The great hockey adventure

Chile brings the game to the edge of the world

09.07.2016
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Fans follow the game action in Punta Arenas, Chile, between the teams from Ushuaia in Argentina and from the Falkland Islands. Photo: Andy Potts

PUNTA ARENAS, Chile – Punta Arenas, the biggest city in Chilean Patagonia, has always had an adventurous spirit. Perched on the Magellan Strait, its history is studded with tales of explorers who laughed at the word ‘impossible’ and went ahead to do it anyway. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that a seemingly unlikely hockey outpost is hosting a thriving and expanding tournament – nor that Chile itself has ambitions to raise its game to a higher level.

The Copa Invernada forms part of Punta Arenas’ winter festival. This year, in its fourth edition, the tournament is bigger than ever: 12 teams in total (six adult, six junior), live streaming of the games thanks to the efforts of Chile’s tourist board (Sernatur) and local online broadcaster Xtreme, and national TV coverage from the Coolcenter rink in the city’s Zona Franca mall.

It’s a positive return for a game that once seemed close to disappearing, as Mauricio Vieytes explains. “When I was younger we used to play pond hockey here but as the years went by it was getting warmer and there wasn’t so much ice,” said Vieytes, 35, a former member of Chile’s national inline hockey team who now describes his role as a promoter of the game. “There might only be a couple of weeks each year unless you went off out of the city somewhere.

“So when they built the Zona Franca mall there was a rink included as part of the planning agreement but there was maybe a 10-year gap between guys like me who had played on the ponds and the new generation of kids who were just starting in the game. That’s the gap we’re trying to bridge right now.”

The Copa, which involves teams from Ushuaia in Argentina, the Falkland Islands, and the Chilean cities of Santiago, Iquique and Punta Arenas, brings together players from around the world: expats from North America, guys who spent time in Europe and locals who got bitten by the hockey bug. Apart from the three Chilean teams involved, players and clubs up and down the 8,000 km of this country are avidly following the streams and debating the play on Snapchat and Facebook

It’s also introducing new players to the game – people like 14-year-old Christian Vargas. He got involved just nine months ago, almost by accident, and is reveling in his first tournament experience for Kotaix, the Punta Arenas team, despite being a youngster up against adult players.

“This is a huge deal for me because I’ve only been involved for a few months and I’m still gaining experience all the time,” he said. “Now that I’m playing with the adult team I hope I can inspire more kids to play the game. They can see a way forward, a chance to do more in the game, and it proves that this is a game of speed and skill, of puck handling, rather than size and brute force.”

The current tournament is thriving with 3-on-3 hockey, played on a small rink that, in the absence of a Zamboni, has to be carefully scraped by hand between games and hosed down each night to keep the ice surface as smooth as possible. But there are high hopes that the Mayor’s Office in Punta Arenas, also involved in setting up the Copa, will succeed in bringing a new, purpose-built arena to the city in the near future to enhance the development of the game further.

That dovetails with hopes to expand Chile’s scope on the ice, developing its own national roster and get a taste of full-size, 5-on-5 hockey at the Pan-American Tournament in Mexico.

“To go to the Pan-Ams we would need more people, at least 20 on the roster,” said Vieytes. “We have some expats in places like Italy, Finland and the U.S. and it would be great if we could have them come back to help us. And we’re also starting to see greater cooperation between the ice hockey and inline hockey communities – some years back there was a dispute that stopped people playing against each other but things are better now.”

Better, but still not entirely straightforward. Monica Arias, President of the Chilean Ice and Inline Hockey Association and coach of the Santiago Yetis, is grappling with a lack of recognition for the game in Chile.

She hopes for more state support, and potentially move away from the precarious situation where Chile’s rinks are recreational facilities in shopping malls, forever at risk of being redeveloped to turn a greater profit for the property owner.

“We need more infrastructure,” Arias added. “We don’t have many rinks – whether its ice or inline – and the ones we have are small. It’s almost impossible to set up a league outside of Santiago because of the distances teams need to travel.” Further challenges include getting hold of equipment – only one company in Chile sells hockey gear – and maintaining contacts among the 200 or so players involved in the game in the country.

Despite this progress is happening. “We had a 10-year gap where it seemed like nobody was playing, but now we are starting again with a new generation getting into hockey,” Vieytes concluded optimistically.

ANDY POTTS

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