When most people think of sports in Mexico, the first images that come to mind are baseball and soccer. Although the nation has 18 ice rinks and 2,200 registered players, including 1,800 at the junior level -- respectable participation for a non-traditional hockey country -- few people outside its small hockey community even know the sport exists in the country. However, Mexico has been part of the world hockey community for a quarter-century, gaining membership in International Ice Hockey Federation in 1985. The country made its international tournament debut at the 2000 Group D (now Division III) World Championships.
Mexico currently plays at the Division II level and is No. 38 in the world, according to the most recent IIHF international rankings. That is up nine spots from its ranking five years ago. The Mexican hockey community has no pretensions of becoming a Division I-caliber country anytime soon. Instead, the goal is to build participation by providing more people with access to the game. Apart from the ups and downs of the national teams' performances at the senior and junior World Championships, Mexico's program faces significant ongoing challenges in continuing to build the sport.
On the bright side, the top junior clubs -- such as the ones based out of Lomas Verdes and San Jeronimo in Mexico City -- have access to quality coaches and have produced some youngsters who have gone on to play Junior B hockey in Canada. Unfortunately, club hockey in Mexico typically has been based around Mexico City with only minor participation elsewhere, primarily centered in Guadalajara, Monterrey, Toluca and Leon. Six of the country's rinks are located in or around Mexico City.
Toward this end, the most recent Azteca Tournament and the Division II Mexican national league featured a record number of teams (11) participating, and there were concerted efforts to increase players' access to the Olmeca, Tolteca and Maya tournaments.
Providing youngsters and interested adults widespread access to the game has been an ongoing challenge in Mexico. The costs associated with the game -- ice time and equipment -- traditionally have limited participation to higher-income families. While some Mexican rinks charge fees as low as $70 U.S. per month, others charge as much as $150 per month. Some leagues and rinks offer rental equipment at a nominal cost per use (less than $3), but the expense adds up fast for the lower-income population. Add in factors like the Mexican climate and lack of mainstream visibility of hockey within the country, and the challenge of building the sport becomes even more daunting.
The majority of players in Mexico are those who can afford to buy their own equipment. In a country where hockey has to be sought out by those who want to play -- and in which few private or public sponsorships exist to defray operating costs for hockey clubs -- the task of increasing Mexican hockey's visibility and participation has proven quite difficult -- but not impossible.
The Mexican Hockey Federation has taken significant steps recently to increase the domestic and international visibility of its national program. Earlier this year, Mexico hosted two IIHF-sanctioned international tournaments. At the senior level, the Division II Group A World Championship took place in Mexico City. Several weeks earlier, Monterrey hosted the Under-18 Division III Group B World Championship. In recent years, the country has hosted the men's Division III World Championship (2005) and the 2008 U-18 Division III Group A Worlds.
Mexico's men's national team won one of four games in the Division II Worlds, finishing fifth in the six-team field. While these results may seem modest, Mexico threw a scare into eventual gold medalist Spain before losing 4-2; the Mexicans also dominated cellar-dwelling Turkey by a 9-2 score. Also encouraging was the attendance. Several games drew 3,000 fans to Lomas Verdes in Mexico City. In the U-18 tournament, Mexico finished second, losing only to undefeated New Zealand (5-4) in the final game of the competition.
Things did not go nearly as well as the U-20 Division II Group A World Championship in Debrecen, Hungary, in December 2009. Mexico finished last and was relegated to Division III after scoring just 4 goals and allowing 77 in five games. In the most lopsided games of the tourney, Mexico lost 28-0 to Hungary and 25-1 to Great Britain.
Moving forward, the key to building hockey in Mexico will be to expand the existing infrastructure of its program. The natural inclination is to wonder if Mexico can follow a similar model to the one Spain has used to win the recent Division II tournament in Mexico City and earn a promotion to the Division I level next season. Earlier this year, Spanish IIHF Council member Frank Gonzalez said there can't be a direct parallel, but there are some common themes that Mexico and other non-traditional hockey countries can glean from one another.
"Each country is so unique in their way of life, traditions and their day-to-day activities. Even though it might sound that Spain and Mexico are very alike because of the language and our history, we are completely different from each other; our ministries of sport work completely different, the funding is different, our targets in the long and short run are different. But what makes us so similar is that we are starting from zero when it comes to the infrastructure of our federations. Although we in Spain have the base, the employees, volunteers and technical staff to start the process," Gonzalez said.
In Mexico, there have been steps taken to get the process moving. The challenge will be to follow through on the progress that has been made over the last few years.
I remember the first time at Wrigley Field all of us had the long johns, the turtlenecks and the extra equipment because we were afraid of being cold. Halfway through the first period everybody's ripping everything off and we just ended up wearing what we would normally wear for a game at the United Center.
— Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp on the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic