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Latin American hockey surviving against all odds

by Bill Meltzer

When the New York Rangers played the Florida Panthers in an exhibition game in Puerto Rico in 2006, it brought attention to the Latin American hockey leagues that few knew existed.
When most people think of sports in Latin America, the first images that come to mind are baseball and soccer. Few expect to find hockey players in lands where there's hardly a winter, much less natural ice. But in a testament to the global nature of hockey, the sport does indeed exist if you look for it.

Perhaps the most dramatic stories are those of Mexican, Puerto Rican and Costa Rican hockey. Each has its own unique tale to tell. Like other nontraditional hockey locales around the world, each land has a small but extremely dedicated community of players and coaches who battle the odds to keep the game alive.

Mexico is the only one of the three that is a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation, joining in 1985. Among Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas, only Mexico, Argentina and Chile qualify for IIHF membership while Mexico is the lone country to compete in international ice hockey tournaments (the others are more active in inline hockey but include both ice and inline hockey within their national federations).

The island of Puerto Rico is the only place south of Florida in the Americas to have ever hosted an NHL game. Prior to the 2006-07 season, the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers played an exhibition game at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico in San Juan.

Meanwhile, the Costa Rican hockey program was founded by a transplanted Canadian, as is often the case in unlikely hockey countries. Playing on a synthetic ice rink at a country club in San Jose -- the only ice skating rink in Central America -- the 12-year-old program has attracted attention from the Calgary Flames, the NHL Players' Association and various North American media outlets.

Mexico wins Division III Under-18s on home ice

Mexico currently ranks 38th in the world rankings. According to IIHF figures, the country has nine ice rinks, with 1,223 registered players (including 907 junior players and 274 adult males).  The national team program is sufficiently well-developed to compete in the Division II World Championships at the senior, Under-20, and Under-18 levels.

In March, Mexico City's San Jeronimo Arena played host to the Division III Under-18 World Championships. In 2005, the city hosted the senior Division III Worlds, winning the tournament and a promotion from the bottom rung of international hockey to the Division II level.

History repeated itself in the Under-18 tourney this year. The Mexicans, who were relegated from Division II a year ago, easily dominated a field that included South Africa, New Zealand, Chinese Taipei and Mongolia to go undefeated and earn a trip back to the Division II tournament in 2009. Forward Pablo Ehlers (four goals, 11 points) led the way offensively for Mexico, which outscored its rivals by a combined 32-2 score.

Unfortunately, the tournament itself was overshadowed by a faulty ventilation system at San Jeronimo Arena that caused players and fans to take ill from carbon monoxide. South Africa (trailing Mexico by an 11-0 score at the time) forfeited a game midway through the second period. Games were postponed by the IIHF, but the tournament resumed and was completed after the problem was resolved.

At the Under-20 level, Mexico placed fifth among six teams participating in the Division II Worlds in Estonia. The Mexicans handled the last-place team representing China, but lost to the undefeated Estonians, as well as the Netherlands, Croatia and Spain. 

Mexico fared a little bit better in the senior Division II Worlds in Newcastle, Australia. They lost 7-1 to the champion host team and close decisions to Spain and China, but downed Iceland and shut out New Zealand to finish fourth.

Apart from the ups and downs at the World Championships, the Mexican program faces ongoing challenges to continue building 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 is very much 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.

Providing access to the game is another ongoing challenge.  The costs associated with the game -- ice time and equipment -- have traditionally 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. 

As a result, 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.

Puerto Rican hockey in peril

Two years ago, for a brief shining moment, the hockey world cast its eyes on Puerto Rico. The occasion: a September 2006 NHL preseason game in San Juan between the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers. The game was broadcast in Spanish on Puerto Rican radio.

"I think this is great for the game," remarked former Panthers defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski on the eve of the exhibition. "If there's hockey in Florida, why not Puerto Rico and the Caribbean? It'll be interesting. It's expanding the game. Someday, there might be a hockey team in Puerto Rico."  

Hockey Puerto Rico has suffered in recent years due to the lack of public ice time, which caused them to reach out to the NHLPA for assistance.
At the time of the game, some U.S. mainland and Canadian commentators erroneously stated that ice hockey did not even exist on the island. In reality, the Puerto Rican Ice Hockey Federation was founded in 2004 and fledgling hockey development programs were already starting to take root. Their existence may not have been widely publicized or easily visible, but they were there.

On the western part of the island in Aguadilla, located along the beachfront, is the Aguadilla Ice Skating Rink. Over the last few years, hockey participation grew slowly but steadily. Local kids in the community practiced on the ice daily.

Unfortunately, the rink manager decided to end the public hockey and figure-skating programs, putting four years of progress in jeopardy.

While there are high-end facilities available at the venue that hosted the NHL game -- the 18,500 seat Jose Miguel Agrelot Coliseum, also known as Coliseo de Puerto Rico -- the multi-million dollar complex is typically reserved for big events. Senior management at the facility has said it anticipates future availability for public ice time, but Puerto Rican hockey may not have time to wait.

"Not being allowed to practice has put us in a bind. We're trying to put the word out and get any help we can," said Philip Painter, first vice president of Hockey Puerto Rico. "My biggest fear is the poor growth will eventually cripple the available practice facilities and the concept of growth will be moot as there won't even be ice."

Hockey Puerto Rico has applied to the "Goals and Dreams" program operated by the National Hockey League Players' Association. The program provides equipment grants for grassroots hockey around the world. Among other recipients, the hockey program in Costa Rica has benefited from participation in the program.

Canada's gift to Costa Rica

For all intents and purposes, ice hockey did not exist in Costa Rica until 1996. That's when a transplanted Canadian named Bruce Callow organized the first Costa Rican hockey program.

The improbable story began at a Costa Rican shopping mall. The Real Cariari Shopping Center had a plastic ice surface in the middle of the food court. Callow adapted it into a makeshift hockey rink.

"The rink was long and thin, and the pucks would sometimes fly off into the food court while people were eating," Callow told the Tico Times.

The Coliseo De Puerto Rico, aka Jose Miguel Agrelot Coliseum, is the 18,500-seat venue that hosted the Rangers-Panthers exhibition game.
Along with the shopping center, Callow started hockey programs on synthetic skating surfaces at an amusement park in Belen and an empty warehouse in Santa Ana. The organized game in Costa Rica was played on April 30, 1996.

The following year, Callow moved the program to the Castillo Country Club in San Jose. For the last decade, the home base of the Mundo de Hockey program he founded has been on the country club's synthetic ice rink. Eventually, all hockey operations were centered at the country club. Locals have found a hockey home there, and Callow has formed Costa Rica's first -- and only -- traveling youth team, called the Castillo Knights.

Callow and a fellow Canadian, Kevin Darichuk, provide all the instruction at practice while Callow coaches on game day. They've introduced the game to dozens of youngsters ranging in age from six to 15. The Castillo ice hockey season runs from March to through December.

In 2004, Callow appealed to Dev Minty, the manager of city owned hockey arenas in Calgary to assist with the upkeep of the ice surface at Castllo. Minty tracked down an old-fashioned ice planer -- a resurfacing device that was made obsolete decades earlier by the Zamboni -- and donated it.

While the 35-year-old planer would be considered useless by even the most under-funded of North American facilities, it has been a godsend to the improving and maintaining the rink at Castillo. Callow hopes to expand the facility in years to come.

Other outreach efforts to the North American hockey community have also proven successful through the years. A grant from the Goals and Dreams fund provided much needed equipment for the young players. Callow has also been able to take a group of his players to Calgary, where they trained with the women's Olympic team and, at the invitation of the Calgary Flames, took in an NHL game.

In order to improve the quality and variety of opposition, the Castillo Knights have practiced and played on regulation ice surfaces in other countries and arranged for visitors to come to the country club in San Jose. Most notably, the team won a tournament in Mexico, practiced in Calgary, and received a visit from a team based in Vancouver. Last year, the president of the Costa Rican Olympic Committee visited the Castillo hockey facilities. That was another small, but measurable step toward hockey gaining wider recognition as a viable and enduring sport in the country.

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