By Nicholas Siler – Santiago Times
It’s a typically chilly Saturday morning during an untypically warm week in early August in Santiago and the Cerrogrado ice rink in Mall Vespucio has opened its doors to the Yetis, the city’s only ice hockey team. The players take to the ice and warm up under the glow of dim ballroom lights and disco balls hovering over the rink. Later the rink will be filled with families grasping the last bit of winter fun. Fresh from winning the Copa Invernada in Punta Arenas in July, the team has its sights set on September, October and beyond. In Punta Arenas they fended off teams from Iquique, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia in Argentina and the Falkland Islands and came home with the trophy. Chile appears to be taking its first steps into the fast-paced and ferociously competitive sport of ice hockey, fueled by aspirations of a federation that previously paid attention only to in-line hockey, a variation of the sport played off the ice on roller blades. However, the Chilean Ice Hockey Federation faces limits and hindrances to funding and publicity.
The Yetis took to the ice as an organized team in 2015 and became a recognized legal entity in 2016. Most of the Yetis had been in-line hockey players. In places like La Serena and Iquique, much of the players’ exposure to hockey came from foreigners – most often Canadians — working at nearby mines. Initially, hockey was played on roller blades on tiles of plastic flooring, since sustaining an ice rink was as good as impossible. Chile sent a national team to the 2000 and 2002 international in-line hockey championships and almost returned in 2015, but rival Argentina took the slot as the sole South American qualifier. Slowly many in-line hockey players became acquainted with ice hockey through media and trips overseas. However, there were very few opportunities at home. The Yetis third place finish in 2015 at the ice hockey Copa Invernada tournament and its title victory at this year’s contest have made Monica Arias, President of the Chilean Ice and Inline Hockey Association, cautiously optimistic.
An ice hockey team from Iquique regularly competes on ice with the southerly teams of Santiago and Punta Arenas. Those teams practice on ice rinks but the rinks are neither regulation-size nor freely available, as they belong to recreational ice-skating companies that operate them for entertainment at shopping malls. Arias points out that despite this handicap, media attention both abroad and in Chile has increased dramatically and she hopes that the Patagonia Challenge Cup (in which a team from Punta Arenas took part) and a potential Chile-only tournament, will increase the public’s interest. The association’s goal of sustaining two teams in Santiago (as is the case in Punta Arenas) will, she says, increase interest, as will its aspiration to field a national team for the Pan American Ice Hockey Tournament next year in Mexico City.
There is good reason for Chile to be hopeful. However, ex-Barcelona player and current Level 4 ice hockey coach Andrew Jasicki cautioned that without a regulation-size rink, none of Chile’s players would perform well in Mexico City. The Copa Invernada is a three-on-three tournament as only so many players can fit on a recreational rink. Full-game experience is severely lacking. Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina practice on larger rinks than those in Chile. In fact, the Patagonian Argentinian town of Ushuaia has an Olympic sized rink as well as a team that competes with teams from Argentina. Additionally, Ushuaia plays host to the End of the World hockey tournament which involves full teams on a regulation size rink. Still, there are exceptions. Colombia, which lacks full-sized rinks, beat heavyweight Mexico twice in a row for the gold and claimed a bronze at three previous tournaments. It benefits from dual citizens with professional or semi-professional ice hockey experience.
Argentina and Mexico send two squads each to the tournament, bringing the total number of teams competing to six. Former Chilean national in-line hockey team member and hockey promoter Mauricio Vieytes told International Ice Hockey Federation reporter Andy Potts that the Chilean federation might look into doing the same as Colombia, drawing on Chile’s expatriate/dual-citizen community from the United States, Italy, and Finland.
There are many challenges. Arias says coaches base their training on anecdotal experiences. The small recreational rinks make training awkward and sometimes teams share space with the public out just to enjoy the ice. Also, the players pay their own way. Arias explains, “At this time, each athlete finances their own actions, such as activities, participation at international tournaments, travel etc. The Yetis are a new club with no external funding, nor has it been nominated for competitive funding projects in any category or institution. We have only been using our own resources. We are already pressed for time to be part of the selection process because our situation is complicated considering the distance players have to travel right now.” At a more fundamental level, there has been little attention given to the prospects of ice hockey in Chile by the organized sporting authorities in the country. Arias plans to hold a meeting with the general secretary of the Chilean Olympic committee hoping for more help, infrastructure, and funding. “The idea is to develop a presentation of hockey to submit to the community either on the municipal or state level. She considers Mexico 2017 a steppingstone to the Winter Olympics in China in 2022.
It will be difficult to get there. Chile has few full-time players and has only three mall-based recreational ice rinks for practice. More public interest is needed to sustain hockey and develop talent for future competitions. Also missing is official cooperation between Argentina and Chile to mutually improve the quality of the sport. But Arias notes that increasing funding for infrastructure alone will not be enough and that teams need to perform. Still, the recent dominance of the Yetis and the successful junior youth ice hockey tournament in Punta Arenas give hope for the future. Perhaps hockey in Chile is finishing the first period of a match to win the public’s attention, with two more to go. How that game will end remains to be seen, but the opportunity for success is there.