On September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma (a category 5 storm) battered the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico with 100 mph winds leaving approximately 1 million without power. News reports referred to Irma as having “skirted” past Puerto Rico.
On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria (a category 4 storm) made landfall on Puerto Rico with 155 mph winds destroying everything that Irma had left behind. According to CNN, it was the strongest hurricane to hit the island in 85 years knocking out power to the entire island, uprooting tress, flooding the streets, and destroying homes. The official death toll in December 2017 was 64 people, but unofficially was likely over 1,000. In the months following Maria, Puerto Rico’s Department of health received over “3,050 calls from people who said they have attempted suicide.” This was a 246% increase from similar calls in the previous year. As of February 19th, 2018 almost 1 million residents (on an island of 3.4 million) still lack access to electricity, which has raised serious questions about the perceived value of the U.S. territory, the priorities of the United States government, and the capacities of FEMA.
But some people have had their power restored in Puerto Rico, like Philip Painter. Painter is the Director of Hockey Puerto Rico and after 5 months with no power or Internet we received the following message in our Hockey and Society Facebook inbox: “Hey gang Philip back to you – follow as we are the first country to ever lose a program AND arena to a hurricane. And we’re coming back stronger than ever.” Naturally, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to highlight the growth of hockey in Puerto Rico but also its ongoing humanitarian crisis.
The Puerto Rican Ice Hockey Federation was founded in 2004. Two years later, the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers played an exhibition game in San Juan, the island’s capital. In 2005, the first hockey game was held between the RincónTaínos and the Aguadilla Penguins. As Painter explained in the San Juan Daily Star, after the hurricanes hit the Puerto Rico hockey jersey that hangs at the Hockey Hall of Fame was the most visited artifact in October. Here is the transcript of our email interview.
Courtney: How did you get involved in hockey?
Painter: I have been a hockey player since 6 years old growing up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts during the era of the Big Bad Bruins. Our local rink in Orleans was opened by none other than Don Cherry and Don Awrey from the B’s
As for how I became involved here in PR: I have been a resident since the early 90s, and when in 2004 I was informed of the Municipality of Aguadilla’s plans to open an oceanfront rink as part of a complete renovation of the waterfront, and San Juan was building a state of the art facility as part of our Olympic bid (Greece was awarded the Games), the writing was on the wall. Hockey was on its way. I immediately got in touch with our local politicians and our Olympic Committee (although we are a U.S. Territory, we have our own Olympic team – PUR) that we can do this.
I also contacted the IOC, IIHF, NHL, NHLPA, USA Hockey and any corporate sponsors to let them know how serious we were taking this (hockey supporter Scotiabank has a strong island presence). Our grand opening in October 2004 was a spectacle like no other. Daddy Yankee (Despacito) was the musical act, and the figure skating and hockey demos were the first ever in the Caribbean.
Courtney: Approximately how many people participate in ice hockey in Puerto Rico?
Painter: Our numbers immediately climbed as had locals and residents participating in our twice weekly skates. Wednesday nights were adult pick-up and Saturday morning were youth clinics. Equipment was bare bones yet we shared and survived. Our latest “Grow the Game” event had 50 skaters and we introduced sledge hockey for those with disabilities with the help of USA Warriors and the Florida Sled Hockey League. It was the first time athletes traveled to the tropics to practice a winter sport. We also registered 40 new members. We were now over 100.
Courtney: As Puerto Rico’s newest sport, what are some of the goals of the organization (aside from rebuilding)?
Painter: We were on our way to becoming the centre of Caribbean Hockey. Although Jamaica, Haiti, and the Caymans field teams in North America, none of them have a rink. We do [and it seats 18,500].
I had also been working with growing programs in South America including: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia. I had skated in their tournaments and realized our state of the art facility in San Juan would be the perfect venue to host the most elaborate Latin tournament. Mexico has since done this quite successfully in their Ice Dome. They too have hosted the NHL.
I had worked with the Hockey Hall of Fame to shine a light on this emerging part of the world. Most countries, including us, now have a sweater in the Tissot International display room.
As my family – RJ “Hooley” Smith is a HHOF (’72) Inductee, Phil Pritchard and his staff at the Hall have always been more than helpful.
Courtney: How did the hurricanes affect hockey specifically?
Painter: At the peak of our success Hurricanes Irma and Maria delivered a 1-2 punch of biblical proportions. Two category 5 storms decimated every island, from Barbados to the east to the Dominican Republic to the west. Survival and human compassion were all that mattered. Speaking on behalf of PR: we shined and we are still at it 5 months later. Forty percent of our island is still in the dark. Thousands are still homeless. Our rink in Aguadilla played a major part of the first response. We diverted our industrial diesel generator into the disabled power grid to fire up essential services and hospitals. The central location of the rink also served as an emergency supply depot. We were able to disperse emergency supplies, water, food, medical supplies and so much more. We also served as an information post as most of the radio towers were destroyed so there was no public information available. We were all in the dark – literally and figuratively. Never were so many stars visible at night.
Courtney: What should people know about the situation in Puerto Rico right now?
Painter: Our situation now is actually a blessing in disguise. We are in a position to repair our rink which suffered 200+ mph winds and a 20 foot storm surge. We have the potential to rebuild the building and program from scratch and become the most unique hockey experience in the world. Nowhere else can you skate, surf, snorkel, scuba dive, fish, and whale watch all without moving your car. Oh, there is also cold beer and live music at the bar in the arena. There is also a world class golf course 5km up the hill, so there is no doubt where the hockey world will want to vacation to get the best all around experience.
Courtney: If people want to help with either rebuilding efforts or to support Puerto Rican hockey what can they do?
Painter: All during the last 5 months the hockey world has reached out offering assistance and where to direct their energies. I have referred to them to my friend Ricky Martin’s Foundation. He has been doing humanitarian work long before this, from Haiti to Thailand. He has always put the well being of youth above all other needs. He was in Aguadilla as soon as the airport was able to take incoming relief 72 hours after the storms. He is still a regular fixture here, as our work is far form over. Major League Baseball is also working hard to do their part, especially local players like Carlos Correa and Carlos Beltran. We too, have been a non-profit for 14 years, so charity work is just another part of who we are in the community. As far as anyone that reads this and wants to help us re-emerge: Keep us in your thoughts and make plans to visit us. As far as hockey, used gear drives and used arena equipment [emphasis added] would be much needed as we grow even bigger to make PR the powerhouse we could become. Think of having a tournament of clinics here. All ideas are encouraged. For daily updates on our progress visit our Facebook page Hockey PuertoRico.