By William Douglas –

29 teams from Latin America, Caribbean to hit ice after 2020 hiatus due to COVID-19

Daniel Fierro said there’s a little extra excitement among players who will compete in the 2021 Amerigol LATAM Cup this week than in previous years.

“Last year, we weren’t able to compete because of COVID,” said Fierro, president of Colombia’s ice hockey federation. “So excitement is all over the place now. The players are finally able to play.”

The LATAM Cup, a four-day tournament featuring teams from Latin American and Caribbean countries, returns to the Florida Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, Florida, Thursday through Sunday after it was not held last year due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

The tournament features 29 teams and more than 500 men’s, women’s and youth players of varying skills representing Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the United States and Venezuela.

The LATAM Cup will also have a Middle East flavor with men’s and women’s teams from Lebanon participating in the tournament for the first time.

“Not having the tournament last year, waiting two years would have been too long and we don’t want to lose the traction we’ve gained,” Amerigol International Hockey Association president Juan Carlos Otero said. “A lot of people are expecting this tournament. Everyone is really excited for this year.”

Including the Panthers, who have seen the LATAM Cup grow in participation and attendance since it was first held at their practice facility in 2018.

“We care about growing the game and especially growing in diverse markets, South Florida being such a melting pot of so many different cultures,” said John Colombo, senior director of Florida Panthers Foundation & Community Relations. “This tournament has become something that we really pride ourselves in; giving that experience of being able to watch teams, like from Colombia, who are bringing their soccer fandom to watch hockey for the first time.

“We’re excited to see this tournament grow each year and watch the passion from the players, their families and fans.”

The tournament’s growth includes off-ice activities. On Wednesday, players will watch a screening of “Willie,” the documentary about Hockey Hall of Famer Willie O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first Black player when he debuted with the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens on January 18, 1958.

“Willie” will be followed by a discussion by Bryant McBride, a former NHL executive who produced the film, and later a talk with Al Montoya, the Dallas Stars’ director of community outreach who became the NHL’s first Cuban American player when he was a goalie for the Phoenix Coyotes in 2008-09.

The Stanley Cup is scheduled to make an appearance at the IceDen on Thursday, giving many of the LATAM Cup players the rare chance to see the trophy in person.

“I feel like I played and won the Stanley Cup just by having it here,” Otero said, “and being able to give all the players coming from South America, the Caribbean, the opportunity to see the Cup, take a picture.”

Otero, a passionate Panthers fan, sees the LATAM Cup as an avenue to showcase Latin American hockey talent and promote the sport in Florida, where Hispanics account for 26 percent of the population.

“I’ve always said that if you want to grow the game here you have to invest down there (in Latin America) and this tournament is part of that,” he said. “As word gets out about the tournament in the communities here, we’re going to get a larger crowd of people who have never seen a hockey game. And when you see it in person, it’s hard not to fall in love with it.”

Hispanics are making inroads in the NHL and in hockey in general. Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, who is Mexican American and was raised in Arizona, is among the League’s top scorers.

Alex Meruelo, a Cuban American businessman, became the NHL’s first and only Hispanic owner when he became majority owner of the Arizona Coyotes in 2019.

Xavier Gutierrez, who was born in Mexico, made history when he was named president and CEO of the Coyotes in 2020. In 2019, The Minnesota Wild hired U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Bill Guerin, who has Nicaraguan roots, as its general manager.

El Paso, Texas, a city along the U.S.-Mexico border with a nearly 82 percent Hispanic population, won the Kraft Hockeyville USA title as 2020’s most spirited hockey community in America based on online votes. 

LATAM Cup players hope their participation in the tournament will lead to hockey progress in their homelands. But it’s not easy being an ice hockey player in a Latin American or Caribbean country that have few or no ice rinks.

To compensate, many of the players compete in inline hockey. Several players arrived in Coral Springs days ahead of the tournament to practice on ice and adjust from skating on wheels to steel blades.

Several of the LATAM Cup countries see the tournament as a possible springboard for them to someday play in International Ice Hockey Federation tournaments or in the Winter Olympics whenever they fulfill the requirement of having a suitable rink in their homelands.

“We want to compete in the LATAM Cup because all of the other countries that don’t have the minimum (rink) standard can compete,” said Dicky Haiek, a coach and founder of the Argentine Association of Ice and In-Line Hockey. “We want to compete in the LATAM because it’s the most important event for ice hockey in Latin America — it’s the only one.”