Growing up in Mexico City, Francisco Romano was expected to play soccer.
Instead, much to the surprise of his family, he ended up falling in love with hockey.
"My husband wanted him to play soccer," Romano's mother, Marcela, said. "He played and he had friends, but the first time he touched the ice he was in love with it. He's so happy out there."
Part of a growing contingent of passionate young skaters in Mexico, Romano and his team, the Santa Fe Kings, had a chance to face off against clubs from Russia, Slovakia, Canada and the USA during last weekend's Thanksgiving Tournament at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs.
Competing in the U12 and U14 divisions, the Kings won three games throughout the event and even had a chance to play on the same ice that the NHL's Florida Panthers do at BB&T Center.
"We really love the sport," said Romano, who suited up for Santa Fe's U14 squad. "It's becoming bigger, but it's still not as big as here… It's been an amazing experience. I've played in other places, but this has been the best so far."
Despite having a population of almost 130 million, there are only 1,234 registered junior hockey players in Mexico, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). Of those players, roughly 100 play for the Kings, who have teams competing in numerous age groups up to U17.
Participating in the Thanksgiving Tournament for the first time, Santa Fe head coach Javier Rabago said he initially found out about the event after a chat with Marc Freiman, a former hockey player in Mexico City now working in the Panthers Business Intelligence department.
"We usually do two or three of these trips a year, but this one in Florida has been the best so far," Rabago said. "It's a lot of fun for them. It's a great experience. This was the best one because we got to play at the arena. They will keep this memory for the rest of their lives."
When asked about the growth of hockey in Mexico, Rabago said there's been a very noticeable uptick of interest in recent years, highlighted by more players traveling to play in North America.
"There are more rinks and better players," Rabago said. "We're now sending player to the U.S. and Canada. There's definitely better hockey being played. It's growing and it's getting better. Fans and parents are just as passionate as they are here."
But even though there are more rinks than in the past, even more will be needed in the future.
A member of the IIHF since 1985, Mexico's biggest hurdle in cultivating new hockey talent is a lack of available ice. With only 22 indoor rinks scattered throughout the country, teams like the Kings are often forced to either hold their practices at the crack of dawn or late in the evening.
"It's a great experience, but it's difficult," Marcela Romano said. "There's so little place to play hockey. To get ice, it's difficult. You have to move from one place to another. The kids have a small time for ice… As a family, we are there all day. We're always cheering them on."
Still, despite the rigorous practice schedule, Kings players are committed to their craft.
"Even if it doesn't become my profession, I'll still keep playing," Francisco Romano said. "It's really fun. I want it to be a part of my life when I'm grown up… The community is like a family."
As they look to continue growing the sport both within and beyond their borders, the Panthers hope that Santa Fe's successful trip to South Florida will eventually lead to other countries from non-traditional hockey markets attending the Thanksgiving Tournament down the road as well.
After all, for more than a decade the ever-growing holiday event has aimed to unite kids from all over the world under one simple banner - a love for hockey.
"The mission for the Florida Panthers and BB&T Center is growing youth hockey as a whole," said Max Ortolani, the Elite Hockey Director at the Panthers IceDen. "They've done so many great initiatives in order to do that. I think by renting out the facility here for the weekend and allowing kids to step onto the big ice lets them feel like a pro and gives parents the opportunity to see their kids live out a dream. This is one thing that really fuels the passion for hockey."