SANTIAGO DE CHILE – In the cradle of Chile’s inline hockey, a new generation is finally stirring. It takes a long memory to recall how the South American nation twice competed in the IIHF Inline Hockey World Championships, going to the Czech Republic in 2000 and returning to play in Nuremberg two years later, but hopes are high that the sport may be on the rise once again.
Due to the small size of ice rinks, hockey pucks are mostly used for inline hockey in the Chilean capital of Santiago in contrast to the city of Punta Arenas further south where ice hockey is played during the cold season right now.
At first sight the public roller rink next to the Los Dominicos metro station in Santiago doesn’t look like much. Even during an early Sunday training session, buses and trucks roll past on the adjacent road, passers-by pay little attention to the colourful collection of players whizzing around in pursuit of the puck and the morning mist shrouds the monastery that gives the district and the local hockey team its name. But this was where inline hockey really got its start in Chile in the late 1990s … and today this is where veterans of those World Championships in the early 2000s such as Julio Letelier, Mauricio Vieytes and Fernando Perez are working to get the game moving forward again.
Letelier relishes a morning scrimmage with the Los Dominicos club, but his efforts and ambitions run wider. Back in action after taking time out to train as a child psychologist, he’s combining his sporting passion with his professional skills to help promote the game among local children in the nearby Palestino district. And this time, he’s hoping that Chile can develop a broader base so that a return to high-level international play would not be a short-lived revival.
“We didn’t set up a new team because there was some kind of fight with Los Dominicos,” he smiled. “We’re doing it because we want to expand the game. Palestino is a good neighbourhood, stable, quite wealthy, and that’s important because hockey isn’t a cheap game for people to play here.
“I hope we can develop a club with more kids, and I’d like to find other people to share the management with me.”
The vision doesn’t stop at recruiting junior players: Chile currently has no referees, so Letelier’s work also includes creating an exam and training program to get some officials into the game.
There’s still room for some nostalgia though. The 2000 trip to the Czech Republic was an unforgettable experience for Letelier. Aged 17 at the time, he kept a detailed hand-written scrapbook of the Jaguars’ progress from formation to qualifying success in Buenos Aires and on to the main event in Europe. There’s evident pride in those cuttings from the Chilean media and photos from games in Prague and Hradec Kralove, as well as happy memories of the thrill of playing for Chile.
“That tournament in 2000 was absolutely the best time for us in Chile,” Letelier added. “The team-building, the experience, everything.
“Back then I was traveling for an hour across the city to get to training. I would even spend the journey trying to practise some skills on the bus. It was crazy, but when you’re young and you’re proud of having the chance to represent your country, you’ll do anything.”
Minnesota-born Andrew Jasicki, a new arrival in Chile, is an experienced hockey player. In the past he’s played in Spain and coached in Colorado, seeing at first hand the challenges of developing interest among young players in an environment where there’s no tradition of street hockey every night.
But he’s confident that even in football-crazy Chile, a country still on a high after the national team defeated local rival Argentina – Lionel Messi and all – to claim back-to-back Copa America glory, kids will take to the game when given the chance.
“The best way to sell the game here is to get the kids playing,” he said. “Once they’ve tried it, they’ve seen what a fast, exciting sport it is, they want more. They start playing for themselves, practising their skills at home. That’s where they start to learn a real hockey sense. You can’t teach that; for all the hints and suggestions you can give, it’s something players have to learn for themselves.”
Los Dominicos is not the only facility in town. Across the city in Quilin there’s a larger, more impressive venue. Two palm trees behind one net, small spectator tribunes down each side and even a roof, it’s the new hub of Chilean inline hockey. Several teams – Tigres, Red Star, Santiago Storm – have a base here and on Saturday nights it attracts a few dozen devotees aged from four upwards.
The enthusiasm among the young players bears out Jasicki’s optimism about what can be done. In many cases it’s a family affair: parents who play the game encourage their kids to join in and as the three-hour Saturday session rolls along the emphasis steadily switches from junior training drills to an adult game.
But there are still obstacles in the way of a true national league. Chile’s geography – long and thin, nestling between the Andes and the Pacific – makes travel a challenge. Aside from Santiago’s teams there are clubs in the north in Iquique and La Serena. The road trips would daunt many pro teams – Iquique to Santiago is roughly equivalent to a journey from Moscow to Madrid – and reaching the hockey stronghold of Punta Arenas in the south would be almost the same again.
In international inline hockey Chile made a brief comeback in 2014 but lost to Argentina and Hong Kong in the qualification tournament in Buenos Aires.
Despite the difficulties, though, Chile remains hopeful. As the Los Dominicos players wrap up their scrimmage the fog lifts to reveal a stunning view of the Andean peaks that surround Santiago. It’s a tantalising glimpse of the heights that Chilean inline hockey once achieved – and perhaps a motivation to rise once again.
Meanwhile the winter months are chillier further south in Punta Arenas where the international ice hockey tournament Copa Invernadas is currently being played for the fourth time. We’ll have a look at ice hockey in Chile and at the event in the country’s southernmost region. Stay tuned on IIHF.com!