Fans worked into a frenzy at dramatic 2OT Ice Wolves playoff game

Apr. 23—Hockey in the desert is alive and well.

On Tuesday evening, the Outpost Ice Arenas was filled to the brim with many different sweaters in colors ranging from turquoise to black to white and even green all emblazoned with the distinctive red and gold wolf head logo of the New Mexico Ice Wolves of the North American Hockey League.

In the South Division semifinals of the Robertson Cup playoffs late Tuesday night, New Mexico stayed alive with a thrilling 4-3 double overtime win over the Lone Star Brahmas.

Rasmus Leijonhielm scored the game winner with 8:24 in the second overtime, forcing another home game Wednesday night in the Outpost at 6:30 p.m. The Brahmas lead the best of five series 2-1.

In their sixth season in the junior hockey league designed to help players earn college scholarships, the Ice Wolves have drawn a rabid following.

"They're so much fun," said Angela Sauers, whose family got involved with the team in the first season. "It's family-oriented. There's so much for them to do. They have the sides open so our kids right now are skating on the sides. The can watch from there. There's so many interactive things they can do. They make it such a fun, family-friendly game."

And playoff hockey is notorious for its intensity as was evidenced by the occasional fights and frequent post-whistle scrums that had fans on their feet and kept the officials busy keeping things under control.

One fan waved a home poster that read: "Brahma drama," each time Lone Star players confronted an Ice Wolves players.

"I think it's a lot more enjoyable," said 14-year-old Logan Tafoya of the playoff vibe. "There's a lot more action, You're more likely to see things happen. The stand are a lot fuller. Just overall, I enjoy it a lot more. I like how, even though it is a smaller arena, the fans are really lively and the game are really enjoyable."

That's the way Sauers sees it, as well

"There's nothing like playoffs," she said. "It's so much fun. You take a sport that's already so exciting and you turn it up three notches. It's physical. It's gritty. There's fights. There's the skill level. You think these kids are so skilled, and then you see them in the playoffs and it's just, where do this come from? It's just amazing."

When Ryan Seelinger scored with seven minutes remaining in the third period to put New Mexico up 3-1, the fans got their chance to get involved, filling the ice with gray, squishy wolves that has been an Ice Wolves tradition on such occasions.

"They're gritty, they're exciting. They're fun," said Nicole Bazzano, who has been hockey fan her whole life, but started attending Ice Wolves games last season after billeting several of the players. Owner Stan Hubbard "does a really good job at organizing the games and bringing fans in. When it comes to scoring, you have the wolves going on the ice. The music. You have the entertainment in between period. He does a really good job of organizing all of that. And they're just really fun games to watch, Good hockey, really action packed."

Both Bazzano described herself as a prototypical hockey fan.

"I'm a rowdy fan. I've been a hockey fan all my life. I get loud. I'm rowdy," Bazzano said. "I like the fights. I like hits. I like the goals that are being scored. So, I'm loud and rowdy."

For Sauers, whose hockey journey started 15 years ago when her daughter wanted to start playing, being a hockey fan is all encompassing.

"As a fan, I've the loud, banging-on-the-glass, screaming, cheering hockey mom fan for so long, so we get loud and carry it to the Ice Wolves games, also."

But Bazzano said the best part of the Ice Wolves experience actually happens off the ice.

"Honestly, getting to know the players," she said. "I really enjoy (the players) who live with us. They bring the other players to our house. Getting to know them, getting to know their families. It's a really great experience meeting all these new people and they're all really good guys. So that's been my favorite."