Marcelo Manzias is a Dakota Jackalopes fan. That might not seem too strange, even though the Jackalopes’ fanbase is a little on the small side these days. However, Marcelo isn’t just an ordinary fan. The 14-year-old lives in Monterrey, Mexico. Until this week, he’d never visited the Dakotas; in fact, he’d only been to the United States a couple of times before, to visit relatives in Texas. Until this week, Marcelo had never seen a hockey game before, either. He’d never even been inside an ice rink.
In short, Marcelo isn’t just an ordinary fan. The story of how he managed to learn about – and fall in love with – a team from thousands of miles away playing an unfamiliar sport is remarkable. And when the Dakota organization learned about it, they decided to give their most distant fan an experience he’ll never forget.
Like most kids in Monterrey, Marcelo grew up playing soccer and baseball. He’d never even heard of hockey until three years ago, when he and his dad built a transistor radio from a kit. When Marcelo began tuning his radio dial at night, he discovered that he could pull in signals from radio stations in faraway cities in the US and Mexico. One night, he came across station KRJC out of Rapid City, which carried broadcasts of Jackalopes game. Immediately, young Marcelo was entranced by the voice of play-by-play announcer Wayne Ballister.
“I did not know what was happening, but he made it sound very exciting and fun,” said Marcelo, describing Ballister’s broadcasts. “I knew I must learn more.”
Marcelo went to the local library and checked out the one or two hockey books they had available. Once he’d finished those, he used the library’s computers to learn what he could about the sport and the Jackalopes. He continued to tune in the broadcasts at night; as he grew to understand the sport, he began keeping box scores by hand in his notebook.
“It all sounded so wonderful,” said Marcelo. “The ice, the graceful skating, the exciting goals, the hard hits. I dreamed about it all.”
After years of following the games, Marcelo finally wrote a letter to the Jackalopes, telling them who he was and how he came to root for the team from so far away. He politely asked if they could send an autographed picture of his favorite player, LW “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston.
“I love him because he is small and fast, like me,” Marcelo explained.
When Jackalopes GM Paul Mindegaard read Marcelo’s letter, he was surprised and delighted. “Most of us came to love hockey by playing it as kids, on the frozen ponds in the winter or whatever,” said Mindegaard. “But here was a kid who’d never even seen a sheet of ice, and he’d fallen in love with the sport and with our team without ever seeing or playing it. It was such a great story.”
Mindegaard decided that he wanted to give Marcelo more than just a signed picture. He got in touch with Marcelo’s father, who confirmed that his son had somehow become a hockey nut from so far away. And so the Jackalopes organization paid to fly Marcelo and his family up to Rapid City, put them up in a hotel, and gave them tickets to Thursday night’s game against the Michigan Gray Wolves.
When Marcelo arrived, Mindegaard gave him a personal tour of Black Hills Arena, taking him everywhere from the playing surface to the benches to the locker rooms to the team offices. “The kid’s eyes were as big as saucers the whole time,” said the GM. “It was like he couldn’t believe he was really here.”
Marcelo and his family had seats at center ice, where they could see the action up close. Used to following along on the radio, Marcelo admitted it was a bit challenging to take it all in up close. “When the players slammed into the boards, it was loud and a little scary,” he said. “But I loved it.”
During the second period, Marcelo went up to the radio booth to meet Ballister, the man whose broadcasts had caused Marcelo to fall for the Jackalopes. Ballister interviewed Marcelo on the air, and he gave a shout-out to his family and friends at home in Monterrey. “I know some of them were listening, so that was cool,” Marcelo said.
Between the second and third periods, Marcelo got to ride on the Zamboni. The PA announcer explained that he’d come all the way from Mexico for the game, and the fans cheered as he grinned and waved. “I can’t believe I got to be on the ice, especially because I can’t skate,” Marcelo said.
Possibly inspired by the presence of their long-distance fan, the Jackalopes played one of their best games of the season. Goalie Christien Adamsson made 37 saves, and Marcelo’s favorite Airston scored the game-winning goal in overtime to stun mighty Michigan by a 2-1 score.
After the game was over, Mindegaard took Marcelo down to the home clubhouse, where he got to meet his hero. “At first, he was so shocked and nervous that he wouldn’t even go over,” Mindegaard said. “But I said I’d told Ryan about him, and that Ryan wanted to meet him. Eventually, he went over. Airston greeted him in Spanish (“I learned it in high school a little,” Airston said), then talked to him a while in English.
“I think it’s cool that our sport and our team reaches all the way to Mexico,” said Airston. “Marcelo’s story is really amazing, and it just goes to show what a great sport hockey is.”
He gave Marcelo his game-worn jersey, which he signed, as well as a puck from the game and a stick signed by the whole team. Mindegaard also gave Marcelo pictures of all the players.
“I never dreamed I would be able to see a game for myself in person,” Marcelo said. “All of this… it was more than my dreams.”
Marcelo’s father, Gustavo, expressed his gratitude to the team. “I still cannot believe this,” Gustavo said. “If they had sent my son the picture, it would have been enough. For them to care so much, to do this for a kid who lives so far away, who discovered hockey for himself… they are a wonderful team, wonderful.”
In a tough year for the Jackalopes, Marcelo and his story have been a much-needed ray of sunshine. “For once, it’s great to talk about something other than payroll and who we’re trading next,” Mindegaard said. “This is why I love my job, because I get to do something like this.”