By Doug Ward
In hockey, “south of the border” used to mean the United States. Not anymore.
Fifty-four years after arriving in Los Angeles as hockey missionaries charged with playing and selling Canada’s game in a non-traditional market, the Kings are pioneering evangelists once again, this time taking the sport to another warm-weather market: Mexico City.
Of course, if there is one thing the Kings’ success in Los Angeles has taught us, it’s that the term “non-traditional” hockey market applies to the past and bears little impact on the future. The NHL has never played a game in Mexico, but the country has a population close to 130 million – including more than 3,000 registered hockey players – and 18 indoor ice rinks. So the Kings believe their neighbors to the south represent hockey’s next frontier. “Hockey is a lot like soccer, which is the most popular sport in Mexico,” said former King Derek Armstrong. “That similarity makes it easy for kids there to grasp the game.” The 48-year-old Armstrong is now the Kings’ director of community and hockey development.
The Kings are so bullish on hockey south of the border that they have expanded their Jr. Kings program to Mexico City, where they conducted their second Jr. Kings Camp in November 2021. Along with fellow Kings alum Brad Smyth, Armstrong conducted on-ice training sessions for approximately 45 players. “If we can get two to three kids excited about hockey,” Armstrong said, “it’s well worth it.”
Kings president Luc Robitaille was instrumental in bringing hockey to the L.A. mainstream. He scored 668 career NHL goals and possesses a magnetic personality, making him the ideal pitchman for the game in California.
After seeing firsthand what can happen when a market is exposed to hockey, Robitaille saw reaching out to Mexico City as a duty as much as an opportunity. “We think it’s important because we love the game of hockey,” he said. “We want to share our passion for the game.”
While conducting the camps in Mexico City, Armstrong came to believe hockey and Mexico have comparable core values, making the two a natural fit. “Mexico is very family-
oriented,” Armstrong said. “Great families, a hardworking culture. Those similarities help explain why hockey is so popular in Mexico.”
The Kings’ November camp took place at Centro Comercial Santa Fe rink, located in a shopping mall in Mexico City – a setting that took Armstrong back a few decades. As a young hockey fan, Armstrong watched Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers practice at a rink inside the West Edmonton Mall, an experience that enflamed Armstrong’s passion for the sport. “I even got my picture taken with Wayne Gretzky,” Armstrong said, recalling how the allure of hockey can produce the memory of a lifetime. Now, he and the Kings would like to ignite that same fire in Mexico.
Armstrong calls the rink in Mexico City one of the finest facilities he has seen. It is similar to the West Edmonton Mall’s in that pedestrians and shoppers see the skaters and are instantly drawn to the action. “We were flipping pucks in the third level of the mall,” Armstrong said, “engaging the fans, the parents, the grandparents, concession workers.”
The Kings began their pilgrimage to Mexico City with a youth hockey camp in 2018, but the uncertainty of the pandemic prevented the team from returning for an encore engagement until late 2021. The emphasis is always on fun. “At a lot of the camps I do, I start with freeze tag,” Armstrong said. “You find out who can skate. They think it’s a childhood game, but it’s really a test, and they get engaged. They see that the sport is really fun.”
Armstrong also makes it a priority to celebrate the small victories along the way. “We teach them to celebrate every goal they score 100 percent – or it doesn’t count.”
Mexico might be the next country to fall hard for hockey, but after becoming a global ambassador for the game in his post-playing career with the Kings, Armstrong wholeheartedly believes it won’t be the last. “We want to make hockey a true worldwide sport,” Armstrong said, “like basketball, like baseball.”
The Kings – who’ve had players born in eight different countries skate for them across the 2021-22 season – have long viewed hockey an international sport. Looking to grow the game in emerging markets and establish themselves as a global brand, the Kings have previously held camps in Beijing and Shanghai, China. “The hardest part of hockey is skating,” Armstrong said. “Once we get kids skating and we can get better athletes playing, hockey can be a worldwide sport. I think it is very important for the NHL.”
Armstrong, who still plays three times a week, sees hockey as a sport that can be played for life. “Hockey is for everybody,” he said. “It’s a game that teaches accountability and discipline.”
When the Kings first planted a flag in L.A., the game was an unknown entity. The arrival of Gretzky in 1988 brought star power, which translated to visibility and relevance. But in today’s world, social media has already laid the groundwork for selling the game abroad. “It’s much easier than you think,” said Armstrong of building interest in Mexico City. “Back in the day, no one ever watched hockey. Now, with YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, all those things, the kids are watching it. They can google highlights too when we go down there, they can actually relate to the L.A. Kings.”
Robitaille believes the Kings will continue to have a presence in Mexico City for the foreseeable future. “It’s important for us to keep going to Mexico,” Robitaille said. “And continue to grow the game.”
The Kings will continue sending people to Mexico and, maybe someday, Mexico will be able to repay the efforts. “You never know,” Armstrong said. “Someday, we might get a player out of Mexico. Arizona, California, Florida have players in the NHL. Why not Mexico? Hardworking, competitive people always find a way.”
The Kings have seen hockey’s future. It’s south of the border.