San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Crashing the Boards: Hockey Gains Momentum

HOCKEY left the ice and migrated from the northernclimes. It’s now a mainstay on a Costa Rican rink, where up and-coming candidates for international legends on ice, orconcrete, have been training for at least the past five years.Young kids such as Nicolás Barr, 9, and his brotherAndy, 5, are the next generation of Costa Rica’s roller hockeyarsenal. Rufino Gil, 15, affectionately called “theTico Gretzky,” has played since he was 11. One of the eliteminority of native-born Costa Ricans who have renouncedtheir place at the soccer altar, Gil says he prefers hockey.It’s a “fast game” that affords “more contact than soccer,”he said.They are some of the youngest members of a mixed bagleague of French-Canadian expatriates and playersfrom around the globe, including Cuba, Japan, Switzerlandand Colombia.“We kind of have a U.N. thing going on here,” saidJack Caine, president of the Asociación Deportiva deHockey (ADH). A U.S. citizen with an odd affinity forCanada, the cradle of the sport, Caine is known to attendCanada Day celebrations in Costa Rica and promote rollerhockey at all costs, even personal expense.“It used to be a lot of North Americans who would cometo play, but then they all got old,” French-Canadian expatCharles Bergeron said. Now, with the sport just out of itsinfancy in Costa Rica, most of the players are from here.WITH five adult teams and three for kids, ADH is thelargest in a new federation of four hockey and speed-skatingorganizations, including the Special Olympics hockeyteams, and has sent teams to two international tournaments,one at Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, in 2002, andanother in Bogotá, Colombia, in March.The teams face off on a smaller-than-regulation-sizerink in Parque La Paz, in the southern San José suburb ofDesamparados, two Sundays a month. They are decked inprofessional-looking uniforms, pads and in-line skates,their equipment wearing slightly with age and the considerableabuse hockey players dole out.“It’s a nice surprise… to come down for the weather anddiscover hockey,” Canadian expat and English teacher LukePanek said. “It keeps me out of the bar Saturday night.”Though slogging through bureaucratic obstacles andthe apparently labyrinthine government sport-regulationsystem, Caine and the ADH have shown their mettle,procuring sponsors and equipment donors, and Caine evenfronted cash out-of-pocket to upgrade a rink and buy lightsfor night games.The National Hockey League (NHL) of North Americahas donated uniforms and equipment over the years, whichADH loans, at times, to other associations in the federation.Caine and other die-hard promoters of the sport hit upfriends for equipment donations, and the list of a dozen orso ADH sponsors is top-heavy with foreign contributors,but a handful of Costa Rican citizens and businesses havesigned on. The Grupo La Nación network of daily newspapers,for example, donated free advertising for a NorthAmericans vs. Costa Ricans all-star game in November, forwhich dozens of fans turned out.THE Bogotá tournament, still fresh in the minds of the10 ADH players who flew there during Holy Week thisyear, offered a glimpse of what the Costa Rican team mightaspire to, as well as confirmation that its dedication haspaid off.Colombia’s roller-hockey teams rank among the best inLatin America, Caine said. They practice on covered rinkswith full boards and synthetic floors, and with their fanbase and support, they don’t have to beg for equipment. Inspite of the glitter and intimidation, Costa Rica managed tobeat one Colombian team and held its own in a game itbarely lost against another.It was an opportunity “to see another kind of hockey,”said Pablo Murillo, 21. He plays for the Vikings, an ADHteam formerly called the Rock Crushers, and still wears RCjerseys while saving for new ones.“There, hockey is very quick,” he said. “They play withlots of passing. The rink is bigger – it’s a different game.”Ernesto González, 23, a Colombian expat in CostaRica, is a veteran hockey player, having competed throughoutLatin America and New England. He was largelyresponsible for Costa Rica’s invitation to the tournament.“We have to practice more; we’re used to playingmejingas (pick-up games), not practicing. I went frompracticing four times a week to playing just on Sundays,”he said. But, he added, he sees hope for Costa Rica’s hockeyteams.MOST of the players who skated in Colombia belongto the Vikings, a team that Caine developed in its previousincarnation as the Rock Crushers. Some of their jerseys stillread “STOP,” a reminder to beginners who had troublestopping and slammed into some of the smaller players.“The funny part of the Rock Crushers calling themselvesthe Vikings is that they like to run around with a bullskull, and not a single one of them is of northern-Europeandescent,” Caine said. “Compare that to my team, called theVolcanoes, since there are volcanoes in Costa Rica, andmost of the players on the Volcanoes are non-Costa Ricans.It’s just backwards.”The Vikings, who are the league dominators, wouldlike more equipment and sponsors. The Bulldogs and otherADH teams, however, are calling for more players.Those interested in playing or just sitting on the sidelinescan get schedules and information from Caine by calling289-9917 (weekdays) or 228-7917 (evenings andweekends), or by e-mailing Theleague is also on the Web at semifinals game will be played this Sunday, 8-11a.m., at the rink in Parque La Paz.

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