Month: March 2022

LATAM Spring Classic gives boost to Latin American hockey development

By Taylor Baird – NHL.com

Some around Argentina’s national hockey team will joke that there were players who barely could skate on ice five years ago.

Through hard work, creativity in using the limited resources at its disposal, and participating in tournaments like the Amerigol LATAM Cup, those same players now can call themselves champions.

Argentina scored two goals in 1:01 late in the third period of a tied game for a 6-3 victory against Puerto Rico to win the inaugural Amerigol LATAM Spring Classic. The tournament was hosted in partnership with the Dallas Stars at StarsCenter in Farmers Branch, Texas, from March 24-27 and featured teams representing Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

“It’s a huge step for the Dallas Stars and us to support this tournament,” Stars director of community outreach Al Montoya said. “It’s a chance for us to help these players play the game they love. It’s also a chance for us to show that the Latin culture isn’t homogeneous. Just like DFW [Dallas-Fort Worth] being so diverse, the Latinos here in Dallas aren’t just Mexican, aren’t just Salvadoran … it’s a chance to connect with that community and continue to grow the game that we all love.

“We want to grow the best game on earth. As a hockey player, as a former hockey player now, being in the NHL, it’s showing that there is space for everybody in this game and believing that once they do see this game, play this game or become part of it, that it’ll spread like wildfire.”

The Spring Classic is the second annual event hosted by Amerigol to provide more access to ice time and competition for national teams and players from Latin American countries. The Amerigol LATAM Cup first was held in 2018 at Florida Panthers IceDen in Sunrise, Florida. It has been held every year since, except for 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These annual events provide opportunities to Latin American players to practice and skate on ice, something that can be hard to come by in their home countries. Many players came to the Dallas area before the start of the tournament to transition from in-line roller hockey to ice.

In addition to the tournament, the Stars hosted more than 90 players, coaches and staff members from the Spring Classic at their home game against the Vancouver Canucks on March 26. For most, it was the first time they had gotten a chance to see NHL hockey live.

“They’re going to go back to their country and speak to their teammates from their roller hockey leagues and talk about their experience,” said Juan Carlos Otero, one of the founders of Amerigol. “It’s going to create a desire for these guys to want to work hard to be on the next national team, to be on a team that’s going to travel and participate in the LATAM Cup or the Spring Classic. That’s just going to help grow the game down there.”

Otero anticipates the 2022 Amerigol LATAM Cup, which will be held in Sunrise in partnership with the Panthers from Sept. 15-18, will have more than 40 teams participating, including some traveling from as far as Egypt and Thailand. Though the tournament started as a way to grow hockey within Latin American countries, Otero said he always will find a way to include countries where hockey is considered non-traditional.

After all, Otero said, “Why can’t everyone have an opportunity [to play]?

“These players have the same passion as we do for this incredible game and love it as much or more than we do. You can come up to any little player and ask him what happened in the NHL last night and he’s going to tell you … it’s just incredible the love they have for this game.”

Estonia returns in style

The Estonian players celebrate with their gold medals after winning all games in Belgrade.

By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

It was a victory 14 years in the making. Estonia’s women last contested a World Championship back in 2008, coming fourth out of six teams in Division IV. But the global financial crisis slammed the brakes on funding for the sport and the program’s momentum was lost. This week, though, the team put the pedal to the metal, blazing through World Championship Division IIIB in Belgrade with a dominant display against the three newcomer teams.

Up against three nations making their Women’s World Championship debuts – host Serbia, Israel and Bosnia & Herzegovina – Estonia recorded three convincing victories and allowed just one goal. A fifth entrant, Iran, had to withdraw. With an aggregate score of 24-1 over three games, it’s no surprise that Estonia’s players led the individual scoring charts. Edith Parnik came out on top with 6 (5+1), defender Christin Lauk had five goals, while Merlin Griffin and Kirke Kulla and Diana Kaareste all finished with five points. Serbia’s Valentina Vrhoci (1+4) was the highest scorer from another country.

For Margaret Neering, a 19-year-old forward on the Estonian team, this was a World Championship debut to remember. The teenager plays her hockey with Viljandi-based HK Fuuriad in the national championship, where she’s currently fourth in scoring with 13 (9+4) points from 11 games. But a first taste of international action was something special.

“It feels unreal,” she said after collecting her gold medal. “It’s my first time at a tournament like this and really, it’s almost over the top. I was a little bit nervous at the start, but now it’s done.”

Although Estonia twice racked up 10 goals on its opponents in Serbia, Neering insisted that the tournament was a test.

“It wasn’t easy to win,” she said. “We had some big scores, but all the games were hard and we had some really tough opposition.”

A new era

Neering was just five years old when Estonia last played in the Women’s World Championship program. Today, she’s at the forefront of a new generation that is benefitting from the establishment of the country’s women’s league. Currently there are seven teams in the competition, with table-topping Roosa Panter (Pink Panther) entering a reserve roster as well as its first team. That’s up from four when the competition began in 2017 and the growth of the league is driving the national team as suddenly there is serious competition for places on the program.

“It’s very important,” Neering added. “If you can get to that level, it’s so amazing. Not everyone makes it now. Everyone is so good in training and in practice, it’s no longer that easy to make it to this kind of level.”

And a bigger challenge means bigger motivation.


Mix of generations

The team in Belgrade was able to draw on some players with international experience from Estonia’s last World Championship campaign. Women like Diana Kaareste, currently leading the league in scoring, and 2022 team captain Kirke Kulla were among the most prominent veterans on the roster.

“It was very good to have those players on the team,” Neering said. “They have that experience, they were very comforting when I had some nerves. They gave a lot of moral support on and off the ice.”

Now the hope is that Estonia can build on this successful return to international hockey and continue to push the women’s team up the rankings. The Estonian Ice Hockey Association has always been clear that support for the women’s game needs to be matched by the country’s female players making the most of their opportunities, so gold in Belgrade should help to generate more ice time back home.

“We can achieve a lot more,” Neering said. “Now we have shown we have a national team, we won this tournament, so we can get more opportunities.

“This should motivate a lot of girls and women.”

Silver for Serbia

Host nation Serbia found Estonia too much to cope with in its opening game, losing 4-0. But the team recovered to claim silver after wins over Bosnia & Herzegovina (5-1) and Israel (6-0). Bosnia & Herzegovina took bronze thanks to a 5-1 verdict against the Israelis. For all the teams, it was a valuable learning experience and a first chance to test their progress against other countries in IIHF-sanctioned games. After a two-year hiatus in the lower divisions of IIHF play, this was a long-awaited debut for all three teams.

In the directorate awards, Estonian goalie Delen Schule and defender Christin Lauk were recognised. The top forward was Serbia’s Valentina Vrhoci.

Two pro women’s hockey groups meet in bid to thaw relations

By

The Premier Hockey Federation is taking its playoffs to Florida this weekend, but not before making a latest attempt to mend fences with members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association.

The rival women’s hockey groups met in New York on Wednesday at the request of the NHL in hopes discussions could thaw relations in getting the two sides working together to unify the sport.

The six-team PHF, North America’s only professional women’s hockey league, termed the discussions as being “constructive,” but would not say whether more meetings are scheduled. PWHPA executive Jayna Hefford and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly declined comment Thursday when reached by The Associated Press.

The PWHPA’s membership includes members of the United States and Canadian national teams, and was established in May 2019 following the demise of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. The association’s objective has been to establish a league with what it calls a sustainable economic model and preferably backed by the NHL.

While the NHL, as an entity, has urged the sides to resolve their differences, the PWHPA has individual NHL team support in listing 11 franchises as partners. Talks between the PWHPA and its NHL partners and corporate sponsors have intensified over the past month in a bid to establish a league within the next year.

The PHF, which rebranded itself from the National Women’s Hockey League last summer, is moving forward with plans to add two expansion teams, including one in Montreal, and committed to providing players health care and more than doubling its salary cap per team to $750,000 next season.

In the meantime, the PHF turns its focus on closing its seventh season with the Isobel Cup playoffs held outside of Tampa, Florida.

The Connecticut Whale and Toronto Six will have a bye into the semifinals on Saturday after the Whale clinched top spot with a 5-0 season-ending win over the Six last weekend. The playoffs open on Friday with the third-seeded and defending champion Boston Pride facing the sixth-seeded Buffalo Beauts, and fourth-seeded Metropolitan Riveters playing the fifth-seeded Minnesota Whitecaps.

“We just ran out of gas,” Six coach Mark Joslin said of Toronto finishing a point behind Connecticut. “We’re good enough and deep enough and I believe we’re driven enough to bounce back and be ready Sunday in Tampa no matter who we’re playing.”

Forward Mikyla Grant-Mentis, the PHF’s leading scorer and MVP last season, believes the Six are capable of winning the Cup in their second season.

“It would mean the world,” Grant-Mentis said. The 23-year-old led the Six in scoring again this season with 13 goals and 17 assists in 19 games.

South Africa emerges

The South African players celebrate with the trophy after winning the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Group B on home ice in Cape Town.

By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

South Africa celebrated victory in the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Group B – but only after a nail-biting finish to the three-team tournament in Cape Town.

The host nation lost out to Thailand in a shoot-out in the final game of the competition, but that was good enough to secure first place overall. However, the Rhinos trailed 0-4 early in the second period and were down 1-5 when Thailand got on the power play late in that same stanza – offering the Elephants the chance to claim the four-goal winning margin that would have seen them snatch a dramatic gold medal.

For South Africa’s captain Uthman Samaai, victory was all the sweeter after losing two tournaments due to Covid. The lower divisions of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship have been unable to play since 2019 for most events normally scheduled in spring.

“The boys have been working for three years in the dark so that meant everything,” Samaai said after the game. “It’s three years of hard work for four games here!

“We put it all on the line for that last one. We were down 5-1, 5-2 and we got it! That shows the courage on this team.”

Format changes

The Division IIIB was initially planned as a four-team event. However, Hong Kong, China had to withdraw leaving South Africa, Thailand and Bosnia & Herzegovina to contest the tournament. The organisers and teams agreed to go for a double round robin, with each team playing each other twice.

In the earlier group game, South Africa defeated Thailand 5-2, coming from 0-2 down to seal the win. With the Bosnians unable to take a point off either opponent, it all came down to Friday’s head-to-head, with Thailand needing a victory by four or more goals to take top spot.

For all three nations it was a leap into the unknown after a long wait to return to international hockey. Thailand currently runs a four-team championship, South Africa’s roster was largely drawn from the Gauteng Premier League, which has 10 teams based in Pretoria and Johannesburg, while Bosnia’s selection featured a few players based in Slovenia, Sweden and U.S. College hockey alongside a team largely taken from the local league in Sarajevo.

“It’s good to get the team back together,” Samaai added. “We’ve been going back and forth, playing in Jo’burg and Pretoria now for two years. I’m just ecstatic for international [hockey] to be back. Hopefully we can keep it going for the ladies, the U18s and the U20s.” 

Thailand storms ahead

Despite losing the earlier meeting between the two countries, Thailand showed enough to suggest that it could be competitive against South Africa. And on Friday the visitor’s first-period performance was good enough to blow the whole tournament wide open. Two goals from Nattasate Phatigulsate sandwiched another from Phanaruj Surachiwat as the Thais stomped into a 3-0 lead. Early in the second, Surachiwat got his second of the game and suddenly Thailand was on course for gold.

Then it all began to change. South Africa was always competitive in this game but struggled to turn chances into goals. However, in the 36th minute captain Uthmann Samaai set up John Ventner at the point and the defender’s shot, although it lacked power, somehow squirmed through the equipment of goalie Benjamin Kleinechay. Thailand still had a commanding lead in the game, but South Africa was back on top in the standings.

Within a minute, the positions reversed once again, with Jan Isaksson pouncing on the rebound after Ken Kindborn’s shot slammed into the back boards and bounced onto the slot. If you think those names evoke Scandinavia more than the Siam Hockey League, you’d be right: both were born in Sweden and form part of a clutch of dual nationals on the team alongside Patrick Forstner (Austria), Hiroshima-born Masato Kitayama and captain Hideki Nakayama, born in Bangkok but with Japanese heritage and a CV that includes time playing in Europe. A Thai power play late in the middle frame seemed to deepen the hole into which South Africa’s medal hopes were fast tumbling.

South African PK saves the host

Yet that penalty kill turned the game upside down, with captain Samaai to the fore. The Rhinos scored two short-handed goals, one either side of the intermission, to tilt the game and the tournament back in their favour. First, Samaai led the rush and Luke Carelse followed up to shoot home the rebound after the initial shot was padded away. Then, after the break, Samaai did it all himself, bursting through a startled Thai defence and winning his duel with Kleinechay. Ninety seconds later, Stefan Kluyts got it back to 4-5 and the Thais called a time-out but could not find a way to rebuild their lead.

Given the situation in the tournament, fans at Cape Town’s Ice Station arena were treated to the unusual sight of a team withdrawing the goalie while leading the game. Stranger still, head coach Juhani Ijaes – Finnish born, but based in Thailand since 2016 as a coach and sometime player – called Kleinechay to the bench with 7:27 remaining. With three goals needed, it was a brave gambit but on this occasion, courage went unrewarded. South Africa survived a shot against its post and forced a turnover before Jean-Michel van Doesburgh scored into the empty net to tie the game.

The game remained tied until the 60-minute mark, the hooter sparking noisy celebrations on and off the ice from a partisan home crowd of 500. But there was still overtime and a shoot-out to come before Thailand emerged with the consolation prize of victory in Friday’s game.

Bosnia took third place. The only European team in the competition was unable to win a game but improved throughout the tournament and pushed Thailand all the way before losing 4-3 in its last action. Mirza Omer top-scored for the team with 6 (4+2) points.

Individual honours

Thailand’s Isaksson, who played in Lulea’s junior system, finished as the tournament’s leading scorer with 12 (5+7) points. But South Africa’s Samaai, a Cape Town native in his 11th season of IIHF play, was named as top forward for the tournament. He had nine points and, crucially, masterminded his team’s recovery in Friday’s big showdown. Team-mate Cameron Birrell, also representing his country for the 11th time in senior World Championship play, was chosen as best defender. “He’s our best player,” added Samaai. “He was working for us throughout the tournament and then he got injured in the first period [of Friday’s game]. We put it all on the line and we got the job done for him.”

Among the netminders, Thailand’s Kleinechay showed why he’s nicknamed ‘The Wall’. The Minnesota-born goalie had a busy tournament, facing 164 shots in total and returning the best save percentage of the three to take the directorate’s top goalie prize. South Africa’s ‘Spiderman’, Ryan Boyd ranked second ahead of Bosnia’s Dino Pasovic.

And, as is so often the case at this level of hockey, where players often tend to bear their own costs to play hockey and tournaments are sustained by burning passion more than generous budgets, there was a special mention for the hard work behind the scenes.

“The organisers put together an unbelievable tournament in such a short space of time,” Samaai added. “Shout out to [South Africa Ice Hockey Federation president] Jason Cerff, he did everything.

“He is the epitome of South African ice hockey. He’s a volunteer, he works a full-time job and then does twice as much for hockey in this country. That’s my guy!”

South Africa back on the ice at IIHF World Championship after long break

Uthman Samaai has played for South Africa for nearly a decade, and played his college hockey at Nazareth College in New York.

By  Leonard Solms – ESPN

South Africa’s men’s ice hockey team will return to competitive action for the first time in nearly three years this weekend, as they host the 2022 IIHF World Championship Division III B in Cape Town.

From March 13-18, GrandWest Arena will host South Africa, Thailand, and Bosnia & Herzegovina in Division III B, with the teams playing each other twice. The side at the top of the standings will earn promotion to Division III A.

The Rhinos’ last competitive outing ended in relegation from the World Championship Division III A in Bulgaria, and then COVID-19 denied them a shot at promotion in 2020 and 2021.

As recently as 2015, South Africa played in Division II Group B. They were relegated that year and steadily fell down the Division III table before suffering yet another demotion four years later.

For context, the International Ice Hockey Federation divides teams into five divisions, with teams like the USA and Canada competing in the Championship division [16 teams]. Division II, which is South Africa’s target, features teams like China, Iceland, and Australia.

According to Rhinos captain Uthman Samaai, it has been difficult to replace the strong core of players that drove their success in 2015, and they’re only now finding their feet.

The costs associated with the game, which is not widely played at the tip of Africa where it very rarely drops to icy temperatures, prohibits new talent from rising from a grassroots level. Equipment is not readily available, and ice rinks are few and far between.

Samaai told ESPN: “Ice hockey is obviously a very expensive sport to play — especially in South Africa, because a lot of the stuff has to be imported.

“There was a period of time when there were older players leaving and the talent coming through wasn’t matching the experienced players leaving.

“We had a bit of a transformation for a couple of years, where we needed those older players to stay for a bit longer to give those younger players the opportunity to make mistakes.

“Since 2020, we’ve closed that gap very nicely. The younger players have a ton of experience and we only have one or two newcomers in the team this year, which is good to see.”

Despite lack of international action this decade, South Africa remain the top-ranked team in Africa despite their recent struggles and there is a contingent within the team that has overseas experience.

“I studied in Rochester, New York, for four years, where I played for [D3 school] Nazareth College. Cameron Birrell played a bunch of hockey in England and he played hockey in America growing up [with the Michigan Mountain Cats],” Samaai said.

“Reinhard Venter was playing [for Vermont Lumberjacks in the Easter Hockey League] before COVID and then his tournament got cut short, so he came home.”

That there is a team at all is impressive, given there is very little money in ice hockey in South Africa, and the players compete for the love of it in regional tournaments for small salaries. A number of players on the national team compete in the Gauteng Premier Hockey League [GPHL], which features 10 teams from Pretoria and Johannesburg.

Samaai, who most recently played for the Cape Town Kings in the WPIHL, works for the City of Cape Town’s media department, while his teammates’ day jobs vary tremendously.

He explained: “A few of [our players] are digital designers. We’ve got a couple of teachers. We’ve got a headmaster. We’ve got people who work for American companies and guys who work in crypto, a few students – one of them is studying mechanical engineering and the other is studying to be a priest.

“I think that we’ve got a very wide variety of people, but I guess that’s kind of what makes the team so nice. We come from very different backgrounds, but when we get together, it’s like magic.”

South Africa are aiming for immediate promotion to Division III A and, according to Samaai, will not be satisfied with anything less. The withdrawal of Hong Kong from the upcoming tournament at GrandWest has at least narrowed down their competition.

“The goal in 2020, when we got together, was to get back to Division II in the next five years. Obviously, we’re chasing that same goal,” Samaai said.

“This year, we want to win it. I don’t think that there’s anything less that we can really be proud of.

“Next year, in [Division] III [A], I think we would be happy with placing, and the following year, we want to win it. The three-year goal is basically to get back to Division II B.”

The national team of Kyrgyzstan won gold medal at IIHF World Championships Division IV

Kyrgyz Republic. Ice hockey team IIHF division IV champions.

By George Da Silva – National Teams of Ice Hockey

Kyrgyzstan has won the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship division IV. 

Kyrgyzstan defeated Kuwait with a score of 14-0 and finished with a perfect 4-0 record and outscored their opponents 64-2.

Kyrgyzstan will now compete in division III at next year’s championships. 

Second place went to Iran, which had an impressive 3-1 record. Third went to Singapore with a 2-2 record. Malaysia finished fourth and Kuwait finished fifth.

Sadyr Japarov and the first lady of Kyrgyzstan, Aigul Japarova, attended the final gameFollowing the awards ceremony, the president visited the locker room of the Kyrgyz team and personally congratulated our players on their championship victory.

Bishkek hosted the final game of the 2022 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division IV on March 8 with head of state Sadyr Japarov and first lady Aigul Japarova in attendance.

On his own behalf, the President awarded cash prizes to all national team playerscoaches, and doctors.

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