William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog since 2012. Douglas joined NHL.com in 2019 and writes about people of color in the sport. Today, he profiles the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association’s first Festival de Hockey that was held in Chicago and the PRIHA’s aspirations for international competition and growing the sport within the Hispanic community.
Orlando Delgado Jr. attended the Festival de Hockey in Chicago earlier this month hoping to someday fulfill his dream of playing for the Puerto Rico men’s national hockey team.
“Granted, I’m 40 years old, but it’s always been a passion of mine to represent my country in some type of event, worldwide event, national event,” said Delgado, a Phoenix, Arizona, resident who started playing hockey three years ago. “That’s a pride thing for me that’s always been one of those boxes on my bucket list.”
Delgado was one of 140 players who participated in the first-time festival hosted by the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association April 6-9 at Fifth Third Arena, the practice facility of the Chicago Blackhawks.
The event was a celebration of the PRIHA, which helped Puerto Rico gain associate membership in the International Ice Hockey Federation in September, a showcase of the sport within the Puerto Rican and Hispanic community and an evaluation camp for the organization’s men’s women’s and youth teams.
Players from ages 6 to 66 and from all skill levels came from as far as California to participate in exhibition games against local teams, practices and learn-to-skate clinics.
More than 250 people watched the exhibition games and several participated in free public skating sessions during the festival, PRIHA president and founder Scott Vargas said.
“We had an opportunity to bring all of our athlete members together in the same place at the same time, celebrate the community that we’ve built, and continue to build towards our goals on and off the ice,” said Vargas, who was captain of Puerto’s men’s team that won the 2022 Amerigol LATAM Cup. “The talent level, the increase in the talent level was shocking. I spoke with several of the families who said, whether it was the parents or athletes themselves, ‘I wasn’t expecting it to be so high-end in terms of skill.’
“It just shows that over the short period of time we’ve continued to attract more and more athletes with a strong foundation of skill, and we want to develop them toward a common goal.”
That goal is for Puerto Rico to compete in IIHF tournaments and eventually in the Winter Olympics someday, once the island has an operating ice rink. In the meantime, the PRIHA has taken methodical steps toward its international hockey aspirations.
In 2019, Puerto Rico entered a men’s team in the LATAM Cup, an annual tournament at the Florida Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, Florida, that features teams representing Latin American, Caribbean countries and other nations.
The Puerto Rican squad won the gold medal in the men’s Division II bracket. PRIHA returned to the LATAM Cup two years later with a women’s team along with men’s Division I, Under-16 and Under-12 squads. The women won their division championship and the other teams medaled as well.
PRIHA had six teams at the 2022 LATAM Cup. The men’s and Under-20 teams won gold and the Under-15 won silver in the Under-16 division.
The men’s national team competed in February against some of the best players in central Florida in an exhibition series in partnership with Orlando of the ECHL — an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning — and the Florida Puerto Rican Parade.
“I believe all that exposure we received from the LATAM Cup, the NHL, the IIHF really showed all Puerto Rican players and parents and everybody that we are serious, we do compete,” said Alfonso Diaz, a member of Puerto Rico’s men’s national team and a former semi-professional player. “I believe that’s why now everybody is showing up because they see how dedicated that we are to moving this ship forward, and everybody wants to be a part of that.”
It attracted Delgado, who said he learned more from the Festival de Hockey practices and games than he has since he first started playing hockey.
The first thing he noticed was the pace playing against teams like the Chicago Police Department wasn’t the same as the beer league contests back in Phoenix.
“Your typical beer league, you’re skating around, having fun, getting a couple of strides in and whatnot,” he said. “The games that we played — they weren’t just recreational games. We were playing to win, like it was a weekend tournament. Keeping up the intensity was something definitely that I think I need to work on, which is good because that’s how you learn, find your weak spots.”
PRIHA officials are working on the next Festival de Hockey, scheduled for June 7-11 in New York, which has the largest Puerto Rican population outside the island itself.
The festival would be the same weekend as the annual National Puerto Rican Day parade in Manhattan. Vargas said he hopes to have several hundred players and their families march in the parade wearing Puerto Rico hockey jerseys.
“It was a great turnout in Chicago, hopefully it will be even better in New York,” said Sophia Alverez, a Florida native who’s a forward on Puerto Rico’s women’s team. “It’s going to be fun seeing people wear the (Puerto Rico) jersey for the first time.”
Photos: Katelynn Reiss @reissmode, Orlando Delgado Jr.
A multi-lingual talent head, Allen is fluent in languages such as Spanish, Russian, Italian, and many more. He has a special curiosity for the events and stories revolving in and around US and caters an uncompromising form of journalistic standard for the audiences.