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Colombia national team finds success despite lack of ice time

Without an arena in country, players stay sharp playing roller hockey

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / Staff Writer

Editor's note: In recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs through Oct. 15, is featuring hockey teams with Hispanic ties. Today is the Colombia national ice hockey team. 

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- It's not easy being a member of Colombia's national ice hockey team.

The South American country of 50.34 million has no ice rinks, so the dedicated group of players substitute skating blades for wheels and play roller hockey to stay sharp.

When ice hockey tournaments arise, such as the 2019 Amerigol LATAM Cup Sept. 6-8 at the Florida Panthers IceDen, the players who live in Colombia arrive as early as possible to get as much time practicing on ice as they can before competition begins.

The results have been remarkable. Colombia failed to repeat as Amerigol Cup champions, losing to Jamaica 3-2 in a shootout in the final. But they pressed a Jamaica team that was stacked with Canadians of Jamaican heritage, several of whom played junior or collegiate hockey.

"It's kind of hard to understand that they only get to see ice once or twice a year and then they come out here and compete with the best teams in this tournament," said Colombia goalie Rudy Hodgson, a California native of Colombian descent who plays for DePaul University's American Collegiate Hockey Association Division II team. "It's kind of crazy to think how good they'd be if they had the privilege that I have."

Video: Latin American, Caribbean players play for LATAM Cup

Colombian players proudly point out that they have defeated Latin American rivals that have ice rinks, such as Mexico, at international competitions such as the Pan American tournament in previous years.

"The passion for hockey is incredible," said Michael Nijjar, a minority owner of the Vegas Golden Knights who has dual U.S.-Colombian citizenship that allows him to play for Colombia. "The guys on our team, that's all they talk about 24/7, they want to get on a rink, they want to play."

Nijjar's ice hockey journey mirrors that of his teammates who live in Colombia. He grew up in Los Angeles as a die-hard Los Angeles Kings fan dating to the team's purple and gold jersey days.

With few ice rinks in the area, Nijjar and his brother started playing roller hockey and became good enough to play professionally. He transitioned to ice hockey when more ice rinks were built in the Los Angeles area and went on to play for the University of Southern California's ACHA team.

Nijjar said he learned that Colombia had a national ice hockey program by competing against some of its players in roller hockey tournaments. From that moment, he wanted to play ice hockey for his mother's country.

"About five years ago, the Pan American Games were happening in Mexico City, and since I've grown up seeing these guys in roller hockey … they knew my mother is Colombian, so they asked me if I wanted to play (ice hockey). I actually went to the consulate, got my dual citizenship, got my cedula, which is an ID card for Colombia, so I'm a full citizen of Colombia, and I flew down to Mexico City to play in the tournament, which was fun."

Nijjar said the goal is to ultimately get an ice rink built in Colombia.

"I know there's a lot of talent in Colombia, you can see it on the ice here," he said. "There's definitely a future."

Nijjar is also interested in expanding hockey's reach into the Hispanic community in the United States. He said he's spoken with the Amerigol Cup organizers about perhaps holding a tournament in Las Vegas, a city that's almost 33 percent Hispanic.

"We'd be happy to host at our practice facility, there's a huge population of Mexicans in Las Vegas, so I know that could be a drive," Nijjar said. "Right now, everything in Las Vegas for sports that people are talking about is hockey."

Photos courtesy of Dan Shriner/LATAM Cup photographer

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