Fiesta de Hockey gathered more than 120 participants at Fifth Third Arena — the Chicago Blackhawks’ practice facility — last weekend. Children, teenagers and adults enjoyed sixty-two hours of programming, including training sessions and exhibition matches, of this debut event that will be held again in New York in June.
Gisselle de Rojas traveled to Chicago from Miami with her 16-year-old son. While he played, she got to know other parents who traveled here to support their children from the stands.
“I already met a lot of people from different areas, so it’s really nice because the community feeling is really good,” de Rojas said.
Players from across the country traveled to Chicago to enjoy the games or try out to join the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association (PRIHA). The coaches evaluated the performance of each participant and classified them into different teams depending on their age and proficiency.
“This is so much fun and it’s more than just ice hockey,” said Jake Mullahy, 19, a player from Boston who competed in his first tryouts. “Seeing all the families wearing the Puerto Rico jerseys it’s pretty cool.”
Evelyn Bayo traveled from Puerto Rico to watch her grandson play. She often accompanied him to ice hockey practices when he was younger, and she gained interest in the sport through that bond. Bayo now lives in Viejo San Juan and is a member of the Puerto Rico Island Committee of PRIHA.
“We are organizing groups of children and some adults that live on the island and teaching them in-line hockey with the hope that in the future we can have an ice-skating rink and teach them to ice skate,” Bayo said.
Puerto Rico joined the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) as an associate member in 2022. However, the island does not have an ice-skating rink, which is a requirement for being a full member of the IIHF. There was one shield of ice on the island in the Aguadilla region, but it was damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
“We hope to have one or maybe two or more shields of ice in Puerto Rico,” said Luis Vargas, vice president of PRIHA.
PRIHA, founded in 2020, has national men’s and women’s teams, as well as men’s U20, U18, U16 teams and adult and youth developmental programs, totaling over 300 players.
“We can continue growing the game and using it as a vehicle to help people enjoy life, help young people grow, be part of a team and be proud of our island,” Luis Vargas said.
PRIHA’s objective is to promote Puerto Rican ice hockey and compete at the highest level. To accomplish this goal, the association seeks talent among the Puerto Ricans living in the United States.
“There’s quite a few Puerto Ricans that play ice hockey. As we know, the diaspora community goes to cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Orlando and Boston, and those cities have rich hockey cultures and they also have a rich Puerto Rican culture,” said Scott Vargas, president of PRIHA.
The association follows the National Olympic Committee guidelines, which establish that players can compete internationally if they were born in Puerto Rico, if they have Puerto Rican parents or grandparents, or if they are residents of the island.
“The love for the sport keeps growing and we’ll get many more Puerto Ricans that will be playing ice hockey soon,” Luis Vargas said.
Although ice hockey is gaining popularity in the Puerto Rican community, many still aren’t aware of the island’s national teams.
“When I tell my friends that Puerto Rico has an ice hockey team, all of them are astonished,” said Noah Rosado, 16, who has been playing for PRIHA for two years. “It’s really amazing to see people of our culture come together and play in a sport that we are not typically found.”
Passion for this sport is also growing among women. In 2021, the Puerto Rico women’s national team won the gold medal at the LATAM Cup.
“We had a great group of girls that had a really strong passion for hockey, and we were all really proud of being able to wear Puerto Rico on our jersey,” said Sofia Alvarez, 20, a player on the Puerto Rico women’s national team. “That drove us to play as well as we could and come out with the gold medal.”
The men’s teams have also achieved victories in international tournaments. The Puerto Rico men’s national team and the U20 team won gold medals at the 2022 LATAM Cup.
“When Puerto Ricans put their mind to something, they succeed as we can see with baseball, basketball and sports that are typically played at warm islands,” said Julia Kramer, mother of one of the players. “If they are able to have an ice rink, I don’t have any doubt that Puerto Ricans will become successful at ice hockey.”
PRIHA hopes to continue growing and eventually compete against the best teams in the world.
“The ultimate goal is that we play in the world championship,” Scott Vargas said.