PUNTA ARENAS, Chile – Following Argentina and Brazil, Chile became the third IIHF member from South America in 2000. But the country has yet to appear in an IIHF ice hockey event.
From 2000 until 2002 Chile competed in the IIHF Inline Hockey World Championship but after a traffic accident involving the national team it has never attempted to qualify for the event anymore.
Although there are recreational ice rinks in the Chilean capital of Santiago there hasn’t been organized ice hockey there.
However, if you go further south – much further – you will get a different picture. Punta Arenas is the capital of Chile’s southernmost region, Magellan and Chilean Antarctica. The region is an important point to reach Antarctica. 130,000 people live in the city founded in 1848.
Its geographical situation with maritime trade, gold, sheep farming and later oil made the city prosper and attracted settlers mainly of Spanish but also of Croat origin.
The rough climate makes the region perfect for winter sports. Many ski and snowboard enthusiasts from the northern hemisphere travel to the southern part of Chile and Argentina between June and August when it’s cold there.
Now ice hockey is on the map too since the city got its new ice rink.
“Ice hockey didn’t use to be popular in our region or in Chile but I started to play when I was a child on a frozen lake,” says Alejandro Traba, one of the hockey enthusiasts from the Magellan Strait.
Later he also played inline hockey but his love was playing on the ice surface and he even moved to the United States to improve his skill and chase the dream of playing hockey for a living. He played for the Jack Rocks in Oakland, California, where he was inspired by former NHLer André Lacroix, but returned to his native country after three years.
“When I returned I was thinking of my friends who played with me when we were children,” he remembers. “I started the project to play hockey at the ice rink in a mall and to offer the youth possibilities I unfortunately never had.”
He convinced the rink management after some time that hockey is a good fit for the rink that’s 40 metres long and 15 metres wide after increasing the boards. It opened in 2010 in the duty-free zone Zona Franca and since last year hockey is played there.
Last July with ideal winter temperatures in the area an international invitational tournament was played. It was won by the Ghetto Blasters with North American and German players that competed with Los Nordicos, the local team Traba plays for, and the Club Andino Ushuaia from Argentina.
“Punta Arenas is the first city in Chile to have ice hockey and it has become popular here,” said Traba. After the news spread through the internet and newspaper some inline hockey players also tried it out at the rinks in Santiago, he said.
The distances in the long-stretched country are big. In the north of the country you can find deserts and just outside of Punta Arenas penguins.
Due to the topography there’s no surface connection between the southern part of Chile and the rest of the country. The only streets from the region go to Argentina. Via the neighbouring country it’s possible to get to the capital of Santiago if you don’t mind driving 3,400 kilometres – twice the way than to the coast of Antarctica. By plane it takes three-and-a-half hours at costs of $400 for a return ticket – a rather high price for most Chileans.
Still, Traba hopes that next winter players from Santiago will join for a tournament now as word has begun to spread.
“During the tournament we attracted 800 people to our hockey games, setting a record for the rink,” the 42-year-old said.
His team Los Nordicos got a local rival with the Killer Pucks. And as more players try to play the sport a third team might be formed.
Traba has big dreams after the promising start. One is an international-size ice rink that could be built in collaboration with the municipality and the region. That would make Punta Arenas a hockey and ice sport centre for the country.
“Our goal is to give young people the opportunity to be part of this sport so that a new generation can form professional players and a team at the Olympics,” he said.
But Traba is not just looking within the borders of Chile or the Magellan region. The closest ally in this southern part of South America is the hockey community in Ushuaia on the Argentine part of the Tierra del Fuego island. It’s a half day journey by car and ferry to the other side of the Magellan Strait or a bit less if there’s a flight connection.
Ushuaia is even further south and usually regarded as the world’s southernmost city. Also here people used to play on frozen lakes but in 2010 an international-size outdoor rink opened (see story on Argentina).
In July the annual invitational tournament Copa Fin del Mundo (“End of the World Cup”) was staged at the rink for the ninth time. Five competitions were played – one for men, one for women and three junior categories.
In the eight-team men’s tournament there was also a team from Brazil and for the first time one from Chile, Los Nordicos, which finished in sixth place.
“It was an extreme experience in every way,” Traba said. “The hockey rink is outdoors, and rough weather and the constant snow can interrupt practices and games.”
But his team enjoyed the experience of playing on an international-size rink in the region. And he knows the next step to take after introducing ice hockey in Punta Arenas will be to create more formal structures and a league.
“One idea is to also include teams from Ushuaia and make a cross-border ice hockey league that links the two cities,” Traba said.
After so many years of struggle in playing the sport he loves, Traba is living his dream by introducing ice hockey in his hometown and hopes that many more steps will follow for Chilean ice hockey.
Alejandro Traba skates to the player bench at a game in Punta Arenas, Chile.