SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Anyone who doubts that ice hockey is truly a global game that can be played in any world region or any climate needs only look at places like the island of Puerto Rico. In a region where most people think ice is something you use to keep drinks cold, the sport of ice hockey created a promising foundation for the future.
Unfortunately, as with many non-traditional locales for hockey, the continued existence of Puerto Rican hockey is dependent on its ability to maintain a rink, and the awareness and support of the global hockey community to help build the game.
Just two short years ago, Puerto Rican ice hockey seemed to have a promising future. Prior to the start of the 2006-07 National Hockey League season, Puerto Rico became the first place in the Americas south of Florida to host a professional game when the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers faced off in an exhibition game at the 18,500-seat José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum (also called the Coliseo de Puerto Rico) in San Juan.
At the time, organized ice hockey on the island was only two years old. There had briefly been ice and roller hockey in San Juan in the 1970s and 1990s, but no real pushes to organize. On October 15, 2004, the recently created Hockey Puerto Rico celebrated the opening of an ice rink in one of the most unlikely places for it: the beachfront.
Situated in Aguadilla in the western part of the island, is the beachfront Aguadilla Ice Skating Rink. Philip Painter, the first vice-president of Hockey Puerto Rico, says that it was one of the most bizarre – but enjoyable – rink christenings he’s ever seen.
The event was unmistakably Puerto Rican.
“The grand opening was attended by more than 5,000 curious locals and tourists alike. We brought in Puerto Rican raggaeton founder Daddy Yankee and it was a big party. People stood around at this oceanfront skating rink, watching a hockey and a figure skating demonstration,” says Painter, who is a descendent of the late NHL player Reginald “Hooley” Smith, a member of Canada’s 1924 Olympic gold-medal winning team in Chamonix, France, and an inductee in the Hockey of Fame in Toronto.
Painter was the first to skate in the building, and had to do so using hockey skates from the 1940s and an outdated wooden stick with a straight blade. He also made the facility’s first zamboni drive, using an electric vehicle. At least they didn’t have to use an ice leveller and play on a plastic ice surface, as the hockey community in Costa Rica does. But the first demonstration in Aguadilla was truly one of “old-time hockey”. Painter and the others were glad just to have usable equipment.
Unquestionably, the beachfront location seemed a recipe for failure. Painter jokingly admits that starting an ice hockey program on the beach sounds like one the rejected story ideas for “The Producers”, Mel Brooks’ film and play about two men who scheme to create a theatrical production that’s sure to be a flop. But the locale actually made sense.
It was going to take time to build participation among young Puerto Rican players regardless of the location of the rink. But Aguadilla has a heavy U.S. Coast Guard presence and draws tourists from the U.S. mainland, Canada and Europe. Those who had played hockey at any level made sure to stop by. That’s the usual formula for building a small community of players who then introduce and teach the game to locals – it’s worked in the deserts of the Middle East and places as far flung as Thailand and Mexico.
“The goal isn’t to create a world hockey power, it’s to have a place for folks who take an interest in the game to have somewhere to skate and the equipment to play,” Painter says.
During the first winter of its existence, the Aguadilla rink had upwards of 10 regular skaters and assorted guests and curiosity-seekers come out each week to play pickup hockey on the rink, which is two-thirds the size of a regulation rink. The equipment was minimal, so the games were played with no-check, no-lift rules. When there were enough players, the games were played five-on-five. Usually, however, sides were three-on-three.
The number of regulars grew slowly but steadily. On any given day, there were usually at least five countries represented and, apart from English and Spanish, the players’ native languages varied from night to night. There were French-speakers from Canada, Swedes, Germans, Dutchmen and many others.
“We all had ear-to-ear smiles as were living in utopia. We had the beach, with natural lighting at the oceanfront rink. Meanwhile, across from the rink was an oceanside bar that served one-dollar beers. We’d all sit around and swap hockey tales from around the world. It was the world’s best pond, at least in my opinion,” says Painter.
The second year of Puerto Rican hockey saw the game start to take hold in the local community. There was more equipment available and youths started to participate. By now there were at least 20 regulars who showed up from around the Island, sometimes travelling from as far as three hours away to play the game.
Meanwhile, Hockey Puerto Rico started to get better organized. It approached the Puerto Rican Olympic Committee for support (although it’s a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico has separate national teams) and contacted the IIHF to make the federation aware of the existence of the Puerto Rican hockey program.
“It was still old-time hockey,” says Painter. “We still had been playing no-check, no-lift and up to this point no one had worn a helmet. But teams had started to become a reality and we were starting to look at introducing leagues and clinics. We were somewhere between Mystery Alaska and the Bad News Bears, but we were thrilled to realize we had a chance to make it.”
In 2005, Puerto Rico’s first hockey team was formed, and dubbed the Tainos in honour of the island’s first indigenous people. Meanwhile regulars from the U.S. Coast Guard and international players who live and work on the island started to create teams.
The tiny hockey community was growing faster than even the organizers anticipated. But the early growth may have been a little too fast for its own good. The Aguadilla rink is a government-owned facility and the facility manager is a government appointee. There was frequent turnover of rink managers, none of whom had prior experience operating an ice rink or who had any knowledge of hockey or interest in seeing it dominate the building’s business hours.
Sadly, this is another all-too-common situation in non-traditional hockey regions. Even when there’s a rink and a devoted community of players, there’s no guarantee that players will be given the access they need to practice and create leagues. The Puerto Rican hockey community never knew when – or if – they could hold games.
“We were told that management was still trying to evaluate ice hockey – and figure skating as well – and they weren’t willing to block out ice time at the rink for our games,” says Painter. “In practical terms, what it meant was that we’d come out to play only to find the hockey session was cancelled for one reason or another. We’d be told there was a birthday party scheduled there, only to find that there was nothing going on that night. There were many nights when the rink was empty and we still couldn’t play.”
Year three saw the NHL came to San Juan for the Rangers-Panthers exhibition arranged by a promotions conglomerate. The event wasn’t particularly successful – few tickets were sold – but provided underprivileged kids from housing developments an introduction to a sport most had never even heard of, let alone seen. The children were bussed in to sit in the stands for the game.
Back in Aguadilla, the government-owned rink now had its third manager in three years. She knew little of ice hockey, but recognized that it was better to make money by renting time to the hockey players than reserving the time for bookings that might never be sold.
With regular ice time available, league play took off, especially in the heart of tourist season. Puerto Rican hockey resumed its growth.
“We finally got goalie gear and helmets started appearing. Some nights we allowed light checking,” says Painter. “The level of play clearly got better, but it was a little bittersweet because it lost some the innocence of the first two years. Such is the nature evolution.”
Unfortunately, the instability in facility management continued, and once again the players found their ice time cancelled.
“It couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” says Painter. “We were in the process of an IIHF review and we were starting to get enough interest to start a full-fledged youth program. The hockey equivalent would be getting slew-footed just as you’re turning to rush up the ice.”
Rather than continuing to grow, Puerto Rican hockey was now in trouble, despite the fact that a second year-round ice surface was built on the island at Isla Verde located outside of San Juan. The new rink was two-thirds regulation size length-wise and one-half the standard width.
The Isla Verde is an even odder and more unlikely sight than the beach rink. The new facility is built in a complex of religious buildings in which visitors have to walk under enormous statues of dinosaurs to enter the rink. (According to Painter, the dinosaur statues are there because an anachronistic local myth has it that Jesus Christ built the ancient pyramids on the backs of dinosaurs.)
The new facility wasn’t suitable to the existing hockey community. Most of the regulars were based on the western part of the island and it wasn’t feasible for everyone to regularly drive three-plus hours to Isla Verde. So no ice hockey games have materialized at the Isla Verde rink.
Over the course of the last year, there have finally been hockey lines painted on the Aguadilla rink for the first time. Previously, there were nets placed on the ice but no red line, two blue lines, goals lines, or faceoff circles. There has also been yet another change in rink management, and hockey games have been all but banished (players snuck onto the ice early one morning when the manager wasn’t there). As a result, the puck has only hit the ice once this year.
“Unfortunately our numbers have now decreased to six players who still come out, hoping to revive the game. I also have a house full of equipment that I’d been collecting and bringing back from discount stores in Canada every year. There’s no use for it if there are no games and no players,” says Painter.
Hockey Puerto Rico has applied to the "Goals and Dreams" program operated by the National Hockey League Players' Association. The program provides equipment grants for grassroots hockey around the world. Among other recipients, the hockey program in Costa Rica has benefited from its participation in the program.
While there are high-end facilities available at the Jose Miguel Agrelot Coliseum, in San Juan, the multi-million dollar complex is reserved for big events such as the NHL game it later hosted. It’s not designed for building a sport from scratch. Senior management at the facility has said it anticipates future availability for public ice time, but Puerto Rican hockey may not have time to wait.
"My biggest fear is the current situation will kill the game entirely, and the rinks themselves will also disappear. The concept of growth is a moot point if there won't even be ice for anyone to use," says Painter.