SAO PAULO – On Sunday Brazil will play for the first time in four years in the IIHF Inline Hockey World Championship.
Meanwhile, hockey enthusiasts back home are hard at work building South America's first covered full-size ice rink.
Playing in Pardubice, the site of the 2014 Inline Worlds, is a comeback for Brazil after some troublesome years. Brazil was among the more successful nations in the Division I of the two-tiered, 16-team event, winning six Division I medals between 2003 and 2009. Power struggles and legal issues surrounding the governance of Brazilian ice hockey and ice sports prevented having the best players at the event, but now the Brazilians are looking forward to their international comeback.
“In 1999 we started in a qualification tournament in Argentina and managed to get in. In 2007 we won the gold medal in Division I and beat teams like Hungary and New Zealand, who have more experience and better facilities than us,” said Alexandre Capelle, responsible for hockey in the Brazilian Ice Sports Federation (CBDG).
“We are happy to play at the IIHF Inline Hockey World Championship and we are looking forward to our first game against Austria. Our goal is to stay in this pool for the next ten years but it won’t be easy.”
Approached during a national championship tournament at the complex of sports club Portuguesa near Estadio Oswaldo Teixeira Duarte in Sao Paulo, Capelle estimated that roughly 2,000 people are playing inline hockey in Brazil and that 45 teams exist. The national championship is played in three divisions in addition to the “Copa” with teams from all over Brazil competing.
“I started playing inline hockey in 1995 when inline skates were big. I started playing for Palmeiras and later for a team in Campinas,” said one of the players at the rink, Henrique Degani from Sao Paulo, who also played in Inline Hockey World Championships.
His best memories come from the 2009 Worlds in Ingolstadt.
“It was a very nice feeling to play in a World Championship. I really enjoyed playing in Germany. It was a great championship and we had a good relationship with the German team that also came to play in Brazil,” Degani said.
He also tried to play ice hockey when studying in the USA and also in Germany near Karlsruhe.
“In Brazil we had an adapted championship with three skaters and a goalkeeper because the rinks are so small. We were not able to play real ice hockey with the facilities we have but we appreciated to get the chance to be on the ice,” Degani said.
But the 28-year-old is not sure whether Brazil can be back among medal candidates in the Inline Worlds’ Division I.
“Earlier we had government funding and we were able to play every day,” Degani said. “I’m not sure if the level is as high as it used to be some years ago but people are having fun and enjoy playing hockey. At the national championship they enjoy coming there from all Brazil.”
The popularity of inline hockey also has one reason: the lack of appropriate ice facilities.
“In the ‘60s German immigrants started to play ice hockey in a hotel at Petropolis in the Rio de Janeiro state before the complex shut down. Later it was played in small ice rinks in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other rinks but the problem has always been that the rinks are small,” said Salvador Neto from the Sao Paulo Ice Hockey Federation (FPHG).
“In the ‘90s inline skates became popular and people started to play inline hockey where more rinks were available to play.”
“Inline hockey is concentrated in Sao Paulo followed by Minas Gerais and then from all other states. We have players who play inline hockey only because there is no ice and who play ice hockey in other countries. Every time we have to play ice hockey we have to travel.”
One year ago a Brazilian team went to a tournament on the full-size outdoor ice rink in Ushuaia, Argentina, and three months ago to Mexico City. These are the closest international-sized ice rinks. But they are 3,900 and 7,430 kilometres away from Sao Paulo. Flying from there to Ushuaia is like flying from New York to Vancouver or from Lisbon to Moscow, just more expensive.
Brazil is not totally without ice. An estimated 15 small ice rinks exist, the biggest one in Campinas in the Sao Paulo state sized 47 on 20 metres followed by rinks sized 30 on 15 metres located in Campos do Jordao, Sao Paulo, in Gramado, Rio Grande do Sul, and four rinks in malls around Rio de Janeiro.
“We don’t have ‘real’ ice hockey. We play on small rinks three-on-three but we want to do more. We want to teach kids the real game. We have to do ice hockey, which is an Olympic sport. If we have good people who help we can build up something,” said Capelle.
“We have a big project in Sao Paulo where we are talking with the government and companies. We also need to have ice hockey shown on TV. We are getting closer. We are working together with Ice-Worlds from the Netherlands on a project.”
The newest project is in Vila Guarani, a school area in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest metropolis with 11 million people living in the city and over 20 million in the region. An outdoor inline hockey rink sized 60 on 30 metres was opened recently. Now the Brazilians hope to get a roof and aim to operate the rink half a year for ice and half a year for inline hockey. The estimated costs for the rink and the roof are 10.2 million reais ($4.6m).
“Since 2011 we are battling to get the first full-size ice hockey rink. The project we have at Vila Guarani would fulfil the IIHF minimum standards. We hope it will be ready by 2015,” said Neto.
“We want to build competitive ice hockey in Brazil and we need goals. One goal could be to have Brazil in the Olympics in 2030.”
The new rink would be a good start to develop ice hockey and play championships on a full-size ice rink.
The interest in Brazil is there. In a study conducted by Deloitte about sports practised in Brazil people were asked which sports they would like to try but can’t due to lack of opportunities. 45 per cent answered winter sports led by ice hockey, skiing and curling, followed by other sports such as rugby and golf.
For now the Brazilians are focused on Group D in Pardubice where the newcomers face Austria, Hungary and Japan but once the hype about the 2014 FIFA World Cup is over, the Brazilian hockey enthusiasts hope to get the chance and funding to enter a new era for ice hockey in the country of 190 million people.