Juan Carlos Otero found hockey like so many fans. It took him seeing it in person to appreciate the pace and energy of one of the world’s most beloved sports.
It’s just that it’s normally relegated to a very specific part of the world.
A few years ago, Otero had the idea to kick start a tournament and invite nontraditional hockey teams. “Once we had the first tournament, I knew that this was going to take off,” Otero tells En Fuego via Zoom recently.
Otero is the founder of the Amerigol LATAM Cup, a tournament that welcomes hockey teams from all over the world to compete on the same ice used by the Florida Panthers.
In September, 44 teams came from places that normally excel in the realm of baseball or soccer. But for a few days in the fall and coming up again next spring, Latinos show up, lace up the skates, and hit the ice.
Otero admits that he didn’t think it would take off this quickly. It started in 2018 with five teams, and one division. It then grew to 21 teams, and four divisions, the next year and saw its numbers rise still to 29 teams and five divisions in 2021. This year, the tournament boasts 44 teams and over 750 players, comprised of athletes from 21 countries.
“It's a testament to all of these teams because, you know, there wouldn't be a LATAM Cup without all of these countries and all their participation, all of their hard work throughout the year,” Otero said.
Dropping the Puck
Otero has been a professional in the pharmaceutical industry for 30 years. It’s a bit of a leap away from running hockey clinics, so the obvious question is when this all started.
For the LATAM Cup, that was a few years ago when he realized how much passion there is for the sport in places like Mexico. But for his own hockey journey, things go back a bit further.
Raised by two parents from Bogotá, Colombia, winter sports weren’t actually a household practice. But around 1995, a friend of his from New York took him to a Panthers game. That combined with the corresponding run to the Stanley Cup cemented a lifetime love for the sport.
Otero couldn’t get enough and even moved when the team did, living not far from the Sunrise location the team now enjoys.
“All of my family lives still down south,” he said. “I'm the only one that moved up north. And it's 100% because the Panthers moved.”
Nine years ago he discovered the hockey program at the University of Miami and eventually became the general manager of the club. The sport continued to find new and interesting ways of bringing Otero further into its depths.
“I ran into an article about Colombia and them playing ice hockey and I saw their jerseys and I was like, wow, such a beautiful jersey, the most beautiful hockey jersey I've ever seen,” he recalled.
“So, I had to get a hold of them, and that's pretty much how it started. I reached out to Colombia, I met with them. I flew there on a business trip for pharmaceutical, and I took some time off to go to the rink there. And I was just amazed by what I saw in that Bogotá Hockey Center.”
What he saw was a community passionate about hockey. A subsequent meeting turned into Otero joining the Colombia team on a training-camp trip to Mexico in 2017 for the Pan-American Tournament with the Mexican Federation, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile.
Otero was struck by an idea. Move the tournament north to a place like Florida where the population is diverse, which could further the mission of developing hockey among Latinos.
A Global Game
The puck is that much more accessible when representation is taken into account. When hockey opens its doors to more of the world, the sport becomes richer for it.
Noah Rosado helped Team Puerto Rico take home the LATAM 2022 Championship in the U20 Division. Winning MVP honors, Rosado was glowing in the post-match interview. But it wasn’t just the big win he enjoyed.
“This is the first time I’ve been in a locker room with kids that look just like me,” Rosado told a tournament reporter.
The tournament has evolved in a beautiful way, keeping to its mission of bringing atypical hockey countries to the states to compete. The struggles are obvious. While these teams are passionate about the sport, their time on the ice is extremely limited. Things like stopping while skating are worked on and integrated into the program.
“Really, the only country that has ice hockey rinks is Mexico,” Otero explained. “I think they have over 16 rinks all over Mexico.
“So, the rest of the countries do not have ice. Colombia has zero ice. They all play roller. Argentina does not have ice. They have an outdoor rink in Ushuaia, which is at the southernmost point of Argentina. And it's only for like two months out of the year. Brazil has a small rink. It's probably a quarter of the size or maybe less than a standard sized rink inside of a mall. And Chile, the same thing. And that's pretty much it. So all of these players come from roller hockey.”
Countries at this year‘s tournament include the likes of Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia. It also now includes countries such as Egypt, Israel, and Lebanon. The tournament is comprised of several divisions, including one for women.
“It's not just a Latin American and Caribbean tournament any longer,” the founder said. “This tournament was built for and designed for nontraditional hockey countries. We truly believe in hockey is for everyone.”
The benefits are evident in the smiles that come off the ice. There are also those who are discovering opportunities away from the LATAM Cup.
“Our first our first-year tournament, one of the players from Argentina was offered a spot on a Division 2 team here in Florida,” he said.
“There's definitely opportunities here and it's grown since then. There are coaches that are coming out here and scouting and I just think as the tournament continues to grow and more and more players are getting the opportunity to participate, I think that you're going to start seeing more and more players get calls.”
The greatest takeaway for a tournament that will get its start again in about 150 days is that there is an obvious passion for this sport in Latin America. Players there can’t get enough. And if there is an opportunity to get in time on the ice, they will jump at the chance, regardless of the difficulties.
“That's a big sacrifice because the economies in these countries are not what they are here in the states,” Otero said of the teams traveling to Florida to compete.
“That just shows you, again, the love that these people have and the passion they have for the game, that they make sacrifices to be able to come here. Because it is a sacrifice.”