Women's Ice Hockey in Mexico? Yes, Women's Ice Hockey in Mexico

Believe it or not, the Mexican Women's Ice Hockey Team is gunning for the 2018 Winter Olympics and they've got a real shot at making it happen.

Oct 13 2014, 1:05pm

Photo courtesy of the Mexican Hockey Federation

Slightly more than two years ago the current incarnation of the women's Mexican National Ice Hockey Team gathered in Mexico City and took to the rink for the first time as a group. It did not go well. The players could barely maintain their balance. Eventually, they were able to get enough momentum to move across the ice, but many then learned that stopping was just as big of a problem.

Joaquin de la Garma—head of the Mexican Hockey Federation—watched in disbelief as almost each member of the team crashed into the boards because none of them knew how to slow down.

"I was like Bambi," recalls forward Claudia Tellez in Spanish.

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For a moment, the 61-year-old de la Garma—who had been involved in the sport for almost 50 years—wondered what he had gotten himself into. Had he dreamed too big?

Several months prior, de la Garma had concocted what seemed like an almost illogical plan. He wanted to get a Mexican team qualified for the Olympics in ice hockey. The path was far too difficult for the men's team. So he decided to focus on the women instead. The only problem was that Mexico had no semblance of a women's hockey team. The Mexican Federation had been a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) since 1985, but up to that point no women's team had ever participated in an official IIHF competition.

De la Garma wrote a proposal asking for funding and submitted it to CONADE, Mexico's department of sport and physical fitness. Amazingly, the budget was approved. He was told that then-new Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was going to make a push to improve the quality of sport in Mexico.

Getting Mexico qualified for the Olympics in any team sport would be an admirable accomplishment. To do so in ice hockey—in particular with a women's team at a time when Mexico continues to cling to antiquated gender roles—would be a remarkable achievement for the Peña Nieto administration. The new president could claim to be a progressive women's advocate, at least when it comes to hockey.

But de la Garma still had to start from scratch. The task seemed almost impossible. First he contacted the pool of local club team players, but that was hardly enough to build a team. So he queried members of Mexico's national inline hockey team. Starved for support—without standing as an official Olympic sport, inline hockey receives little to no government funding despite being a popular sport in Mexico—the inline players were intrigued. De la Garma tempted them with wild notions of Olympic glory. And so they arrived in Mexico City, from far north and south, to try their game on ice.

And at first—in those first few moments on the ice—they were humiliated. But that didn't last. They played their first exhibition match on Feb. 12, 2012, a 1-0 loss to Argentina. A day later they beat Argentina 7-1. They improved with each match.

In March 2014, Mexico participated in the IIHF's Women's World Championship Division II Group B qualification tournament. A tournament win would send them into the IIHF's fourth—and lowest—tier of women's hockey. They beat Hong Kong 1-0 in the final to finally land on the IIHF map. They will participate in next year's Womens' World Championship Division II Group B tournament for a chance to advance to the third tier.

So now, amazingly, the women's Mexican national hockey team is on a path that could very well get them entered into the Olympic qualifying tournament in 2017 where they could earn one of the eight women's Olympic bids. Mexico has to win every world championship tournament from here until then, but the task that seemed impossible two years ago is now merely improbable.

"If they continue to make improvements at the same rate they've made improvements," said Rick Cornacchia, the Canadian-based coach who serves as the team's technical advisor, "they have a realistic opportunity."

Exterior view of the Palacio de los Deportes in Mexico City, home to one of the few ice hockey rinks in Mexico. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Hockey has a longer history in Mexico than one might imagine—albeit an unheralded one. The federation says on its website that ice hockey was first played in Mexico in 1957. Mexico City residents became entranced with ice skating after a traveling Holiday on Ice revue held a series of performances in the city that year. Citizens asked for the rink to remain operational.

The game became popular among private school kids. But hockey never took off nationally because there were few facilities—the federation estimates there are still fewer than 30 ice rinks in all of Mexico—where people could play. Also, the sport was expensive.

But ice hockey gained a cult status in Mexico City, and that's where the federation was founded. The men's national team played its first official IIHF match in 2000. They currently sit in Division II Group A, the fifth tier—out of six—of men's international hockey. A team must win its group world championship (these are held annually) in order to advance into the next group. The competition on the men's side is much more fierce since more countries play men's hockey than they do women's hockey. While the men's team has dramatically improved since 2000, they still do not play at a level to compete with the best teams in the world.

"You need to have at least half the team playing in the NHL," de la Garma said in Spanish of the possibility of a potential men's Olympic bid. "We have none. It would be years before we could even think of that happening."

The women have fewer obstacles. For that reason, the 30-year-old Tellez uprooted her life in Guadalajara to move to Mexico City. All of the 28-person national team—ages ranging from 15-32—player pool is based in the capital.

"I want to get to the Olympic games," Tellez said. "That's my dream. I'm not living in Mexico City for work. I'm here for hockey."

Tellez wakes up early each morning and heads to the gym to work out. She returns home, eats breakfast, and then showers before heading to a local ice rink to teach skating lessons. Most of the players teach ice skating classes in exchange for ice time at local rinks. Tellez also spends her afternoons working as an administrator for the federation. All of the players have jobs, most of them obtained for them by de la Garma. None of the players can afford to live as hockey players.

CONADE provides the players with housing and food and a monthly stipend of $2,000 pesos (approximately $150), which is hardly enough for other living expenses. Once players end their day at work they must show up to the rink for team practice that usually begins at 10:30 p.m. Team practices are held three times a week, although that will move up to four to five times a week in December.

"My whole time is dedicated to the sport," Tellez said.

To accelerate the learning curve, the federation hired Cornacchia to work with the team. He travels to Mexico a couple times a year. Aside from having the team play games, Cornacchia makes players watch video to teach them the intricacies of the game.

"I can't believe the improvement to be honest with you, it's leaps and bounds," he said.

The emergence of a women's league in Mexico has also helped the quality of play for the national team. The league, which was founded two years ago with only two teams, now boasts five teams.

The team will also travel to the U.S. and Canada for camps and to work with Cornacchia. All of these trips are funded by CONADE. The group's most recent trip to Toronto for a camp cost an estimated $1.5 million pesos ($75,000), according to de la Garma.

Facilities in Mexico have improved with governmental support. The construction of the Olympic sized IceDome in Mexico City has helped the national team tremendously. There are also plans to build a state of the art facility at the Cuidad de Deportes complex in the national's capital.

Earlier this year, Mexico hosted the first ever Pan American Ice Hockey Tournament, which was almost entirely funded by CONADE, according to de la Garma. National teams from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Canada participated and only had to pay their airfare. CONADE provided everything else.

De la Garma recently determined it would cost almost $3 million pesos if the team advanced to the pre Olympic tournament. CONADE has pledged to pay for all of it.

"We are receiving strong economic support for anything we need in order to qualify for the Olympics," de la Garma said.

The first step for Olympic qualification begins next year in March at the Division II Group B championships in Jaca, Spain. Mexico will face Spain, Australia, Belarus, Slovakia and Iceland.

Cornacchia believes Mexico has a strong chance to win the tournament because of its excellent goalkeeping. In a nod to the team's non-traditional roots, inline hockey goalkeepers usually have the easiest transition into ice hockey. On that first day the team assembled in Mexico City, the goalkeepers—while the rest of the team slipped and fell—were mostly able to maintain their balance.