William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog since 2012. Douglas joined NHL.com in 2019 and writes about people of color in the sport. Today, he profiles the Challenger Series, a league formed by hockey associations representing Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Lebanon to help grow the sport within their communities in North America and in their respective homelands.

Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Lebanon have formed a hockey league of their own.

Men’s and women’s teams representing the U.S. territory, Caribbean and Middle East countries will compete in the Challenger Series league, which begins play April 18-21 at Fifth Third Arena, the Chicago Blackhawks practice facility.

The league shifts to the Clark Gillies Arena in Dix Hills, New York from June 6-9, followed by playoffs at the Campus Ice Centre in Oshawa, Ontario for the Challenger Series Heritage Cup, to be played July 11-13.

“Most of us [are] trying to blaze a path that’s never been taken before in our own way,” said Scott Vargas, president of founder of the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association and a forward on its men’s national team. “I just have the belief that if we all work together and collaborate, there’s more to be gained.

“This is our first stab at trying a consistent schedule. Let’s pool our resources together and with that, and its integral for any developing (hockey) nation, you have to grow awareness and credibility for your organization or federation domestically. And that’s challenging without consistent competition, it’s challenging if that competition is not at a quality level. This league is an opportunity for us to obtain that consistency.”

Jamaican Olympic Ice Hockey Federation president Don Anderson said the series gives fledgling hockey nations what they desperately need.

“We are constantly eager to find opportunities to play," Anderson said, "so there is a symbiotic kind of relationship, because a number of the countries like Puerto Rico and Lebanon have the same kind of objectives that we do. The Challenger Series allows us to play three sets of games in this year alone.”

Ricardo Tabet, general manager of Lebanon’s men’s national program, said the league is about preparation and exposure.

“We want people to talk about us, take interest,” Tabet said. “There are more and more players (who) say, ‘Hey, I’m Lebanese, I want to be part of this.' Our player base keeps growing and growing every time we do events like this. So it’s really a big deal for us.”

The Chicago and New York Challenger Series games will be part of the PRIHA’s Festival de Hockey annual weekends, when the organization’s youth development teams and adult programs will play games. The PRIHA will also host clinics and practices for beginner and novice players during the weekends.

“We know that it's extremely important to focus on grassroots and community," Vargas said, "and we’ve been able to roll that into Fiesta de Hockey whether it’s in Chicago or New York with their rich Puerto Rican populations and cultures.”

Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Lebanon each has played in the Amerigol LATAM Cup, a largely Latin American and Caribbean tournament held annually at the Florida Panthers practice facility in Coral Springs, Florida. Puerto Rico’s men’s team won the LATAM Cup in 2022 and its women’s team won in 2021. Jamaica’s men won the LATAM title in 2019.

Jamaica for Challenger Series

Puerto Rico and Jamaica’s men played a three-game series in June as part of the PRIHA’s Fiesta de Hockey in New York. Puerto Rico won the series 2-1.

The rosters for the Challenger Series men’s teams likely will include some players with junior, NCAA Division I and Division III and Canadian college experience, including Christian Jimenez, a Harvard University defenseman who played for Puerto Rico against Jamaica in June.

Ted Cheesebrough, a coach for Jamaica, said his roster is likely to include defenseman Romeo Torain of Castleton (Vermont) University; forward Marcus Sang of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts; and defenseman Tyler Drummond of Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts.

“We want to show the IIHF that, look, this isn’t a lark,” said Cheesebrough, an assistant coach for the Hamline University (St. Paul, Minnesota) NCAA Division III men’s team. "Our senior men’s national team can compete with a lot of national teams.”

PR Women for Challenger Series

Jamaica, Lebanon and Puerto Rico each is relative newcomers to the IIHF. Puerto Rico gained associate membership in September 2022 shortly after its men’s team won the LATAM Cup. Lebanon joined in 2019 and Jamaica has been a member since May 2012.

Though U.S. and Canada-based associations and players are showing what they can do on the ice, they’ve also been working at the grassroots level in their homelands to help promote and develop the sport.

The PRIHA is exposing children and adults in Puerto Rico to hockey through weekly inline and floor hockey sessions.

Lebanon at LATAM

Tabet said the Lebanese Ice Hockey Federation received approval for a  IIHF grant last month for a feasibility study to build a sports complex in Lebanon. In the meantime, the federation has organized a roller hockey youth league in-country.

“It’s not big, it’s more for fun,” he said. “But it’s part of promotion for now until we can build a rink.” 

Anderson said the JOIHF has made strides in growing the sport on the Caribbean island, starting with having hockey becoming part of the curriculum at G.C. Foster College of Physical Education in St. Catherine.

The organization has conducted hockey clinics, including a week-long camp for 50 children between the ages of 8 and 14 at Jamaica National Stadium in Kingston.

The JOIHF received equipment to help in October 2022 through the NHL Players’ Association’s Goals & Dreams fund, which has donated equipment to provide more than 80,000 economically disadvantaged children in NHL cities and 34 countries the opportunity to play hockey.

“We’re well on the way to driving the program on a more regular basis,” Anderson said. “We have the sticks, we have pucks, we have gear and helmets and we have the people.”