By Martin Merk – IIHF.com

Bullfight arena, travel give new ice hockey exposure

Four teams played at the 2017 Development Cup. While players from three teams are regularly on ice, the Portuguese players that reached third place are mostly roller hockey players who dream of establishing ice hockey in the Southwest European country of over 10 million people. 

The Portuguese Ice Sports Federation (FPDG) joined the IIHF in 1999 when an ice rink was in operation in Viseu in the centre of the country. During the best days a three-team national championship was concluded. However, in 2006 the rink shut down for works in the shopping mall and when it reopened. The federation had plans to make it full size but the owners had different ideas. The ice rink shrank and was not suitable for hockey due to its position within a food court without protection. 

The next attempt to start ice hockey was a temporary ice rink that is installed during winter months in a bullfight arena in Elvas, a city of 24,000 people in the Alentejo region at the border to Spain. Games against a Czech team took place in 2015. 

“We have an ice rink for about a month and a half they install temporarily in the winter. And we go to Spain like to the Madrid region and to Granada. We want to establish good relationships with Spanish clubs and maybe one day be invited to play in sort of an Iberian league,” said Mauricio Xavier, one of the more mature players on the ice and the President of the Portuguese Ice Sports Federation. The rink in Elvas is 40 on 20 metres, not full size but they can play the games five-on-five and it’s the size of the roller hockey fields the players are used to. And it’s a two-hour journey from Lisbon – less than the four-and-a-half hours to the next rink in Spain or to Andorra for the recent event. 

“We had big help from the Czech ambassador in Lisbon, Stanislav Kazecky, who has helped us out for several years and had players from the Czech Republic coming to play against us and we also went to the Czech Republic to play against them outdoor.” 

Xavier was born in the Lisbon area where he spent most of his life but got infected with the ice hockey virus in Canada. When he was one-and-a-half years old the family escaped from the dictatorship in Portugal in those days and went to Canada. 

“I started to play when I was five years old. We moved back when I was 13 or 14 years old and I was without hockey until inline hockey showed up in the ‘90s,” he said. When the rink opened in Viseu, he was back on the ice for a few years until it shut down. 

Not only the temporary rink in Elvas brought changes into a positive direction for Portuguese ice hockey. 

“We’re in a good place because we will have changes in Portugal that were kind of imposed to us from the government, which is a good sign for us because we’ve never had government support before,” Xavier said. “The current Ice Sports Federation will be extinguished and ice sports moved into the Portuguese Winter Sports Federation.” 

What might cause political fights elsewhere seems to work smooth and peacefully in Portugal. 

“They have this status as a sporting utility entity and get support through government programs. This federation has the goal to bring sports to the Olympics.” 

While the Olympics are far for Portugal right now, the national team finished the 2017 Development Cup in third place, which was the first tournament the team played against other countries. Morocco with players from other countries and Ireland with regular ice experience across the border in Northern Ireland were too strong but the team had two wins against host Andorra. 

“The tournament has been a good experience. We won games here as a country not having a permanent ice rink, that’s something to be proud of. We want to get kids, male, females to get involved in the game but first we need the rink, government support and money,” said head coach Jim Aldred, a U.S. citizen. 

The Portuguese hoped to have an even stronger team than the roster limited to just 11 players. 

“We hoped to be as good as Morocco, we also have Portuguese players all around the world but John Tavares and Mike Ribeiro got missing somewhere,” Xavier said with a smile and added on a more serious note: “We wanted to develop players in Portugal. Everybody is Portuguese except for the coach, who is married to a Portuguese woman.” 

Another reason was that some players from Portugal or abroad didn’t come was money. 

“We want to develop ice hockey in Portugal but we have no ice rink and no money. Most of the people have to pay for their own so some people wanted to come but didn’t have the money,” said Aldred, who has started working for the Portuguese early this year including a tournament in Granada, Spain. 

“The players are coming along. It’s a process. They’re some older guys and some younger guys too. The biggest problem is not having an ice rink, they all have to play inline hockey. The closest rink for us is a four-and-a-half hour journey away in Madrid.” 

Three players joined the team from abroad. Christopher Leite once played games in the top French league for Anglet and Amiens, for whose fourth-tier team he was still active. Sylvain Rodrigues came also from France, from Evry, and one player is originally from the Portuguese Azores archipelago but used to play in the U.S. before returning to Portugal. 

One of the most notable players, however, was a local one: 20-year-old goaltender Ivan Silva. 

“I love inline hockey too but ice hockey is the best thing. It’s the second time I played hockey on a full-size ice rink,” said the goalie who was born in Spain but has lived in Lisbon since the age of one. 

“For a goalie the feeling in ice hockey, the sliding, is better. And it’s less hot,” he said. “It’s sad we don’t have an ice rink except for the winter season when there are tiny rinks in shopping malls and then I go there.” 

Being able to play in Andorra was a wonderful experience for him as he said. And with many Portuguese living in the country nestled in the Pyrenees between France and Spain, they had some local support. 

“We saw we have a lot to learn and to practise. There were players here who play at a much higher level. It was great to be here. 

“We met many Portuguese here especially in a restaurant. They made us feel like at home. They supported us well. 

“My dream for the future is to have an ice rink in Portugal, in Lisbon, to play and practise, and to have teams and get kids to play the sport from the childhood age. It would be nice to be able in a World Championship tournament one day.” 

President Xavier hopes that the ice rink situation will change and is optimistic after the recent political change for ice sports that it will happen and give new opportunities to develop ice hockey. 

“In Portugal we have a football mentality first. It’s easier to build and maintain a football pitch than an ice rink but I still believe that Lisbon with a population of two million people deserves an ice rink. They deny many sports to the people. It’s the only big capital in Europe that has never had an ice rink. We never showed the Portuguese people what ice hockey, figure skating or speed skating is. We have speed skaters on wheels who are world champions and would like to go on ice, every speed skater elsewhere has an inline and an ice season. And it’s similar for us in hockey,” Xavier said. 

“Lisbon wants to be capital of sports in 2021 but doesn’t have an ice rink and at least five sports are neglected. But we’re in a transitory phase and I believe we’ll have an ice rink in one or two years.”