June is an exciting time for hockey. The summer is upon us, kids are almost out of school and the NHL Playoffs are nearing their completion. It’s a great time to sit around the TV and check out hockey’s best in an exciting, best of seven series to help determine the Stanley Cup champion.
Most hockey events are already completed around the world, with the NHL running longer than any major professional hockey league. But every year, a small event in Mexico, known as the Pan-American Ice Hockey Games take place to help some of the newer hockey countries in North and South America develop their programs. A year ago, a team of selects from Canada went and easily controlled the whole tournament, eventually beating Mexico 7-0 in the final game.
This year, with Canada not participating, the tournament saw a chance for a new team to grab their first international hockey tournament. It took a thrilling shootout to decide who that champion would be this year, and thanks to a little surprise, Colombia would be able to secure their first ever ice hockey championship a year after their debut. Coach Sam Uisprapassorn and assistant team manager Camilo Fierro were along for the ride this year, watching Colombia evolve throughout the tournament before eventually grabbing the top prize at the development tournament.
SE) Explain your role with the team and how you got involved in the first place
SU) I’m of half Colombian descent on my mothers side, was curious to see what if any hockey was being played in Colombia and came across the team’s Facebook page. I sent a message and heard back from Carolina Fierro a few weeks later. Turns out the previous years Coach was not available and I expressed my interest in helping them out and it all went from there.
SE) How did Colombia’s participation in the tournament come together in the first place?
CF) We have a very good relationship with Joaquin De la Garma since we went to Mexico last year. On february 27th, he sent us an email invitation for the tournament and we couldn’t reject it. After we met with the players, we agreed on participating and it all came together nicely.
SE) Since ice hockey is still rather new there, where does the funding and support come from?
CF) I have to personally thank all the parents and players who have done the impossible to fund their own international trips since 2005. The love each one of us have for the sport has taken us to where we are now. Still, I believe that there’s still a lot to be done in order to find a way for the government to support us and we are getting closer to that now.
SE) How much interest was there to start an ice team?
CF) I remember when we started assembling an ice team last year. As soon as we got the invitation to the tournament, all of our players were really excited to play Ice Hockey. Some of them had played a few times before and dusted their chest protectors, their hockey pants and their ice skates. The others waited like little children in Christmas for their new ice equipment to arrive. It was such a scene. We even bought a skate sharpener and they spent a whole day learning how to sharpen their skates. So yeah, I think there was a huge interest to start an ice team in both our players and us as managers.
SE) Do you have many players interested in participating, and are they mostly from home or from all over the world?
SU) From our 21 man roster, five players are based in the US. The US based players are Colombian or of Colombian decent. The rest of our players are all located in Colombia.
SE) A year ago, Colombia won their first game ever. This year, you won a championship. What was the transition from year-to-year like?
CF) I’ve never seen our players so motivated to improve on their skills and experience after participating on last year’s Pan-American Ice Tournament and after winning the NARCh Finals Men’s Gold Division gold medal. We didn’t even receive the invitation for this year’s ice tournament and they were already training hard on Inline Hockey. When we decided to go for this year’s Pan-American ice tournament, our players put on their ice equipment (except for the skates) and made a couple inline training sessions playing with ice rules. It was a nice experiment as we did not have any ice skating rinks at the moment. If you take into account that we have little ice time compared to last year before each tournament, I’d say that the transition gave better results than expected.
SE) What’s the training like before a tournament?
SU) Most of the teams training comes from playing roller hockey competitively. The core members of this group all play for Rinos Napalm in Colombia and have had success at the NARCH and FIRS level. However, there are no ice rinks in Colombia so the training is limited to the skating the players do three to four days leading into the tournament. I had a chance to run two practices prior to the tournament. I was impressed with the skill level and fundamentals the team showed so I was able to coach and work on system play.
SE) Logan Delaney, a member of Canada’s championship winning team a year ago, said the tournament meant more than just winning a championship. Would you say the same?
SU) I would have to agree and hope that this championship helps the growth of ice hockey in Colombia and through out South America. More importantly, this is a tremendous victory for our players and organization.
CF) Winning a tournament is always going to hold a place in our hearts. Winning this tournament means that after achieving so many things in roller hockey, we have a higher mountain to climb. And we have the right tools to do it!
SE) Mexico was considered to be the strongest team heading into the tournament due to their World Championship participation. Did you ever think that Colombia would be able to win the final game?
SU) Mexico had a great team, well coached and a few standout players. Yes, I believed that we could win the tournament. Our team, our players did everything they needed to do to win. The team skated hard, won the lose pucks, converted quality scoring opportunities and most importantly played a very discipline forecheck and defensive system.
SE) Besides winning the gold, what moment really stood out to you the most from the Pan-Am tournament?
SU) I was impressed with how well all the teams played considering the lack of hockey resources each country has. Watching the fans was great, it was interesting to see how a team like Argentina seem to celebrate with joy after losing a game. Not very common for us North Americans. The rink was in great shape and the Mexican Federation’s hospitality was phenomenal. My favorite moment was coming off the ice after a morning skate to a hand picked apple and home made breakfast sandwich from a local.
SE) What was the excitement like for the whole team after seeing the final shootout goal go in, knowing that the team had just won it’s first ever hockey championship?
SU) That moment was like nothing else I had experienced, till now all a blur. Players and staff just jumped on the ice to celebrate. Everyone was happy, hugging, smiling and we’d all be kidding ourselves not to say a few tears in the eyes including myself.
SE) Overall, was the whole experience what you were hoping for?
SU) Yes and then some. I went to Mexico City not knowing what to expect. I left with the utmost respect for 21 players I had never coached before and they have all carved a special place in my heart.
SE) Has their been discussions already for next year’s tournament?
CF) We try to live each day at a time. Today, our eyes are set on this summer’s roller hockey tournaments in the USA and on being a member of the IIHF. So far, there’s been no discussion on next year’s Pan-American tournament.
SE) Finally, after the victory, do you think we’ll see Colombia in the Division III World Championships in the near future?
SU) Yes, I hope that we can take this momentum and work toward a IIHF World Championship.
CF) That’s definitely part of our plans and we’ll see how soon that’ll be.
Follow me on twitter, @StevenEllisNHL. You can follow Sam at @CoachSam14 and make sure to check out Colombia’s Facebook page here.