PUNTA ARENAS, Chile – For the first time in its four-year history the Copa Invernada has expanded to include junior hockey. Six teams – two from Punta Arenas and four from the Falkland Islands – are competing in Chilean Patagonia as the annual tournament at the Southern end of Latin America continues to expand.
For many of these kids it’s a rare chance to get onto the ice and into serious action. For some of islanders they set foot on the ice for the first time last Sunday and were playing competitive games on Wednesday, learning fast and adapting to the new surface as they went.
For others, involved with the Kotaix club or the Escuela Bulnes in Punta Arenas, the week was another opportunity to reinforce the growth of hockey in the south of Chile.
Ricardo Matus, a long-time player, was watching his two children playing for home-town club Kotaix. The team finished fourth out of six in the tournament, but the key achievement came off the ice with the successful staging of the competition.
“I guess this fulfills the efforts of our work to promote ice hockey, which we started back in April 2015,” he said. “It’s the end result of a lot of work trying to build up the game for these kids.”
Despite the lack of a hockey culture in Chile, recruitment isn’t proving too big a challenge.
“It’s not really that difficult to attract kids to the game,” Matus added. “Every time there’s a tournament like this it generates interest and more people want to get involved. And don’t forget that now it’s easy to see top-level hockey online anywhere in the world. Even if the kids here aren’t going to sit and follow every play of the Stanley Cup Final, they are able to watch a few games.
“Focusing on youth hockey can bring more people into the game, even when we have to start at the very beginning with basic skating skills. There’s a lot happening now that just wasn’t available when I was a child trying to start out in hockey. Back then we had real problems finding a place to play, and even now it’s a challenge because we need to work with the management of the Zona Franca shopping mall. But there’s big potential. We’ve made a start, we’ve got a strong base at last, and we need to keep building on that.”
Across the water on the Falklands, also known as Malvinas in Latin America, a burgeoning youth program has grown on the back of the adult team’s victory in last year’s Copa Invernada. This year 28 youngsters aged 9-13 came over in four teams – the Knights, Bombers, Wolverines and Dragons – representing roughly 1% of the Islands’ 2,900 population. With another 20 or so unable to travel or due to start playing the sport next season, Grant Budd is excited to see a group of about 50 junior players ready to help grow the game in the South Atlantic.
“When we brought the trophy back last year that really got people excited,” said the former Nottingham Panthers player. “We came home with an ethos, a plan to develop youth hockey here and right now we have 35 players involved with another 15 pending. We’re playing inline hockey, dek hockey – where we use sticks and pucks but not skates – and we’re trying to implement the kind of program that I went through with Les Strongman and Alex Dampier in Nottingham when I was a lad.
“If we can keep that progress going over the next three or five years, well, watch this space!”
It’s been a steep learning curve for the youngsters from Port Stanley. There is no ice on the islands, so most of them had never played ice hockey before. But despite the problems of adapting to the new surface – and breaking in box-fresh skates in tournament play – progress has been swift.
“Just from the start of the competition on Wednesday through to the games now at the weekend, you can just see how much more confident the kids are getting on the ice,” Budd added. “I hope we’ll see an even bigger difference when the Wolverines play in the final. There’s a big adjustment from playing inline, but people back home are following what’s going on here very closely and it feels like the nation is behind us. We may have problems getting government funding, but I hope we can get some support from the private sector to build an ice rink of our own on the Falklands.”
The tournament also earned a big thumbs-up from visiting parents. “It’s been pretty awesome,” said Sally Ellis, who son Liam twice earned man-of-the-match honours for his goaltending displays with the Dragons. “There’s a lot of opportunities on the islands but it’s always a bonus to get away and meet new opposition. We only have a population of about 3,000 so you can’t beat having a chance to play new teams and learn some new skills.
“Hockey is a new sport on the Falklands and it’s really captured the imagination over the past year or so. It’s great that it’s aimed at the kids and it’s also good that this tournament is quite close to us. Most things away from the Falklands involve a lot of travel, but Punta Arenas is only a 90-minute flight so it’s quite doable.”