CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - The Florida Panthers might be the southernmost team in the NHL, but the growing passion around the world for hockey extends much farther south than Sunrise.
In an effort to both showcase and promote the continued growth of the sport in Latin America, the Amerigol Miami International Hockey Association LATAM Cup will return to the Panthers IceDen this weekend, with the event running from Friday, Sept. 6 through Sunday, Sept. 8.
The Panthers IceDen previously hosted the inaugural LATAM Cup last November.
"It's more than exciting," said Keith Fine, the Panthers IceDen's General Manager. "It's honestly nothing like I've ever seen. I'm very grateful that the Panthers organization can work with Amerigol to make this happen. I'm so excited for this weekend. You can see that teams have already begun to hang up their flags and are showing support for all of their different countries."
The latest installment of the tournament features eight national hockey teams - three more than in 2018 -- playing in four unique divisions (Men's DI, DII, Women and Youth U16). Those teams include Argentina, Puerto Rico, Chile, Jamaica, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico (B) and Venezuela.
Colombia enters the tournament as defending champion and an early favorite to repeat after defeating Mexico B by a score of 12-3 in last year's final to claim the first Amerigol LATAM Cup.
"I think fans can expect competitive, high-scoring games," Fine said. "It's going to be fun hockey to watch. If you're watching your country play, you're going to be a big fan of that sport. I think fans can expect a lot of pride from players and a great experience on the ice and in the facility."
Fine said the tournament couldn't have happened without the help of Juan Carlos Otero, a native Floridian of Colombian descent who helped found Amerigol in order to grow the game.
"It's unbelievable," Fine said. "Being able to bring all these communities together, it's a credit to Juan and what he's done with Amerigol. With all of the different teams and divisions, he did a great job of making sure there's an even playing field throughout. The games will be great."
Last year, Otero said he hopes to one day see more Latin players suiting up in the NHL.
"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 a lot of jerseys."
As for the tournament itself, games will be split into three 14-minute periods with an ice cut in between games. As it was last year, all of these contests will be free and open to the public.
Prior to dropping the puck on Friday, players from several different LATAM Cup teams gathered to watch the Panthers take the ice for an informal skate. Afterwards, defenseman Keith Yandle skated over to meet a few of the competitors and learn about their unique hockey experiences.
"It's unbelievable, just to see how excited they were just to see us," Yandle said. "Obviously, they don't have [NHL] teams in their countries to root for, so we're probably the closest team. Hopefully they root for us. But you can just tell when they're watching us just how excited they were. They're grown men, but they looked like little kids watching NHL guys. It even boosted the morale of the guys out there. We saw them watching and we stepped up our game a little bit."
In support of his new friends, Yandle said he plans to check out some games this weekend.
"I'll probably come out tomorrow to watch too, bring the kids out to watch what they've been going through and see where it's taking them," Yandle said with a smile. "It'll be fun to watch"
For the full LATAM Cup schedule, click HERE.