http://a3.espncdn.com/combiner/i?img=%2Fphoto%2F2017%2F0217%2Fr181511_1296x518_5%2D2.jpg&w=1006&h=402&scale=crop&cquality=80&location=origin

By Eric Gomez – ESPN.com

In a sports bar tucked between the Roma Sur and Narvarte neighborhoods on a recent weekday night, a dry erase board lists the top three events available on its multiple screens.

Save for a very small minority, every patron is there to watch the main event, a World Cup qualifier between Mexico and Panama. Also listed is an NBA contest, with the Chicago Bulls battling the Portland Trail Blazers. And the third event on the board is the NHL clash between the Washington Capitals and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

It’s a small, perhaps even throwaway gesture, but the mere acknowledgment of hockey in Mexico is still notable at this point, as the sport slowly continues to build in popularity and relevance for a country that has provided leagues and sports north of the border with an apt opportunity for expansion in recent years.

In the past 12 months, Mexico City has hosted Major League Baseball, auto racing’s Formula 1, UFC’s mixed martial arts, the NFL’s Monday Night Football, two regular-season NBA games, even wrestling’s WWE. For the NHL, a league also looking to expand its brand beyond its usual sphere of influence, Mexico could provide an interesting destination and a chance to gauge future outings beyond North America in an effort to popularize the game.

The hosting boom for the country and its capital could have it poised to land hockey sooner rather than later. Aside from newer facilities like the Arena Ciudad de Mexico, (the $300 million, 22,300-seater hosted the WWE last December and the NBA in January), the Mexican Hockey Federation says there is a commitment to winter sports venues that could play a role in landing a pro game.

“We have the IceDome (a public venue built in Mexico City specifically to foment winter sports), we have a rink in San Jerónimo and there’s talk of another hockey rink being built soon,” said Mexican Hockey Federation president, Joaquin de la Garma, an architect by trade who fell in love with the sport decades ago. De la Garma is bullish on the progress his country has made of late, and dreams of watching his nation one day field a hockey team at the Winter Olympics.

If the time seems too perfect to attract greater interest in the sport, this would be a good time to mention that Auston Matthews, the Toronto Maple Leafs center and the NHL’s No. 1 draft pick in 2016, has Mexican heritage by way of his mother. Though his heritage and draft position were covered lightly by news outlets south of the border, the Mexican-American forward doesn’t get too much play in the media despite a strong rookie season and an All-Star berth.

De la Garma makes it clear that growth for the game in Mexico should come internally, from a grassroots level. Matthews and Claudia Téllez, who at 32 became the first Mexican national to sign for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, offer unique opportunities to create marketable stars. Other up-and-comers like Jorge Perez, who became the first Mexican-born player at the Junior A level in Canada for Rayside-Balfour, offer a promising future.

“He’s going to reach great heights,” De la Garma said about Perez.

Indeed Perez, a lanky 19-year-old forward that already captains his national team, could very well become the country’s first breakout star. Though experts within the Mexican hockey fold are reluctant to say whether he’ll reach the highest level, his success in Canada has certainly validated the program’s growth in recent years.

“I don’t think much about the future, I take it day by day, season by season,” Perez said about someday playing in the NHL, though he agrees that it would be massive for the sport to take off in Mexico. “It would be an amazing piece of news, if it’s not me, then someone else isn’t far behind.”

In Canada, Perez has acted as at times as a promoter for his countrymen, encouraging scouts to give his Mexican teammates a look. “There’s definitely talent here, and players want to make the jump, too,” he explained.

As for Téllez, she offers a face for the country’s surprising growth on the women’s side. The national team, which has only existed for four years, has been making serious strides in the world of hockey for a country attempting its first solid steps at making noise at the highest levels.

“A crazy dream some of us believed in,” De la Garma recalled.

At the Olympic Preliminary Qualifiers in Kazakhstan last year, Team Mexico pulled off an impressive run, though the women fell short in the end on the road to the 2018 Winter Games. Téllez’s success has been spurred on by an active women’s league in the country’s capital, and by making hockey a full-time activity for as many as possible. At the IceDome, children as young as 4 take classes from instructors who double as national team players.

“Now you see girls 20 and up, out on the ice at the rinks,” Téllez told Excelle Sports in July. “And little girls, three and four years old. If there [is] going to be growth, there needed to be interest.”

The federation president notes that Mexico will have future opportunities for glory in the near future, including events that will hopefully be hosted on home soil. It is his hope that the women, not the men, will make the Olympics sooner rather than later. Recent results seem to confirm that hope.

“We’re focusing greatly on [the women’s team]. I think I won’t be alive when the men make it to the tournament,” he jokes.

Other initiatives to grow the game include amateur leagues organized mainly in the Mexican capital and other metropolitan areas with winter sports facilities, a cable TV deal to show nightly pro games and open tryouts to attempt and attract new talents into the national team fold. Those are good initiatives but might not be enough. Hockey is still ignored by national media and most highlight shows on TV.

“We need more exposure, we need people to watch it,” Perez said.

But the white whale for hockey in Mexico remains to attract the world’s top league to the country and attempt to accelerate growth in the short term.

“We need to bring the NHL here for people to truly experience what hockey is at the highest level,” De la Garma said.

That objective still seems far off.

“We are not aware of any such contact being made,” said NHL deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, via email.

De la Garma told a story about contacting the league in 2001 to play an exhibition game. According to the Federation, talks were promising enough for them to book an arena in advance, anticipating an eventual deal. Then, Sept. 11 happened, and the NHL was less than willing to hold a game at an arena located within Mexico City’s World Trade Center complex, De la Garma said.

More than a decade and a half later, there is still hope the league will play a regular-season game in Mexico, the first time it would do so in a Latin American nation. In 2006, the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers played a preseason game in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Back at the sports bar, the hostess is asked whether patrons come to watch hockey. The answer is evident, as the bar emptied following Mexico’s victory against Panama.