When Puerto Rico competed in its first Amerigol Latam Cup in 2019, it was almost as if they just kind of showed up.
It wasn’t until after the tournament where Tampa native Scott Vargas, a former professional hockey player in Finland, formally founded the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association, a non-profit organization of which Vargas currently serves as executive director while also playing on the men’s team. The one team they sent to the Florida-based tournament in 2019, before the association was officially formed, finished with a silver medal in the men’s Division II Ice Hockey Championship, losing to the Rest of the World 0-1 in the final.
Then in 2021, in the middle of October, the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association sent enough clubs to the home of the Florida Panthers to compete in all three adult hockey levels: Men’s Division I and Division II, along with the women’s. They had too much fun to not return.
“We had another guy on our team that played in the American Hockey League, the second-highest level professional league in North America,” Vargas told Latino Rebels over Zoom last week. “He told us in the locker room after the last game, ‘I’ve been competing for 11 years. This is the most fun I’ve had playing hockey.’ That’s special.”
Last month, men’s Division II finished with the bronze medal after defeating Venezuela 6-1, and men’s Division I fell to Colombia 1-5 in the final, but they secured a silver medal.
The women went undefeated and rounded the table, bringing home the first Latam Cup gold medal in Puerto Rico hockey history following a 2-0 win over Colombia.
The women have received an outpouring of support from Boricuas on social media.
“A bunch of random people are inboxing us like, “Oh, we saw you!’ ” remarked women’s team captain and director Jazmine Miley on a Zoom with Latino Rebels last week. “It is so unreal, being at the tournament —the championship game— you can literally feel the pride and the excitement in your hairs. The support, the words. Anybody who comes from a Hispanic background would only know the pride you feel with something like that. It’s so hard to explain. Only Hispanic folks would really understand.”
The Division I men’s team had 15 skaters to start, including Vargas. Five were lost due to combinations of injuries, COVID, and being unable to attend, but the team got back to 13 skaters by the beginning of the Latam Cup. And despite injuries shortening their bench more than most of their counterparts, including having eight players remaining in the third period of their gold medal game against Colombia and having some guys that hadn’t competed in multiple years, they won the silver.
The Division II men’s unit lost their four best players from the 2019 run to Division I but had 17 skaters in total ranging from relative newcomers to lifelong players, many of whom were Spanish speakers, Vargas said.
“You wanna talk about Boricuas? That’s our Boricua team right there. A lot of guys that were born on the island. The group was amazing. And they rallied,” he said of the Men’s DII team, who lost to Chile’s highest-ranked club in round one before embarking on a winning streak to the bronze. “That kind of defines Puerto Rico ice hockey.”
The women’s team were unable to practice or scrimmage but they briefly gathered together prior to the tournament. Their undefeated streak included multiple come-from-behind victories, one of which, in round two, was where they overcame a three-goal deficit.
“It was a group of ladies who, in the championship game, still didn’t know each other’s names, but played as if they’ve played together for two years already,” said Vargas. “For us to do that, I think that was why we had so much support, and that kind of picks us where we left off before the tournament from a recruiting perspective. Now, I’m basically forced to say that, hey, we were thinking about doing more than one tournament a year, more than one event. Now I don’t have a choice. We have to!”
The rise of ice hockey in Puerto Rico is still in its infancy. A Wikipedia search for “Puerto Rico hockey” only yields an entry for field hockey, no ice. (In field hockey, Puerto Rico’s women’s team is 50th out of 77, and the men are 63rd out of 91.) Miley, who plays professionally in France, says Puerto Rico had one hockey rink on the island in Aguadilla prior to Hurricane María.
On the status of a new one, Miley says, “They were building a new rink in Aguadilla. But the mayor, or whoever, stopped that from happening, so we have everything we need. They’re just not letting us do our thing. We’re currently petitioning to be like, hey —especially with us winning— let us finish. How great of an opportunity could this be for the island itself to have this rink finish(ed)? Once we have that, we will be able to practice, as well as start an in-line team. Since we can’t have ice right now, we can rollerblade.”
There isn’t an extensive history of ice hockey on the island beyond what’s being written in 2021, but Vargas insists that the community is out there. It’s how this venture was kickstarted to begin with.
“There are tons of Puerto Ricans who are fans of ice hockey or play ice hockey, and that’s where we could have our success, through that community. I stumbled across a fan page talking about hockey in Puerto Rico. (I said) wait a second, I play ice hockey, what do you mean?” he recalled of his thinking at the time. “Can we compete? Is this a thing? There was no team together, though. I said, I’ve got two brothers and a dad —that’s four players!
“We got a little bit aggressive and started researching,” he continued. “I used every keyword under the sun, every combination of ‘Hispanic,’ ‘Puerto Rican,’ to find pages that would direct me towards Puerto Rican ice hockey players. Used the same methodology through Facebook, Twitter, and even LinkedIn. Slowly but surely, we identified people. Once we were able to connect with them, more often than not, they were interested. That’s honestly the real start of this.”
And the growth of hockey in Puerto Rico is happening right now. The formation of the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association is so recent that the teams are not even recognized by the International Ice Hockey Federation. The hope is that their medals will help put them there for future recognition and eligibility for major tournaments, like the Winter Olympics.
“It may not be anytime soon, but in the future of the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association, (we want to) compete in the Olympics,” said Miley, who also won the Amerigol Latam Cup’s first Danny O Leadership Award. “It may not be now, it may not be in my skating time, but in the future, that definitely is the main goal for Puerto Rico.”
What’s next for the program involves a multitude of forwarding steps. First, Miley says the website is being finalized to present for sponsorships while simultaneously trying to get the International Ice Hockey Federation to officially establish their national team title. Miley also works with her own non-profit organization called the Hockey Players of Color Movement, the growth of which goes hand-in-hand with the evolution of Puerto Rico ice hockey, she says.
Vargas adds that the team is aiming to return to action in May, possibly in Chicago, for a multiple-game series with an opponent to be named. And some merchandise appears to be on the way.
“I know there’s buzz that some artists might want them. That would be, I mean, fucking awesome, for lack of better words,” Vargas said with a laugh.
Bryan Fonseca is an award-winning content creator and sports journalist. He is also the author of Hidalgo Heights, and the founder, host and executive producer of the Ain’t Hard To Tell Podcast and Side Hustle. Twitter: @BryanFonsecaNY
A winning ice hockey team from a Caribbean U.S. territory where the average yearly temperature rarely dips below 70° Fahrenheit, where it NEVER snows, where you can count ice skating rinks LITERALLY on the fingers of one hand (all of them in climate-controlled indoor facilities) and where it’s almost easier to find a $3 bill than an ice skater. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction but PUERTO RICO NEVER CEASES TO AMAZE. By the way if anybody’s reading this THAT’S A HEAVEN-SENT SCRIPT FOR A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE RIGHT THERE.
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