By Andy Potts – IIHF.com
It started on the ‘Laguna del Diablo’, the Devil’s Lagoon. A small lake on the western edge of town, near the main road, where back in 1979 people in Ushuaia began playing pond hockey. On natural ice, limited to a few weeks of the year, an intrepid band of hockey hopefuls kick-started the process that has turned the capital of Tierra del Fuego into the capital of Argentine ice hockey.
Commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia has two rival teams – Club Andino de Ushuaia (CAU) and Nires – playing on the only international-size rink in South America. That rink, which is currently an open-air facility, was completed in 2010 and transformed the prospects for the game here in the deep south.
There’s no doubting the commitment of the players. The hooter had barely sounded on Santiago Yetis’ 2-1 victory over Nires Ushuaia in the Copa Invernada final in Punta Arenas, Chile, when Nires’ Leandro Zahr skated over. Disappointed at a narrow defeat? Perhaps, but his first words were: “I just love this damn game!”
Zahr helped to establish Nires to broaden the hockey opportunities back home, and after starting out by working with kids playing inline hockey, he’s encouraged by the progress onto the ice. “We put together a project to play inline and ice so we can play all year round,” he said. “It started out small but now we have kids involved as well.”
Argentine teams are regular visitors to Punta Arenas, which boasts the only year-round ice rink in Patagonia at Cool Center in the Zona Franca mall.
And both Nires and CAU agree that events like the Copa Invernada are vital to keep pushing up standards in the region.
Javier Siede of CAU added: “We’re on an island way down in the south of Argentina so it’s really expensive to go and play in competitions anywhere else. We’re fairly close to Punta Arenas and we can get over maybe three or four times a year. That’s really important for us, meeting different opponents and enjoying our passion for hockey throughout the year.”
Plans to build a roof over Ushuaia’s ice could make the game a year-round event back home, but for now the city of 71,000 people stages three tournaments: a local league, a Patagonian championship featuring a return visit from the hockey fraternity in Punta Arenas, and the exotically named Copa del Fin del Mundo – the End-of-the-World Cup – now in its 13th edition. That tournament has welcomed visitors from Chile, northern Argentina and even Brazil, while Zahr has hinted that it could some day extend a ground-breaking invitation to the emerging hockey team on the Falkland Islands.
Despite the political tensions between Buenos Aires, London and Port Stanley, teams from Argentina and the Falklands have played against each other in Punta Arenas and Zahr believes the experience can bring people together.
“At an event like this there’s no political agenda, it’s all about sport,” he said. “That helps us to come together and, more importantly, it moves us away from ‘old politics’. There’s a brotherhood here – we’re all about hockey and nothing else. I’d be delighted to take our team to play on the Falklands, and we’d love to invite the Falklands team to come and play against us in Argentina because it can only help our sport grow. This isn’t the kind of bitter rivalry you see between football teams; we don’t want that, we are like brothers here.”
But while Ushuaia’s remoteness adds glamour to events like the Fin del Mundo, it also brings problems.
Zahr, of the Nires club, said: “We have a rink, but we’re so far away from the rest of the world that it costs a fortune to get equipment down here. Even something as obvious as a Zamboni, for example; it’s expensive in the first place, and then you add on the shipping to bring it here from Canada and the costs go sky high. That limits what we can do, and that’s where we’d really like some support.
“There are also political issues with two governing bodies. These issues mean that the guys in Ushuaia, who only really play inline to stay in shape when there’s no ice, are not eligible for the Pan-American games. At the same time, some guys who play in Buenos Aires aren’t able to come and play in our tournament in the south. We need to sort that out and unite under one flag.”
But there is optimism about the future, especially after the city got its rink six years ago. “Now we’re working on a roof and that would be a huge help because it would open the way for further development,” said Siede. “We could play all year round, and maybe we could even stage IIHF events down here.
“We’ve always had the ice down here but since we got the rink we’ve gone from being able to play pond hockey for maybe 30 days a year to ice hockey for three or four months. That’s put all eyes on Ushuaia as the capital of Argentine hockey and we have about 150 players here now.”