In February this year, I published an interview with Philip Painter (Director of Hockey Puerto Rico) about the state of hockey on the island after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. In the months after Hurricane Maria (September 2017), hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans fled the island “for lack of jobs, housing and healthcare.” According to the Washington Post, approximately 25% of island residents say their lives remain disrupted from the aftermath of Maria. Some residents in the eastern region of the island had to live without power for over 6 months, and “tens of thousands of people are still living under the blue tarps that were installed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] on houses that had their roofs blown off during the storm.” As of August 2018, the official death toll reported from Maria was 2,975.
The hockey rink in Aguadilla played a central role in Puerto Rico’s relief efforts. As Painter explained in our original piece from February:
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.
The rink itself suffered wind and water damage having its solar panels blown right off. Over a year after devastation hit the tiny island, Painter explains that more than 6000 miles of new electricity lines have been installed. Painter and Mayor Carlos Mendez agreed that “the arena is doing just what it was meant to be — a local meeting place for the community.” Re-building the rink was secondary to ensuring that the island got back on its feet. Now that daily life is closer to normal for many (but certainly not all) Puerto Ricans, Painter is able to concentrate on building the finest hockey arena in the Caribbean.
There are no hockey stores on the island so anyone who wishes to participate needs to bring gear to the island or has to rely on donated equipment. The Poppy Waterman Arena located in Lake Delton, which is a village (that’s right, I said village) with a population of 2,995 in Wisconsin came through big time to help with the rebuild. Aaron Kirby and Damian Newlon donated a shipping container of rink supplies filled with a set of used rink boards, safety glass, and netting. Evidently, Wisconsin has a large Puerto Rican presence – who knew?
Those working on the re-build claim that this rink will soon be on every skaters bucket list. “There’s nowhere else like it. You can skate, surf, scuba dive, sport fish, salsa and whale watch without moving your car. And to top it off, you’ve got a cliffside golf course overlooking the whole bay 5 miles away. It’s all here,” says Ron Robichaud of the Florida Sled Hockey League who ran some clinics at the rink in 2017.
The shipping container left Wisconsin by truck and headed for Chicago, Illinois where it travelled by train to Jacksonville, Florida. It then hopped on a boat to San Juan, Puerto Rico and then back onto a truck for the last leg to its new home in Aguadilla.
Henry Ramos, a volunteer helping with the re-build efforts explained, “My 10 year-old daughter [Isabella] has wanted to play ice hockey after watching the Winter Olympics on TV. And now she can have a chance to learn.”
The re-building of the rink in Puerto Rico is, in many ways, symbolic of the growing presence of hockey among Latinx/Hispanic communities. Mexico has been on the NHL’s radar for the last couple of years as a target area for fan growth. Both the Florida Panthers and Chicago Blackhawks now host Spanish langue commentary for games. The success of Cuban-American goaltender Al Montoya between 2013-2017 helped garner Latinx fans in Florida; however, now that he has been demoted to the AHL, a lot of that player outreach will likely fall on the shoulders of superstar Auston Matthews and up-and-comer Matt Nieto. And, in the women’s game, Julie Chu has easily been the strongest connection to Puerto Rico (on her maternal side) but Claudia Tellez also made waves for Mexican hockey when she became the first Mexican woman to be drafted into the CWHL (by the Calgary Inferno) in 2016. She also participated in a development camp with the LA Kings this fall.
Just last month, the Florida Panthers helped host the inaugural LATAM Cup, a tournament for the national teams of Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil. Tickets and parking to the event were FREE! Colombia was crowned the inaugural champion when all was said and done. As Juan Carlos Otero, one of the founders of the Amerigol Miami International Hockey Association contends, “I think it’s important that the NHL looks at being more active in this region in developing talent. Fifteen years down the line, you’re going to want to have more ‘Hernandez,’ ‘Fernandez,’ ‘Gomez,’ and ‘Lopez’ on the back of jerseys if you want to grow as a sport.”
Last year, Puerto Rico hosted the first ever para ice hockey event south of Florida. Karina Villegas, took part in the Grow the Game Tour and she was also the only Latinx player named to the 2016-2017 US Women’s Sled Team. It is her post-retirement goal to make para hockey accessible in Venezuela (the country where she was born and raised) and other parts of Latin America. Increasing access and opportunity for the disabled in Latin America is important because the reality is that, while able-bodied sports have their own diversity issues, para sports are even less racially representative because of class barriers. Bantjes and Swartz (2017) have found in their research:
that economic factors play a major role [in determining success and participation at disability sporting events]. Affordability influences the extent to which countries can participate in different events. Athletes from low and middle income countries – particularly women – are at a distinct disadvantage. These differences were particularly marked in events that had a high cost of participation. (para. 4)
It’s not a coincidence that para hockey has been dominated at the Paralympic Games by wealthy nations: Canada, USA, Russia, Norway, and Sweden (Japan managed to snag a silver medal in 2010 and Korea won a bronze at home this year in Pyeongchang). A new para hockey sled can easily cost $600-$800 (CDN) and sticks and blades from $40-$180 (CDN). Still, $800 for a sled is peanuts compared to $10,000 for a Paralympic triathlete bicycle, $7000 for a Paralympic-grade wheelchair for kayaking, and $5000 for a pair of prosthetic running blades (the kind that Oscar Pistorius made famous). Disability comes with additional costs and to be a para athlete is a class (and geographic) privilege that is out of the reach of far too many. Liam Hickey joined the Canadian national para hockey team two years ago and he explained to the CBC that, because he is not always centralized with the team, he pays about $150 an hour for ice time, three to four times a week! There aren’t many people out there who can afford to drop $450-$600 for ice time every week, able-bodied or otherwise. The media may frame it as noble or patriotic to pay to represent your country but the opposite side of that “patriotic” coin is the concession that our current pay-to-play method eliminates many players from the talent pool.
So, if you are looking for a way to give back this holiday season, please consider making your next equipment drive in support of the youth of Puerto Rico. Hockey4All will be ready to accept donations as soon as the rink is ready to host play. Also, consider hosting a tournament or clinic in Aguadilla to take advantage of that rare sand and ice combo. And, if you would like to help with Puerto Rico’s ongoing re-building efforts Painter directs people to The Ricky Martin Foundation.
Big thanks to Philip Painter for his help with this piece and for the photos!