September 23rd, 2006. The NHL’s pre-season was coming to a close, and teams were finalizing their plans for the upcoming regular season. Petr Prucha scored twice to help his New York Rangers team take down the Florida Panthers by a score of 3-2 that night, keeping the Panthers from winning a game in the first five games leading into the actual season.
At first glance, it sounds like a typical hockey game. It was a close score, and the Rangers were able to keep the home crowd happy at the Jose Miguel Agrelot Coliseum.
Wait a second, where?
For the first time in the history of the Caribbean, an NHL game was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. For most of the people watching the game on TV, hockey in the country seemed like a very far fetched idea. The players thought it was the coolest thing going.
“I think this is great for the game,” said former Panthers defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski during a conversation with NHL.com. “If there’s hockey in Florida, why not Puerto Rico and the Caribbean?
Unfortunately, things haven’t looked so bright since then.
Funny enough, hockey in Puerto Rico can be traced back to a few years before the exhibition game brought excitement to the small, yet growing hockey nation. A territory of the United States, Puerto Rico had an ice rink around 40 years ago known as the Reina de Hielo in the capital city of San Juan. There was some hockey played there, giving players the ability to participate in small scrimmages.
In 1978, the Reina de Hielo was shut down, leaving the area with no real ice surface to play on. It left hockey in PR in a dry state for a very long time, but a new bright light gave them their first taste of an official ice hockey arena in 2004. In came the new Aguadilla Ice Skating Arena, the first real chance for players to hit the ice in 26 years.
Phillip Painter, the first vice-president of ice hockey in Puerto Rico, was very interested in helping out with the arena opening.
“I volunteered a week of 18 hour days laying Ice and building a Zamboni like no other,” said Painter, one of the main reasons why hockey in Puerto Rico exists to this day.
Using a machine that he said looked more like a cross between a Zamboni and a golf cart, the arena would finally become reality. On October 15, 2004 the Aguadilla Ice Skating Arena was opened to the public with thousands of people coming to check out the festivities.
It was time to watch hockey really thrive in Puerto Rico.
Both ice hockey and figure skating really started to shine. With ex-pats showing up from North America, hockey was played a few times each week, with a clinic each Saturday to help promote the game to the younger demographic. The game was simple back then. With no real equipment, players weren’t allowed to take high shots on the pad-less goaltenders. Instead of nets, they were forced to use either shoes or flip-flops as posts. It may not have been a lot, but it was something. Eventually, they’d be able to secure the proper equipment, but it was great to have at least some form of interest budding along.
With everything starting to move along thanks to the help from both funding and third-party sources, two teams would eventually form: the Tainos and the Penguins. It was a long time coming for Puerto Rico, who hadn’t had a hockey team since the Havana Tropicals of the short lived Tropical Hockey League back in 1937. This gave some hope for the small hockey program, and the team would eventually apply for provisional status with the IIHF.
Then came one of the biggest, if not the most important advancement in hockey in Puerto Rico: a new state of the art arena. In came the Jose Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in 2005, a government-built building that blew all others away in Latin America. The Coliseum is a 17,000 seat multiplex with the ability to host many major events throughout the year, including hockey. The major arena upgrade seemed like it would be good enough to propel them into IIHF status once everything else was rounded out.
Ten years later, they’re still not a member. They did, however, create the Puerto Rican Ice Hockey Federation to help with the process asked for by the IIHF. Unfortunately, things didn’t go totally to plan after the exhibition game between the Rangers in the Panthers. Due to poor promotion, and having the game in September during Puerto Rico’s slowest tourism, the game itself was a flop. What could have been a huge opportunity for the NHL to help expand their fanbase into Puerto Rico turned out to be the complete opposite. According to Painter, the NHL, the Rangers and the Panthers never ended up reaching out to the local Hockey Community to establish any further relationship outside of the game.
“The government had to bus in children from local housing projects, just to have bodies in the building,” Painter said of the game televised on New York’s MSG Network.
Things began to go downhill after that. Despite the program seeing up to 50 players willing to participate, and the venues to be able to host major events, not a whole lot went on. In fact, the Coliseo has yet to host a single hockey game ever since, with figure skating and other various events taking place during the winter instead. A new arena in Isla Verde, a suburb in San Juan, allowed players to play without having to make the three hour trek to Aguadilla. It seemed like a great plan to help development, but that all changed when, a year later, the pastor of the church that had the arena built was found guilty of tax evasion. The arena was auctioned off.
Back in Aguadilla, times weren’t much better. New political administrations saw all ice programs at the arena shut down. The figure skating program temporarily moved to Washington, but after a short period of time, it ceased to exist whatsoever. Painter and his fellow hockey players weren’t too happy about this, and they’d show up to the complex in Aguadilla in the middle of the night when nobody was around to supervise. With it being more of a secret operation, there weren’t a lot of players that knew about what was going on, making it hard to keep numbers up. Even their nets were thrown out, making it harder to actually play.
“Many of the professionals and Coast Guard skaters requested transfers, as part of their reason for choosing PR as a place to work was to be able to skate in the Tropics,” said Painter. “Our youth program also faltered as we no longer had our Saturday morning time slot secured.”
The PR Ice Hockey Federation would make some requests to the Puerto Rican Olympic committee and the Department of Sports and Recreation about everything, but all their appeals went unnoticed. Meanwhile, there were still a lot of people sending inquiries to the Puerto Rican hockey website about hosting games and tournaments, all which were unfortunately impossible.
The federation tried talking to the NHL, NHLPA, USA Hockey and Scotiabank, among others, to help look for support. Maybe, with the help of some third-party sources, the federation could help regrow their program without having the government offer a dime as a result.
Nothing came from it.
With just eight players heading on to the ice during late hours on Sunday’s, the game returned to it’s roots with no nets, flip flops for posts and without the ability to shoot the puck high due to no goalie equipment. Eventually, the rink manager in Aguadilla put a stop to their outlaw sessions, meaning any hockey action would have to take place elsewhere. Members of the federation went on to play in a pond hockey tournament in Nova Scotia, Canada, an event that kept the dream alive for the time being.
In 2011, things looked positive. The Florida Panthers, in conjunction with JetBlue, the largest airliner in PR, offered to run hockey camps to help out youth hockey in the territory, giving away free equipment in the process. As expected, the Puerto Rican government wasn’t all too pleased with that idea and wouldn’t allow the Panthers to get any ice time in Aguadilla. Instead, the Panthers hosted a street hockey clinic at the Boys and Girls Club in San Juan for the next couple of years before team took their program to the Bahamas instead.
Phillip didn’t want his program to die without making its presence known. In 2011, the federation donated a jersey to the Hockey Hall of Fame for their international section, a segment of the hall that continues grow and show the history of the sport around the world. The federation also started their annual “Skate with Santa Toy Drive”, an event that has donated hundreds of toys a year for the past five years.
If they were going down, they weren’t going down without a fight.
In 2013, fed up with the lack of support from the government, Puerto Rico sent a team out to Argentina to participate in the End of the World Cup, an event that were now opening up the tournament to more teams outside of the country. Years after having a stronger program, Puerto Rico could only field a team of seven players, and with no ice to play back home (despite having the biggest arena of any of the countries involved), it was a little disappointing considering they would have been able to dominate in the past. The positive thing, however, was that they could exchange ideas and contact information with others teams in similar positions, such as Brasil, Chile and Argentina.
Other countries wanted to see Puerto Rico succeed, but their own government still didn’t care. On ice participation was not what it used to be. The team was invited to take part in the inaugural Pan-American Ice Hockey Tournament back in 2014, an event put on by the Mexican Hockey Federation to help out some smaller countries develop their game. With teams like Argentina, Brasil, Canada, Colombia and Mexico taking part, it would have been a good event for Puerto Rico to be involved with. Unfortunately, the team only had about three players to choose from, something that would hurt them once again when asked to join the 2015 tournament.
The success from all of the teams in similar situations as their own has given them hope.
“We’ve seen our neighbors Cuba and Haiti install temporary Ice surfaces this year,” Painter pointed out. “The Cayman Islands are building a new ice-ready multiplex.”
They may be a little quiet in 2015 on the hockey front, but that just means they’re extra ready for a big event in 2016.
“We’re currently assembling a Harlem Globetrotter type team of Celebrities and former NHL’ers to visit Argentina for their 2016 Copa Fin del Mundo (End of the World) Classic to represent PR and offer assistance and raise Global awareness,” said Painter. “Argentina is also experiencing division between their Ice Hockey Federation, FAHH, and their government for official recognition, which has kept them from fielding their best players in Mexico.”
An economic collapse in Puerto Rico sounds like a bad idea, but could it be a positive situation for their hockey program? Currently sitting $72 billion in debt with no end in sight, Painter believes that the government may be forced either sell or lease the arenas. He also mentioned that the federation has been working with potential Governor Ricky Rossello, a fan of hockey. Getting him on board could really help out the program, as having someone who’s already invested in the sport could help the group thrive again. Until then, Painter and company will have to continue breaking in to arenas and continuing the sport they love.
“We are “Outlaws” after all.”
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To learn more about hockey in Puerto Rico, visit their website here.