When you think of hockey in the Western Hemisphere, Canada and the United States come to mind first and foremost. But let your thoughts drift to several sunny destinations and hotspots in South America, and you’ll find the game taking root in many non-traditional hockey nations with budding programs. In fact, the situation for hockey in Latin America and the Caribbean has never been better.
South of the North American hockey superpowers, the game is beginning to take root and supporters of the
Latam Cup is the driving force. It may be a minor event on the hockey calendar, but its mission is much bigger. The aim is to bring attention to the sport in areas that don’t even experience much snow or ice to begin with.
Created in 2018, the Latam Cup is a development tournament that gives small North and South American teams an outlet to play. The event saw teams from Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Lebanon, Venezuela and the United States compete for medals and bragging rights in the Pan American landscape. The tournament follows in the footsteps of the old Pan American Ice Hockey Games, which were hosted by Mexico and lasted from 2014 to 2017. The goal was to bring together non-traditional hockey nations from across the Americas without having to follow the IIHF guidelines and regulations on the list (although the IIHF supported it). In 2014, the only year Canada participated, two Canadian teams each won gold against Mexico in the men’s and women’s tournaments. Colombia won gold in 2015 and 2016 and Mexico in 2017 for the men, while Mexico swept the next three for the women. The event grew from five teams to nine on the men’s side in the last iteration in 2017.
With Mexico no longer hosting the event, Juan Carlos Otero, president of the Amerigol International Hockey Association, formed the Latam Cup to fill the void. Among other positions, Ortero has worked with the NHL as a member of the Youth Hockey Inclusion Committee, served as General Manager of the University of
the Miami hockey team and serves as a board member of the Southern Collegiate Hockey Conference. The idea was to continue the basic principles of the old Pan Am event, but turn it into a much bigger experience with more support.
The inaugural Latam Cup in 2018 featured five teams in the men’s division alone. A year later, the tournament grew to 21 teams across four divisions in the men’s, women’s and youth groups. Jamaica won their first truly international tournament as organizers opened up to smaller nations outside of the Latin American sphere.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the event to the sidelines, but the 2021 tournament has proven to be the biggest yet, with 29 teams across five divisions – and more than 40 teams are expected in 2022. For many teams and players, this is the high point of their hockey season. In some cases, the Latam Cup is the first time in their lives that players have taken to the ice in full hockey gear.
Blowouts are common, but the event is more than just a final score. It’s about exposure, player development and game development across the Americas. It’s a real grassroots effort, and organizers aren’t taking it for granted, although there’s still work to be done. “It’s very important to start investing in Latin America, it’s our backyard,” Otero said. “And we have to start developing now. It takes 15 to 20 years for a player to develop. It’s something we need to start now.
The 2021 tournament was yet another step in the right direction. Colombia won the title in Division I, Brazil won gold for the first time ever in Division II, while Puerto Rico won gold in the women’s group in their first attempt at hockey in the part of a tournament.
One of the requirements to become a full member of the IIHF and participate in official tournaments is to have a regulation-sized ice rink. Mexico is the only team that meets the requirements for full IIHF membership, with having a national league in addition to regulation rink being two of the main factors. Some of the competing teams use synthetic ice for home practice, while others only have temporary outdoor facilities. Otero said countries like Lebanon and Jamaica have used the tournament to secure the means to eventually become IIHF competitors. Funding is always an issue: teams can’t make money without playing, and teams can’t play without making money. But the Latam Cup offers them all a chance to play, giving many fledgling hockey programs in the Americas a dose of legitimacy to take home. Expectations may be low for the teams involved, but long-term goals are big. The ultimate goal is to make hockey a viable option for competitive sport in the participating nations.
“We need to make it easier for teams to be able to go back to their government and say, ‘Look, we’re playing in this international tournament, we need your support and it’s covered by the NHL'” , Otero said. “It’s going to open doors for them in their government rather than sitting back and hoping they invest.”
The NHL has tried to break into Latin America in the past. During the 2006 preseason, the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan hosted a game between the New York Rangers and the Florida Panthers at its new 18,500-seat Coliseum. It was the first NHL game played in the Caribbean, and it could have been the start of a great partnership between the league and the American territory. But the event failed. Poor promotion led to low attendance of around 5,000 people. It was the only NHL attempt in the area at the time.
The NHL and teams such as Dallas, Arizona and Los Angeles, as well as Mexican-born players like Auston Matthews, have all expressed interest in developing the game in Mexico. The Panthers have been involved in the Latam Cup, providing the rink and marketing since its inception in 2018. Otero says the support of the NHL and one of its teams goes a long way in building legitimacy, and it is expected to introduce more events. to give teams even more opportunities to play. “The work has to start somewhere,” Otero said. “We are working to make this happen. We want to see a Latin American team compete in the Olympics one day, and I think that can happen over time.