For the love of the game on the edge of the world

It’s often said that sport only exists because of its fans – but rarely is that as literally true as in Chile’s small but vibrant ice hockey community. The South American country only has two permanent rinks, and just a handful of registered players, but for the devotees who came to the annual Copa Invernada tournament in Punta Arenas, there’s no other sport like it.

The game used to be bigger in the south: in Punta Arenas, the capital of Chilean Patagonia, down on the Magellan Strait, it used to be an outdoor ritual each winter. Global warming put paid to that, and until the recent opening of a rink in the city’s shopping mall, the game was almost dead. Now, though, it is reviving, despite a rink with a leaky roof, wonky boards and no Zamboni. Between games, it’s a bucket-and-hose job to smooth over the ice as best as possible while locals head to the soft play or food court nearby.

The rink at a shopping mall in Punta Arenas.

Once hockey was an outdoor sport here – until global warming interfered. “When I was a kid, we’d go out and play pond hockey in the winter,” said Mauricio Vieytes, a sportswear importer who describes himself as a promoter for the game. “But then it started to change, the winters were warmer and there was no ice in the city. When they finally opened this place, a whole generation of kids had never seen natural ice.”

Vieytes and his colleagues are proud of life at the Southernmost permanent ice rink in the world. At last, Punta Arenas has a chance to capture a young audience and teach them to love the game.

Action as Kotaix Punta Arenas (red) take on the Port Stanley Wolverines in the youth tournament at the Copa Invernada.

Ricardo Matus has two children playing for Kotaix, a Punta Arenas team named after an aboriginal demon. As club president, he’s been working to develop youth hockey over the past couple of years and 2016 brought the first ever junior Copa Invernada, part of the winter festival in this town of 130,000 people.

“Recruiting kids isn’t that difficult,” he said. “But it starts with very basic skating skills and builds from that. Some of our kids have been involved for more than a year, and you can see their progress. Every time we have a tournament like this we get more interest and more new players.”

Santiago Yetis celebrate a goal in the Copa Invernada final against NIres Ushuaia.

Online coverage of the big leagues makes top-level hockey accessible in a way it never was when Matus and Vieytes were kids, but one thing that doesn’t change is a lack of opportunity.

“There’s a lot happening now that wasn’t available when I got into the game,” Matus added. “Back then the main issue was finding a place to play, and that’s becoming an issue again because we have to negotiate with the mall to keep this space open. But we need to keep going; there’s real potential if we can keep it moving.”

The game doesn’t just exist in the south, though. Santiago also has its team, the Yetis, and its own international star. It turns out that Leo Messi isn’t the only man whose sporting career has taken him from Buenos Aires to Barcelona –ice hockey player Ralph Henke made a similar journey.

Ralph Henke on the Yetis’ bench during the Copa Invernada final against Nires Ushuaia of Argentina.

It all started with a cartoon, and led him to try his luck in Europe before landing in Santiago, Chile, to play for the Yetis.

“You won’t believe it, but the first time I saw hockey was this random cartoon on TV, some kind of Disney thing with Goofy and all those guys playing ice hockey,” said Ralph Henke of the Santiago Yetis. “I just went crazy for it.”

Henke was fortunate. His family lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but has roots in Germany. By pestering an uncle back in Europe, young Ralph was able to follow the game. “He used to play and I started asking him all about it. He got me my first plastic stick, I found a pair of roller skates and played on the streets.” Later that passion took him to Europe and stints playing league hockey for Eintracht Frankfurt and Barcelona’s B team – “people couldn’t believe there was a hockey player from Latin America” – before he came to Santiago and joined the Yetis.

Santiago might be Chile’s largest city, but it has just one rink, tucked away in the corner of a car park under a shopping mall. The café offers a free skate with your burger and the décor is more jelly-and-ice-cream than Stanley Cup. As a result, developing the game is slow – something Henke would love to change. “When people come to the rink it’s a once-a-year thing, like a birthday party or something,” he said. “We need to change that so kids can try hockey and see what a fantastic sport it is.”

Tournament details

Copa Invernada, Zona Franca ice rink, Punta Arenas, Chile

July 6-10, 2016

Adult competition: 1. Santiago Yetis; 2. Nires Ushuaia; 3. Port Stanley Penguins.

Junior competition: 1. Port Stanley Wolverines; 2. Escuela Manuel Bulnes; 3. Port Stanley Bombers.

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