CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Juan Carlos Otero believes the future of ice hockey is South.
The general manager of the University of Miami's ice hockey team since 2014, Otero is one of the founders of the Amerigol Miami International Hockey Association, which hopes to grow the grow the icy sport in Latin America by raising awareness through showcases and tournaments.
"In our own backyard, we have a lot of excellent talent in Latin America," Otero said. "As the population of Latins grows in the United States, I think it's important that the NHL looks at being more active in this region in developing talent. Fifteen years down the line, you're going to want to have more "Hernandez," Fernandez," "Gomez" and "Lopez," on the back of jerseys if you want to grow as a sport… I think it's time to start planning those seeds in this market."
A few of those seeds were planted this past weekend at the Panthers IceDen, where teams from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela competed in the inaugural LATAM Cup. Of those teams, three also compete as the national teams for their respective countries.
The first major tournament hosted by Amerigol, Otero is confident it won't be the last.
"South Florida is the gateway to Latin America," said Otero, whose family hails from Colombia. "We thought it would be a great fit to bring a tournament here… We have people out here supporting their country with their flags. We want them to fall in love with the game like I did."
Prior to the tournament, players had a chance to meet several members of the Florida Panthers.
"The Panthers have done a great job," Otero said. "Some of the players told the Argentinian team that they had watched them play in a roller hockey tournament. They were blown away by that. I've felt really welcomed, working with the Panthers IceDen… They've made this a lot easier for me."
The LATAM Cup featured games consisted of two 25-minutes periods with an intermission in between each. All games were free and open to the public, which led to a lively atmosphere of cheering, chants and audible pride coming from the large crowd that filled the stands at the rink.
In the end, Colombia defeated Mexico B 12-3 to be crowned the tournament's first champions.
"When Juan Carlos brought this idea to me, I'm like 'Yeah, we've got to do it. We've got to host it here under the Florida Panthers IceDen, under this organization to really show the community here what there is to offer,'" said Keith Fine, the IceDen's general manager. "Ice hockey is alive and well.
"If we can just get more kids out here to get excited about the sport and support their national teams, who knows? We're really hoping we see a strong support from that Latin American community to come out here and watch their teams compete and battle. At the end of the day, hopefully they can sign up, too."
Like Otero, Fine believes the Latin American community is an untapped market for hockey.
"This is just another avenue to reach that community," he said.
Looking ahead, Otero said he hopes to grow the tournament from five to as many as 45 teams, as the opportunity to add women's and youth divisions could potentially lead to rapid growth. In the immediate future, he said Jamaica, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Chile could join next year.
"We're talking about 45 teams, possibly next year," Otero said. "I'm not surprised. I really felt strongly about this. Because this is the first tournament, we really don't have sponsorship. We have two companies, and one is my brothers. It's been great. It's been an effort. It's an investment, but it's something I feel strongly about.
"The challenge is really getting ice. That's where I think [we need] help to put a rink in stable countries. Maybe one in Colombia, one in Brazil, and manage it and start developing the talent. There's definitely interest there."
As for next year's LATAM Cup, Fine said the IceDen is looking forward to hosting again.
"Whatever we can do to help support it, we're going to do it," he said.