Countless Canadian kids grow up dreaming about representing their country on hockey’s international stage.
James Vargas might fall into that category, too.
But with Chilean ancestry, it would be difficult to find a reason for the Markham resident to dream about donning a hockey jersey on behalf of his father’s homeland.
The 16-year-old goaltender is scheduled to fly Sept. 4 to Miami where he will join Chile’s national men’s hockey team to participate in the 2019 AmeriGol Latam Cup.
“No, actually, I didn’t know about it,” admits Vargas, a Grade 11 student at St. Augustine Catholic High School in Markham. “Hockey in South America is brand new. I don’t even know what calibre or style of play there will be. I’m going to have to figure it out when I get there.”
The Latam Cup tournament includes several Latin American national hockey teams competing in the weeklong event that concludes Sept. 7. The tournament also includes under-16 and women’s divisions.
Chile is scheduled to face off against Venezuela in its opening game on Sept. 6.
A former member of the Markham Waxers, Vargas plays for the Don Mills Flyers midgets in the Greater Toronto Hockey League.
A coach from a Montreal team connected to the Chilean program saw Vargas play last season. He approached his father, Javier, with an offer to consider playing for the under-18 Chilean team.
That team failed to materialize, but he was invited to join the senior men’s squad.
“It didn’t take long … about a minute,” Vargas said of his decision to accept. “I’m a little bit nervous, being so young and excited, too.
“It’s my first time to play hockey on an international stage. It’ll be interesting to see what comes to the table.”
He is qualified to play, through his father, who left Chile for North America as a nine-year-old.
The Latam Cup is being contested at the NHL Florida Panthers’ Ice Den in Coral Springs.
Known more for in-line hockey, Chile is an affiliate member of the International Ice Hockey Federation. Chile made its international debut in 2017.
Destruction. Political interference. You name it, Puerto Rico has faced it. After years of having to use flip flops for goal posts, the territory is set to embark on its first international hockey tournament, something many never thought would happen. This is the story of hockey in Puerto Rico.
That’s the best way to describe Philip Painter and the Puerto Rican hockey team. Sneaking into arenas just to play a disorganized version of their favorite sport, only to have it all taken away by outside ruling parties.
But it wasn’t always this way.
During the closing stages of the 2006 NHL pre-season, San Juan, the Puerto Rican capital, played host to a game between the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers. It was the first NHL game played in the Caribbean and what should have been the start of a beautiful partnership between the NHL and the American territory. The game came a year after the grand opening of the 18,500-seat Jose Miguel Agrelot Coliseum, something that was set to kick off hockey in the area after years of organization.
It flopped. It didn’t help that the game was during the slowest tourism season in September, but poor promotion of the event led to poor attendance which is estimated to have been around 5,000 patrons.
“The government had to bus in children from local housing projects, just to have bodies in the building,” said Phillip Painter, the director of hockey in Puerto Rico and the man in charge of growing the sport locally.
It was supposed to be something special for an area that had been through so much just to make it happen. Early hockey action began on the island more than 40 years ago in a rink known as the Reina de Hielo in San Juan. In 1978, the rink shut down, so locals had to wait until the Aguadilla Ice Skating Arena opened up in 2004 to try again. Using a machine that he said looked more like a cross between a Zamboni and a golf cart, the arena would finally become reality. Thousands of people came to the opening day festivities. It truly looked like the sport could see some success on the island. Ex-pats showed up from North America looking for a chance to play abroad.
The NHL’s failure to capitalize in Puerto Rico resulted in no hockey being played in the main coliseum. Players had to travel three hours outside of San Juan just to play in Aguadilla. But as time went on, operations began to go downhill. The local government relocated skating programs to other areas or shut them down altogether. Hockey players began sneaking into the rink just to play in the middle of the night with makeshift equipment, but when the nets were thrown out, they resorted to using flip flops for posts and other equipment just to get a taste of the action.
The Coliseo De Puerto Rico, home of Puerto Rico’s lone NHL pre-season game. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
The federation tried talking to the NHL, NHL Players’ Association, USA Hockey and Scotiabank, among others, to help look for support. Nothing came from it, rendering all progress idle. The federation would make some requests to the Puerto Rican Olympic Committee and the Department of Sports and Recreation about the state of the sport, but the appeals went unnoticed. Meanwhile, there were still a lot of people sending inquiries to the Puerto Rican hockey website about hosting games and tournaments, all of which were impossible. The dream of building hockey in the Tropics looked unlikely.
“‘Diversity’ seemed to be the buzzword of the day, yet an entire continent was being ignored,” Painter said. “We don’t need licensed merchandise. We needed rinks and instruction, support and everything needed to create a true hockey environment. The rest will fall into place in good time.”
Philip Painter’s goalie cut Puerto Rico jersey
In 2011, the Panthers offered to run youth hockey camps in the territory, but the Puerto Rican government wouldn’t allow the team to book any ice time in Aguadilla. The Panthers still offered to help out, operating a street-hockey clinic for a couple of years. In 2013, fed up with the lack of support from the government, Puerto Rico sent a team out to Argentina to participate in the End of the World Cup, a small tournament involving other new hockey nations. Puerto Rico could only field a team of seven players, and with no ice to play back home (despite having the biggest arena of any of the countries involved), the team was a shell of what truly could have been something impactful. Hockey in Puerto Rico is completely self-funded by the players themselves, meaning every dollar counts when trying to rebuild a program on a limited budget.
But the introduction of sledge hockey in early 2017 provided hope. Maybe hockey could work, albeit in a different fashion than originally planned. The demonstration put on by the program was a success, and there’s a true interest in growing the niche sport there. But later that summer, thousands of lives were lost due to Hurricane Maria, and the territory continues to feel the devastation of the storm today. The rink in Aguadilla was used as an emergency center with extra supplies, water, food and more. But the arena suffered significant damage itself after battling winds upwards of 200 MPH, making further growth more challenging. Communication was limited for a while; Painter himself was left without power for five months.
Since then, it’s all been about rebuilding. Painter, a reporter at the San Juan Daily Star, has been in charge of bringing the rink in Aguadilla back to life. With the help of Ron Robichaud from the Florida Sled Hockey Association, the rink received new regulation boards, glass and dressing rooms. The one thing Puerto Rico has going for them is an actual rink, even though the one in Aguadilla isn’t an NHL- or IIHF-sized building. Haiti and Jamaica, for example, have played in tournaments in North America but don’t have rinks back home.
For Puerto Rico, it’s been a long road, but the hard work is about to pay off. When it plays Argentina on Sept. 6 in Coral Springs, Fla., at the Latam Cup,it’ll mark the first time Puerto Rico has ever playedin an international tournament. The Latam Cup, previously known as the Pan-American Ice Hockey Games, serves as a development platform for nations new to hockey to grow. Colombia has been the dominant force for most of the tournament’s existence, with Mexico, Argentina and Brazil all contending at one point or another. Jamaica and theFalkland Islandswill also have players making their international tournament debuts this weekend. All games will be streamed for free on HockeyTV.com, which Painter said will be huge. “Every sports bar (in Puerto Rico) will be tuned in.”
Puerto Rico, fortunately, missed the brunt of Hurricane Dorian, but members of other nations weren’t so lucky. Some players had flights cancelled, and some early practice sessions were cancelled. Most of Dorian’s path will miss Miami, allowing the Latam Cup to operate, but it seems like terrible storms follow Puerto Rico’s hockey dreams everywhere.
No NHLer has ever been born in Puerto Rico, but Auston Matthews, Al Montoya, Scott Gomez and Max Pacioretty, among others, are of Latin American descent. S0me of Puerto Rico’s players for the Latam Cup have experience playing in Canada and the United States, and some even have college hockey experience.
“We followed IOC (International Olympic Committee) guidelines and were able to recruit stateside Puerto Ricans eager to represent our country,” Painter said. “I was surprised at the skill level of players. Although we haven’t had the chance to gel as a squad yet, I have no doubt we will prove strong enough to match up against anyone in our division.”
With more than 100 registered hockey players in Puerto Rico, the rebirth is in full swing. When the tournament concludes, the plan is to begin the final renovations to the rink. It’ll be utilized for a youth program and an adult 3-on-3 league, with players from Canada and United States showing interest. Just partaking in the Latam Cup is a step in the right direction for Puerto Rico, but there’s a lot of work still left to be done. Painter is determined to make hockey work in Puerto Rico and hopes to host the Latam Cup in the future.
The territory had to literally overcome destruction to get to where they are today. Any momentum Puerto Rico acquired over time was quickly terminated due to outside sources. For now, the team enters as underdogs in the second division – the ‘Bad News Bears,’ as Painter describes. But the only thing that truly matters is that Puerto Rico has finally arrived on the world stage
Tournament at Panthers practice rink attracts 400 players from nine countries
When hockey enthusiast Juan Carlos Otero first approached Florida Panthers IceDen general manager Keith Fine about hosting a Latin American tournament at the rink, he vowed that it would quickly grow into something big.
“Was I surprised? Yes and no,” Fine said. “If you talk to Juan Carlos for two seconds you see how passionate he is and he won’t stop at anything to grow the game, especially in the Latin American and Caribbean community.”
Otero’s vision will be on display this weekend at the second annual Amerigol LATAM Cup, a three-day tournament that begins Friday and ends Sunday at the Panthers practice facility in Coral Springs.
The tournament has grown in its second year: 21 men’s and women’s teams competing in four divisions with more than 400 players of varying skill levels from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the Falkland Islands, Jamaica, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the United States and Venezuela.
Last year’s inaugural tournament featured five countries and 90 men’s players in one division. This year’s tournament, which includes a four-team women’s bracket, an Under-16 division and two men’s divisions, is a great way to showcase Latin American hockey talent and promote the sport in a state that has a population 23.2 percent Hispanic, Otero said.
“If you want the game to grow, if you want the Latins to follow and the Hispanics to be behind the NHL in 20 years, you got to have more ‘Hernandez,’ ‘Fernandez’ and ‘Gomez’ on the back of jerseys that they can follow,” said Otero, who has been general manager of the University of Miami’s American Collegiate Hockey Association team since 2014. “Everything that hockey has and is – – the action, the speed, the dedication – – that’s part of the DNA of the Latin community. It’s a definite fit with the Latin community.”
Hispanics are making significant inroads in the NHL, on and off the ice. Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, who is Mexican-American and was raised in Arizona, is the cover athlete for EA Sports NHL 20 video game and had the top-selling jersey on the Fanatics network of ecommerce sites, including Shop.NHL.com, NHLShop.ca and Fanatics.com, during the 2017-18 season. He had the third best-selling jersey last season.
Alex Meruelo, a Cuban-American businessman, took over as majority owner of the Arizona Coyotes in July, becoming the first and only Hispanic owner in the NHL. In August, the Minnesota Wild hired U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Bill Guerin, who has Nicaraguan roots, as its general manger.
Panthers officials hoping that this year’s LATAM Cup will help boost interest in hockey within South Florida’s Hispanic community and increase the team’s fan base.
They noticed how last year’s tournament packed the IceDen largely with Hispanic spectators who brought vuvuzelas and a World Cup soccer enthusiasm to root for their country’s team. They ‘re expecting an even livelier crowd this weekend.
“Everything that we try to do with the Panthers, whether it’s ‘Learn to Play’ or getting more kids involved, all the programs that we provide, there’s still this kind of gap to bridge to get more people playing the sport in communities that wouldn’t normally play,” Fine said. “And this [tournament] was the perfect avenue for us to find that Hispanic, Latin population. The biggest challenge for us is now we can get them to the facility, now once they’re here and they see a game, let’s get them to the next step: Let’s put a stick in a kid’s hands and skates on their feet, get them to a [Panthers] game and maybe that will help grow the game at those younger populations where they wouldn’t normally have the chance to.”
Growth and promotion are also the goals of the teams participating in the tournament. They’re out to prove to their countries and the world that hockey isn’t just a North American or European game.
Colombia, last year’s LATAM Cup champion, will have four teams and 50 players (about 20 are U.S. residents of Colombian heritage) at this year’s tournament despite being a country without an indoor or outdoor rink suitable for hockey.
Most of the Colombian players are inline hockey payers. They arrived in Florida days ahead of the tournament to hold a few practices on ice to acclimate themselves from wheels to steel blades.
“The transition is not that easy,” said Daniel Fierro, a Colombian defenseman and a team spokesman. “But we have been able to show the potential hockey players have in Colombia, the results that we have been obtaining, to show that Colombia is champion of Latin America.”
Fierro said the most popular NHL players in his country are Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, and Tampa Bay Lightning forward Pat Maroon.
Maroon, who played for the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues last season, is a hero because he grew up playing inline and was a member of the 2010 U.S. men’s national inline hockey team.
“Now that he won the Stanley Cup, everyone is happy about that,” Fierro said. “He goes to international inline hockey tournaments so many kids have a chance to meet him, to get to know him. He’s been a huge impact for roller hockey players who want to play ice and grow in the sport. The ultimate goal for an inline player is to be an ice hockey player and be famous.”
Jamaica, which also doesn’t have an ice rink, is using its first LATAM Cup appearance as another step in the Caribbean Island’s effort to build a national team that can someday compete in the Winter Olympics, like the country’s bobsled team has.
“I like the flavor and what they’re trying to do,” Lester Griffin, general manager of a Jamaican team comprised mostly of players of Jamaican heritage who live in Canada, said of the tournament. “That’s to bring attention to all the country and the world to say hockey is really spreading.”
The lack of ice in Brazil hasn’t stopped 36 players and two teams from making their way to Florida for the tournament. While Brazil and the other teams plan to compete for a division championship, they have a friendly bond.
“Amerigol played a huge role in uniting many different teams that undergo the same difficulties and share the love for the sport so we can learn from each other,” said Henrique Degani, a spokesman for the Brazilian team. “We do crazy things for love. I like to think that hockey, although it may sound crazy, is a healthy thing to do for love.”
Growing up in Canada I was a huge hockey fan, but it wasn't until the 1972 summit series and the 1976 Canada Cup that I became a big fan of international hockey. The best players in world all playing on a sheet of ice.
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