Editor’s note: The NHL is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs through Oct. 15, by highlighting the history and growing impact of Hispanics at all levels of the game. Today, we look at how far the game has come in the Hispanic community.
The goalie for Hamilton College, an NCAA Division III school in Clinton, New York, has Cuban and American flags on the back plate of his mask to honor his mother, who came to the United States from the Caribbean island nation.
« It honors my heritage as a whole, » said Negron, a senior from Mahwah, New Jersey. « It’s really me trying to stay in touch with my roots, where both my parents come from, their lineage and what my grandparents went through to make this all happen. »
Hockey has come a long way since Bill Guerin became the NHL’s first player of Hispanic descent when he made his debut with the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 20, 1992.
From ice level to the front office to the NHL and its clubs launching Spanish language media channels, the Hispanic community has had a profound history and is having a growing impact on the League and hockey at all levels, on and off the ice.
« It shows the excitement of this game to Hispanics, and we will come, » said former NHL goalie Al Montoya, who became the League’s first Cuban-American player when he was selected by the New York Rangers with the No. 6 pick of the 2004 NHL Draft. « And it’s only going to grow. With [Toronto Maple Leafs center] Auston Matthews having that Mexican background, with people in leadership positions now, you’re going to see this largest minority in the United States, hopefully, flock to hockey. »
Matthews, who finished third in the NHL with 47 goals and was ninth with 80 points in 70 games in 2019-20, is the son of a Mexican mother and American father and was raised in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Alex Meruelo, the son of Cuban immigrants, became the NHL’s first Hispanic majority owner when he took over the Arizona Coyotes on July 29, 2019.
The Coyotes made history again on June 8, 2019 when they hired Xavier A. Gutierrez, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, as the NHL’s first Hispanic team president and CEO.
Like Meruelo, Gutierrez is on a mission to grow more Hispanic hockey fans in the valley.
« We are going to focus both on the hockey fans, the rabid, passionate hockey fans, and also the hockey fans in waiting, » Gutierrez told host Anson Carter on « Hockey Culture » on NBC Sports. « And to me, that’s young people, female fans and that’s Latino fans, given the fact that 40 percent of this community is Latino. »
Guerin, the son of a Nicaraguan mother and an American father, retired following the 2009-10 season. He scored 856 points (429 goals, 427 assists) in 1,263 games in 18 seasons and won the Stanley Cup as a player with the Devils in 1995 and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, and as an assistant general manager with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017.
But he continues his hockey legacy as the general manager of the Minnesota Wild. He became the NHL’s first general manager of Hispanic descent on Aug. 21, 2019.
Hockey’s Hispanic reach isn’t limited to the NHL. A small but growing number of Hispanic players are playing junior or college hockey.
Randy Hernandez, a Miami-born son of Cuban immigrants, is a freshman forward at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. The 21-year-old previously spent two seasons with Brooks in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, and one season each with Sioux City and Lincoln in the USHL and two seasons in USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.
Christian Jimenez, a Sioux City defenseman who made the USHL’s All-Rookie Team in 2019-20, is ranked 184th among North American skaters for the 2020 NHL Draft. The 18-year-old from Yorktown Heights, New York, is committed to play for Harvard University in 2021-22.
Hockey’s reach is also spreading in Latin American countries. The Dallas Stars and Los Angeles Kings separately conducted Learn to Play programs, created by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, for youth in Mexico City in 2019 and 2018, respectively.
Luisa Wilson, 15, became the first Mexican athlete to win a Winter Olympics gold medal as a member of a multinational team that won a three-on-three hockey competition at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, in February.
« It was great for Mexico, » said Joaquin de la Garma, president of the Mexico Ice Hockey Federation. « We got a lot of promotion from the media, especially on the TV and in the newspapers. »
Wilson plays for Mexico’s national women’s team program that de la Garma hopes will someday compete in the Winter Olympics.
Some Mexican women’s players are gaining experience playing in Canada and Finland. Claudia Tellez, a Mexican women’s national team forward, was the first Mexican woman ever drafted in the Canadian Woman’s Hockey League (No. 40, by Calgary, in 2016).
Colombia was among five new countries that joined the International Ice Hockey Federation in September 2019.
Despite being a country without an ice rink, Colombian teams largely stocked with inline hockey players won gold medals at Pan American tournaments in 2015 and 2016.
Colombia was a finalist at the Amerigol LATAM Cup, an ice hockey tournament at the Florida Panthers practice facility in Sunrise, Florida, in September 2019 that featured teams from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Falkland Islands and Jamaica. Jamaica defeated Colombia 3-2 in a shootout in the final.
« Things are growing, even with the pandemic, » said Juan Carlos Otero, one of the Amerigol Cup’s organizers. « Argentina, they’re doing Zoom training classes with the head coach. This is how determined they are in Latin America to continue to improve and not let the fact that they’ve been quarantined get them down or out of shape. »
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