By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

It’s only a few years since headlines about women’s hockey in Mexico expressed amazement that such a thing could exist but five years after setting up the national team program, the country is celebrating its first ever gold medal at a full IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship event after winning the qualification tournament in 2014.

Mexico won out in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group B in Akureyri, Iceland, topping the six-team group with a game to spare. Victories over the top-seeded Spanish and the host nation set the team on the path to gold, then shutout successes over New Zealand (1-0) and Romania (6-0) put Mexico in an unassailable position before the final day. Not even a 6-5 defeat against a Turkish team battling to avoid last place could dampen the mood ahead of the medal ceremony.

It’s been a long journey in a short space of time – literally, as well as metaphorically, given that the team has traveled to Spain and Iceland to compete in the last three seasons. But head coach Diego de la Garma believes there is more to come from the roster that has just clinched promotion to next year’s Division II Group A.

“Our team is almost like an under-20s roster with five or six senior players added,” he said. “Five of our girls were playing at the U18s in Spain last month, so we’re sure there’s a lot of potential to compete at a higher level next season.”

Many of Mexico’s ice hockey players made the transition from inline hockey when the country decided that the long path to reaching the Olympics might be more realistic for a women’s team. That was in 2012, and the story began with two exhibition games against Argentina (W1, L1). Now, though, de la Garma sees a new generation of players whose experience begins on the ice.

“Our program has been growing every year,” he said. “We’ve got lots of new players, young players, who are taking up the sport – and I think Mexico is falling in love with that.

“It used to be a bit of a taboo here if women played something that is seen as a men’s sport, but people can see how they play the game, how the girls give their hearts to the game, how they have had a lot of success in a little time. That’s a big deal, especially in team sports, because Mexico’s national teams haven’t had much success recently.”

With the country’s football teams, traditionally the biggest source of sporting pride, enduring a relatively fallow period, other sports get a chance to make a mark. “Watching a women’s team winning a tournament, at any level, inspires people,” added de la Garma. “It gets everybody dreaming. It’s won us a lot of fans, not just in Mexico but in Latin America and even around the world. The girls play with so much passion, so much heart, and people respond to it.”

Back home in Mexico – at least 12 hours of flying time away, depending on connections – fans have been following the news from Iceland enthusiastically. “I think our team has really won the hearts of fans back home,” de la Garma added. “Everybody involved with the game has been watching the streams and following the stats, and they’ve been messaging us on social media. The team feels like a big family, and fans respond to that.”

The youth of the team is eye-catching, but there’s solid experience involved as well. First-choice goalie Monica Renteria, 29, had an impressive tournament, giving up just three goals in three games and stopping 96.34 per cent of shots. Claudia Tellez, who finished with 4+4=8 points to claim second place among the team’s scorers is another who was involved from the start, and was a 2016 CWHL Draft pick for the Calgary Inferno. However, she was pipped for the top scorer honours by Maria Chavez, who celebrated her 22nd birthday during the competition. The Rojas twins, Joanna and Giovanna, also had productive tournaments with five and four points respectively: they are two of the four players on the roster who were born in the 21st century.

Once back in Mexico, the immediate focus is on June’s Pan-Am tournament. For Mexican hockey, it’s a valuable chance to showcase the game on home ice, but de la Garma admits that it can be a mixed blessing for the women.

“In the men’s competition, countries like Colombia bring good import players, but for the women it’s not so strong if we don’t have a team from the U.S. or Canada,” he said. “But it helps give our juniors a taste of international action. The under-18s play as a Mexico B team. They experience the pressure and the atmosphere of wearing our country’s jersey, and it gets them dreaming about doing it at a World Championship.”

Other chances to play are limited, a common problem for emerging hockey nations. The women play in the men’s u18 championship to gain extra experience, and have a team in the second division of the five-tier national Sunday Night Hockey league, but opportunities to take on teams from more established hockey nations are rare outside of World Championship trips. The journey to Iceland included a stopover in Toronto and an exhibition game against a local team, an experience that de la Garma feels was invaluable.

The 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group B concludes Sunday night with Iceland, New Zealand and Spain battling for the silver and bronze medals. Turkey finished in fifth, buoyed by its final day win over Mexico. Romania, without a victory, drops down to next year’s qualifying group.