I don’t like to run. Never really have, probably never will. I have traumatizing memories about running from my youth. The first was probably the run around the block in grade school. Then little league baseball when coach said to “hurry up waddle ass” (probably a compliment to my full rear) from then it was running ‘the fence’ in high school and god, oh god, the beep test. I hated the beep test. You had to run between two points to the sound of beeps on a cassette and the beeps just kept getting closer together until you were exhausted and had to stop because you couldn’t make it back to the line in time. Misery.
These are my thoughts as my feet heavily pound on the ground. They are clumsy, awkward and don’t spring me up or forward, they just hammer back on the pavement requiring great effort for the next step. I’m running on the boardwalk in Calafate dodging broken glass, stray dogs and wiping profuse sweat from my brow. So why am I enjoying this run so much? Because there is a purpose, a greater goal, joy waiting on the other end. Hockey. The South American tournaments were only days away and the misery of running was crushed by the excitement of playing hockey on another continent.
I walked through the glass doors of the IceZone in Punta Arenas and flopped my hockey gear on the tiled floor. The rink was small with clear plexiglass boards and netting hanging all around. Workmen on lifts were putting the finishing touches on hanging the netting while several Chilean kids clung to the boards trying to get hold of the concept of ice skating. A couple teenage boys skated around the middle of the ice, quickly, awkwardly and dangerously out of control trying to impress the on looking girls with their haphazard moves. The rafters above the ice surface were constructed of beautiful exposed wood and the ‘smell’ of cold hung in the air.
I glanced around to see if there were any other players about. This was the first night of practice for the Nordicos (the Chilean team from Punta Arenas) and the Ghetto Blasters (the ‘Canadian’ Team made up of two Canadians, two Germans, a Chilean and an Argentine). Not knowing what to expect I trotted around excitedly to check out the facility and to see if I could find anybody. Once I was on the other side of the rink I saw the team enter from a distance. It was undoubtedly a hockey team: travelling in a pack, giant bags in tow and faces that lit up when they saw the ice. I strolled over and introduced myself to my new team of Facebook acquaintances and thus began the beginning of my South American hockey experience.
We dressed in cramped locker room about the size of a kitchen. Guys kept rolling in and it was handshake after handshake, forgotten and mispronounced name after name. But it didn’t matter, we were all there for one purpose and that was to play hockey. The guys joked around in Spanish, teased each other and checked out the beer girl calendar on the wall. I may have been thousands of miles from home, but the atmosphere couldn’t have been more familiar. There was some nervous excitement in the air and I couldn’t wait to get on the ice after not skating for five months. Hockey in July. Awesome.
We hit the ice and skated a few laps. A little rusty, but nothing that caused too much embarrassment. The ice was choppy after public skate and there was distinct lack of ice in the corners. Apparently the cooling system didn’t run beyond the boards and thus the corners were too warm to sustain ice. They would later be filled with snow updating their hazard rating from ‘certain death’ to ‘guaranteed injury’. The Chileans held a decent skill set – some were good shooters, others good skaters or puck handlers, but for the most part they were beginners eager to learn the game. Here in Punta Arenas they have only been playing hockey for one and a half seasons, so there is still much work required to learn the game. The guys worked hard, asked lots of questions and made progress on their skills. It was obvious that they were excited to have guests and they were in awe of the Germans shooting and puck handling abilities. Afterwards, beer, a sandwich and bed. It was a great night and for the next two weeks plenty of hockey to come.
Opening Ceremonies were the next night followed by the opening game – Ghetto Blasters vs. CAU from Ushuaia, Argentina. There were 600 people in the stands that first night. I’ve played in front of 600 people before, but that’s from 30 years of hockey at 20 people a year (and most of the time the ‘fans’ were my parents). The opening ceremony spoke to the importance of the tournament for the sport in Chile. The ceremony was complete with introductions, national anthems and speeches from the dignitaries. Adding to the excitement was the television broadcast team, announcers, blaring music and an excited crowd that had no clue about the rules and didn’t quite know when to cheer – but they loved to watch goals and they loved it when people crashed. It was electric.
A few minutes into the first the puck landed on my stick. I was striding toward the net, the goaltender way out of position and not a defender in sight. I gripped the stick and shot the puck into the yawning cage. It is always a great feeling to score a goal. I didn’t really celebrate or do much (when you score as much as I do it kinda become old…ha ha). I skated back towards the faceoff and then one of the others players caught up and was really excited saying great goal, great goal. I glanced up and saw the rest of the team hanging over the boards from the bench looking for high fives, giant smiles and fists pumping in the air. At that moment I realized I had just scored the first goal in Chilean international ice hockey history!
After the game there were fans lined up wanting pictures and autographs from the players. At first I stooped to get into the pictures with the short South Americans. For once I was tall, and wearing skates I towered over them. After bending down to get into several photos I paused and thought, ‘when am I ever going to have a chance to feel this tall again?’ I stood there tall and proud having played before a great crowd who loved the hockey game. It felt strange to receive superstar treatment for something that I’m average at in my home country, but I guess in South America I’m a superstar.
We went on to win the game handily, and several others after that. As the week wore on the Chilean team built their skills and knowledge. This was important as the next week the Ghetto Blasters and Los Nordicos would combine to represent Chile for the first time ever in International competition. We would play in Ushuaia, Argentina against teams from Brazil, Buenos Aires, and Ushuaia. The competition would be more skilled and playing on Olympic sized ice would be a bigger challenge. The ‘Canadian team’ the Ghetto Blasters went on to win the tournament. As we paraded the giant trophy around the ice passing it back and forth like Lord Stanley’s cup I spied a Canadian flag waving in the crowd and stopped to say hi. They reached through the mesh to touch my hand like a crazed Michael Jackson fan meeting the King of Pop. At that moment I felt great pride for my country and for the game that we love so much.
The entire week was an incredible event. Alejandro Traba and the guys from Los Nordicos deserve huge credit for putting together such an amazing tournament and being such great hosts. All week long there were stories in the newspapers, on TV, radio and the web talking about the excitement of the tournament. I hope that the event goes a long way in getting the community excited and involved with the game.
After that first night we went out with the Chilean team. We talked hockey, swilled beers and relived the game like it was the’72 Summit Series (although few of the Chileans would know the significance of that event). Feeling tired and tipsy after too many Heineken I went back to the place and flipped on the TV. There we were playing hockey. I watched the whole game over again. I couldn’t stop smiling thinking about my day in the big leagues.