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LATAM Cup: Puerto Rico Back with Bigger Numbers Than Ever

by Jameson Olive @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

The first time Puerto Rico participated in the LATAM Cup, they had only 12 players.

Of those 12 players, four of them had the name "Vargas" on the back of their jersey.

"Me, my dad, and my two brothers were all on the team," Scott Vargas, a Tampa native whose father was born in Puerto Rico, told FloridaPanthers.com last month. "It was a really incredible experience for all of us. That was really the first tournament that we'd ever done. I think it really planted some seeds."

Two years later, those seeds after sprouted into the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association.

With Vargas serving as the organization's managing director, Puerto Rico, which now has approximately 85 members available to play, will have three teams across the men's and women's divisions at the 2021 LATAM Cup, which will take place at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs from Thursday through Friday.

They will also have two youth teams (U16 and U12) playing as Team Caribbean.

"A lot of growth," Vargas said. "I think that's the most impressive thing."

Falling in love with the game at a young age, Vargas has played hockey almost his entire life. Able to play as both a defenseman and a forward, he spent three seasons at Finlandia University, which competes in NCAA Division III, before traveling overseas to play two seasons for various semi-pro squads in Finland.

"That was a really awesome experience," said Vargas, who left Finland after the 2016-17 season.

It was during his time abroad that Vargas said he really started to think about how he could combine his love for hockey and his Puerto Rican heritage. Soon after, the idea of putting a team together started to really pick up steam once he met Ron Robichaud, a director with the Florida Sled Hockey Association.

Putting their heads together, Vargas and Robichaud then started to build their first team -- mainly through social media -- after hearing about the LATAM Cup, which is presented by the Amerigol International Hockey Association and features teams from Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Leaving no stone unturned, hockey message boards in particular provided early inspiration.

"There were already fan pages out there," Vargas said. "They weren't affiliated directly, but that kind of sparked the idea. They'd just post random stuff. That got us thinking that this could be a real possibility."

It's that sort of grassroots growth that has helped the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association take flight.

As the organization continues to seek out new players, Vargas said there's four main ways that they are currently recruiting: internet and social media outreach, word of mouth, heritage groups and Amerigol's website, which prospective players can use to seek out and then directly connect with different teams.

"That's been a huge supplement," Vargas said of the website. "We have people that hear about the tournament, go to the website and then fill out a form they want to play. Then we connect with them."

One of 29 teams that will be taking the ice at the Panthers IceDen for the latest installment of the LATAM Cup, Vargas said his teammates are eager to put their skills to the test against players from countries like Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and many more.

Down the road, he hopes Puerto Rico will someday join the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).

"Our situation is unique," Vargas said. "We're part of the United States as a territory, but as you see Puerto Rico does compete internationally in many sports. There are some criteria that we've looked into with what we're doing and how we could work with the IIHF, but that's more down the line. Right now, what we want to be able to do is field teams in every division. That's what the next step is at this point."

In order to keep growing, finding ways to get funding for those teams will be key.

"The goal is to get sponsors," Vargas said. "The way we have it set up now, we feel like we could do two main sponsors, including one on the jersey. If we could do that, we could subsidize a lot of the costs."

Only a few years into this new endeavor, Vargas said he's already been so impressed with the number of passionate players with Puerto Rican heritage that he's been able to discover in a short amount of time.

By competing in tournaments like the LATAM Cup, he expects those numbers to keep rising.

"It'll continue to grow over the years," Vargas said. "You'd think our players would come from specific areas like Florida, New York, Chicago and Texas, but what we found is that our footprint for our players participating in the LATAM Cup is spread across something like 12 states, not including Puerto Rico."

To learn more about the LATAM Cup, click HERE.

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