard Bachman, to save their bacon. Anton Lander will need to continue to emerge as the scoring leader and captain while Ben Eager and Steve Pinizzotto will need to contribute without costing their squad. It is going to be a battle.
In summation, this is going to be one heckuva series that is quick and dirty. Do the Barons survive? I doubt it. But don’t completely ignore Todd Nelson coached teams, and his rules, because they’ve surprised us before. Expect the unexpected, just don’t get out of the boat.
Western Conference Quarterfinals – Series “E” (best-of-5)
1-Texas Stars vs. 8-Oklahoma City Barons
Game 1 – Wed., Apr. 23 – Texas at Oklahoma City, 7:00
Game 2 – Sat., Apr. 26 – Texas at Oklahoma City, 8:00
Game 3 – Wed., Apr. 30 – Oklahoma City at Texas, 7:30
*Game 4 – Fri., May 2 – Oklahoma City at Texas, 7:30
*Game 5 – Sat., May 3 – Oklahoma City at Texas, 7:00