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Latam Cup Brings Hockey Fever to Non-Traditional Hockey Nations

A slew of Latin American and Caribbean nations are champing at the bit for IIHF recognition. Cue the Latam Cup.
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When you think about hockey in the Western Hemisphere, Canada and the United States come to mind first and foremost. But let your thoughts drift south to several sunshine destinations and South American hot spots, and you’ll find the game taking root in many non-traditional hockey nations with budding programs. In fact, the state of hockey in Latin America and the Caribbean has never been better.

South of hockey’s North American superpowers, the game is beginning to take hold, and the supporters of the

Latam Cup are the driving force behind it. It may be a minor event on the hockey calendar, but its mission is much bigger. The goal is to bring attention to the sport in areas that don’t even experience much snow or ice to begin with.

Formed in 2018, the Latam Cup is a development tournament that gives smaller North and South American teams an outlet to play. The event has seen teams from Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Lebanon, Venezuela and the United States compete for medals and bragging rights in the Pan-Am landscape. The tournament follows in the footsteps of the old Pan-American Ice Hockey Games, which was hosted by Mexico and lasted from 2014 to 2017. The goal was to get non-traditional hockey nations from across the Americas together without needing to follow IIHF guidance and roster regulations (though the IIHF did support it). In 2014, the only year Canada participated, a pair of Canadian select teams each won gold over Mexico in the men’s and women’s tournaments. Colombia won gold in 2015 and 2016 and Mexico in 2017 on the men’s side, while Mexico swept the next three on the women’s. The event grew from five to nine teams on the men’s side in the final 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 youth hockey inclusion committee member, was GM of the University of

Miami hockey team and acts as a board member with the Southern Collegiate Hockey Conference. The idea was to continue the basic principles of the old Pan-Am event but grow it into a much bigger experience with more support.

The inaugural Latam Cup in 2018 had five teams in the lone men’s division. A year later, the tourney increased to 21 teams in four divisions in the men’s, women’s and youth groups. Jamaica won in its first real international tournament as the organizers opened up to smaller nations outside of the Latin American sphere.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the event onto the sidelines, but the 2021 tournament proved to be the biggest yet, with 29 teams spread across five divisions – and over 40 teams are expected in 2022. For many of the teams and players, it’s the highlight of their hockey season. In some cases, the Latam Cup is the first time in their lives that players step on the ice in full hockey gear.

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Blowouts are common, but the event is about much more than just the final score. It’s about exposure, developing players and growing the game across the Americas. It’s a true grassroots effort, and the organizers don’t take it for granted, though more work needs to be done. “It’s very important to start investing in Latin America, it’s our backyard,” Otero said. “And we need to start developing now. It takes 15 to 20 years for a player to develop. It’s something we need to get started now.”

The 2021 tournament was yet another step in the right direction. Colombia took 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 its first attempt at hockey in a tournament setting.

One of the requirements for becoming a full member of the IIHF and playing in official tournaments is having a regulation-sized rink. Mexico is the only team that meets the requirements to be a full IIHF member, with having a domestic league in addition to the regulation rink being two of the main factors. Some of the competing teams use synthetic ice to practice at home, while others only have temporary outdoor facilities. Otero said countries like Lebanon and Jamaica have used the tournament to help secure the means to eventually become IIHF competitors. Funding is always an issue: the teams can’t make money without playing, and the teams can’t play without making money. But the Latam Cup is providing them all a chance play, giving many nascent hockey programs in the Americas a shot of legitimacy to take back home with them. The expectations may be low for the teams involved, but the long-term goals are big. The ultimate goal is to make hockey a viable option for competitive sport in participating nations.

“We need to make it easier for the 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. “That’s going to open doors for them within their government rather than sitting around and hoping they invest.”

The NHL has made an attempt to break into Latin America in the past. During the 2006 pre-season, the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan played host to a game between the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers in its new 18,500-seat coliseum. It was the first NHL game played in the Caribbean, and it could’ve been the start of a beautiful partnership between the league and the American territory. But the event flopped. Poor promotion led to low attendance of about 5,000. It was the NHL’s only attempt in the area at the time.

The NHL and teams such as Dallas, Arizona and Los Angeles, along with players of Mexican heritage like Auston Matthews, have all expressed interest in growing the game in Mexico. The Panthers have been involved in the Latam Cup, providing the rink and marketing since inception in 2018. Otero says having the support of both the NHL and one of its teams goes a long way in adding legitimacy, and there are plans to introduce more events to give teams even more opportunities to play. “The work has to start somewhere,” Otero said. “We’re working to make that happen. We want to see a Latin American team competing in the Olympics someday, and I believe it can happen with time.” 

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