MEXICO CITY – When most people think of sports in Mexico, the first images that come to mind are baseball and soccer, and then perhaps the athletic theater that is lucha libre. Although the nation has 18 rinks and 2,200 registered players, including 1,800 at the junior level – respectable participation for a non-traditional hockey country – few people outside its small hockey community even know the sport exists in the country.
The Mexican Ice Hockey Federation and the IIHF have taken steps to increase the visibility of the Mexican program. This year, Mexico played host to two IIHF-sanctioned tournaments. At the senior level, the World Championship Division II Group A took place in Mexico City earlier this month. Last month, the city of Monterrey hosted the World U18 Championship Division III Group B tourney. In recent years, the country has also hosted the men’s World Championship Division III in 2005 and the 2008 World U18 Championship Division III Group A.
Mexico currently ranks 32nd in the IIHF World Ranking. The men’s national team won one of four games in the Division II Worlds, finishing fifth in the six-team field. While these results may seem modest, the Mexican team threw a scare into eventual gold medalist Spain before falling by a 4-2 score and also dominated cellar-dwelling Turkey by a 9-2 score. Also encouraging was the attendance. Several games drew 3,000 fans to Lomas Verdes in Mexico City. In the U18 tournament, Mexico finished second, losing only to undefeated New Zealand (5-4) in the final game of the competition.
Things did not go nearly as well as the World U20 Championship Division II Group A in Debrecen, Hungary, last December. The Mexicans finished last and were relegated to Division III after scoring just 4 goals and allowing an alarming 77 goals in five games. In the most lopsided games of the tourney, Mexico lost 28-0 to Hungary and 25-1 to Great Britain.
The Mexican hockey community has no pretensions of becoming a Division I calibre country anytime soon. Instead, the goal is to build participation by providing access to the game to more people. Apart from the ups and downs at the World Championships, the Mexican program faces ongoing challenges to continue building the sport.
On the bright side, the top junior clubs – such as the ones based out of Lomas Verdes and San Jeronimo in Mexico City – have access to quality coaches and have produced some youngsters who have gone on to play Junior B hockey in Canada. Unfortunately, club hockey in Mexico has typically been based around Mexico City with only minor participation elsewhere, primarily centred in Guadalajara, Monterrey, Toluca and Leon. Six of the country's rinks are located in or around Mexico City.
Toward this end, the most recent Azteca Tournament and the Divison II national league featured a record number of teams (11) participating, and there were concerted efforts to increase players’ access to the Olmeca, Tolteca and Maya tournaments.
Providing youngster and interested adults widespread access to the game has been an ongoing challenge in Mexico. The costs associated with the game – ice time and equipment – have traditionally limited participation to higher-income families. While some Mexican rinks charge fees as low as $70 U.S. per month, others charge as much as $150 per month. Some leagues and rinks offer rental equipment at a nominal cost per use (less than $3), but the expense adds up fast for the lower-income population.
As a result, the majority of players in Mexico are those who can afford to buy their own equipment. In a country where hockey has to be sought out by those who want to play – and in which few private or public sponsorships exist to defray operating costs for hockey clubs – the task of increasing Mexican hockey's visibility and participation has proven quite difficult.
Moving forward, the key to building Mexican hockey will be to expand the existing infrastructure of its program. The natural inclination is to wonder if Mexico can follow a similar model to the one Spain has used to win the recent Division II tournament in Mexico City and earn a promotion to the men’s 2011 Division I level next season. IIHF Council member Frank Gonzalez of Spain said that there cannot be a direct parallel, but there are some common themes that Mexico and other non-traditional hockey countries can glean from one another.
“Each country is so unique in their way of life, traditions and their day to day activities. Even though it might sound that Spain and Mexico are very alike because of the language and our history, we are completely different from each other, our Ministries of Sport work completely different, the funding is different, our targets in the long and short run are different,” Gonzalez said. “But what makes us so similar is that we are starting from zero when it comes to the infrastructure of our Federations although we in Spain have the base, the employees, volunteers and technical staff to start the process.”
In Mexico, there have already been steps taken to get the process moving. The immediate challenge will be to follow-through on the progress that has been made over the last few years.