HEREDIA, Costa Rica – Costa Rica, in the heart of Central America, is perhaps best known for its thriving eco-tourism scene. Football is the top sport in this tropical nation. Yet, even here, there are dreams of ice hockey – and last month saw the first ever international hockey tournament take place in the country.
It was a four-team event, pitting the local Castillo Knights against visiting teams from Canada, the USA and the Falkland Islands. Along the way, there were words of support from Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, and ambassadorial receptions at Canada’s and Britain’s embassies in San Jose.
Costa Rica’s hockey story begins with Bruce Callow, an expat Canadian, who set up the Knights in 1996 and made the most of the ice pad at the Castillo Country Club, in the hills above the city of Heredia. That’s believed to be the only ice rink in Central America and, after years of steady development, it attracted a visit from then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2011. That really put the game on the map, prompting an expansion of the rink and paving the way for this year’s breakthrough event.
That’s why Aurelio Cence, a coach with Costa Rica’s hockey program and the Knights’ leading scorer in November’s tournament, describes the competition as the outcome of 20 years in the making. It was also a real community effort from the local hockey fraternity.
“When I met Bruce 18 months back he mentioned he had always wanted to put a tournament together,” Cence said. “I loved the idea and told him he had my total support. As Bruce had made many contacts over the years promoting hockey in Costa Rica, the response from participating teams was so strong that two teams were turned away for this first year due to the two-day time limit we were working with.
“Once we had the teams committed everything else fell in place, because so many people involved with the hockey program wanted to play a part, including parents from the kids’ program that offered to house players during the tournament.”
That’s the kind of spirit that unites hockey players in the country. As Callow explained, lovers of the game are the greatest asset in attracting new skaters in a football-crazy nation.
“Probably 98% of the people in Costa Rica are focused on football, so we focus on that remaining 2% of the population who are interested in playing other sports,” he said. “We are seeing people from all ages joining our program, both male and female and the players become our biggest promoters. For example, we have a mom and her two kids in our beginner level team.
“Our recent tournament showed many people who had never experienced hockey for themselves just how exciting hockey is. They could see that although hockey is a fast and physical game it does not have to be violent. That is what we wanted to show people and we succeeded.”
Two days of three-on-three hockey on the rink whose size is about a third of an international-size ice rink just about allowed time for a round robin group, followed by gold and bronze medal games. The Canadian Citizens, visiting from Callow’s home town of Calgary, came out on top after beating Los Angeles-based Ruination in the final. The Knights had to settle for fourth place after losing out to the Falklands’ Stanley All-Stars, but gained valuable experience along the way.
“Up to now we never had any kind of yardstick to measure ourselves against, so the tournament gave our players and coaches a real opportunity to gauge where we are at and plan for the future,” Cence added. “The tournament was a great exhibition of hockey and we have received many requests for information regarding both the adult and youth hockey programs.”
They hope the program in Costa Rica can grow to apply for IIHF membership one day. “It would give hockey credibility here in Costa Rica, and that credibility would increase the popularity of the sport and attract more people to play,” Cence added. “But the most valuable thing is people’s enthusiasm and support for the sport. We intend on hosting many more tournaments, and having all the seats filled with fans is the best way to support and nourish the growth of the game.”
Bringing players from far and wide for this year’s tournament also highlights the passion the hockey players around the world have for sharing and developing the game as widely as possible. “Hockey people truly love their sport deeply, and want everyone else to love it along with them,” Cence added. “The adrenaline rush and the fast pace of the sport keeps us inspired and enthused, even if we live in unlikely hockey places such as Costa Rica.”
Meanwhile, Callow’s former day job as Director of Communications at the UK Embassy helped to forge those with the diplomatic circles in San Jose – something that was greatly appreciated by the visiting teams.
“The Canadian and Falklands players really appreciated the receptions their respective embassies hosted in their honour,” he added. “It’s all about networking and getting different partners involved and helping in different ways. For example, the UK embassy hired the shuttle bus to get the Falklands players to and from the games.
“Our relationship with the Government of Canada goes back to the visit of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper to our old rink. That high-profile visit led to the expansion of the rink at the Castillo Club. I am looking forward to having Prime Minister Trudeau visit the rink if he comes to Costa Rica!”
Regardless of Trudeau’s plans, the second edition of the International Castillo Ice Hockey Tournament is already coming together. “Over 10 teams have already contacted me about wanting to play in next year’s tournament,” said Callow.
And for other expats dreaming of setting up hockey in their new homes, Callow had a few words of advice: “Be patient and persistent and build a community of loyal supporters. Get sponsors to help your program. Set and achieve small and measurable goals on a regular basis over a long period of time. Have fun.”