That’s right… Ice Hockey… In Costa Rica!
Certainly known for special and amazing experiences, but not your typical hot bed for ice hockey, Costa Rica just quietly held its first ever international Ice Hockey tournament. This unlikely tournament was the long time dream of the ex-pat & Calgary native, Bruce Callow, who more than two decades ago brought the sport of hockey to Costa Rica.
“It was a great feeling to help bring this event to life. It was a mixture of a lot of emotions being both a player and an organizer.” said founder and tournament organizer Bruce Callow who recently celebrated the 20 year anniversary of this program.
With support from the NHLPA (NHL Players Association) Goals and Dreams Fund, Bruce was able to keep this program moving forward from its humble beginnings on synthetic ice to moving into the El Castillo Country Club where they now have a rink about half the size of a normal NHL rink. It is also where I had the fortune to meet Bruce two years ago when, impressed by his endeavor and totally excited that there was hockey in Central America, I organized a fundraiser for the program. With contributions from my teammates and friends and leveraging my relationship at a local hockey store, we raised $1500 in just 2 days. I was able to buy sticks, helmets, pucks, tape, water bottles etc and bring them down to Costa Rica to donate to the program. Meeting Bruce and spending time with the kids and adults in the program was a great experience and I knew then and there they had something special.
El Castillo is now home to The Castillo Knights who have, against all odds, put together a solid program that fielded a tournament team their country could be proud of. The team was composed of founder Bruce Callow, captained by the formidable former OHLer Aurelio Cence, with players like the veteran Mike Mirtl, young speedster David Aviles, Robert Vinet, Anthony Callow, Jorge Castiglione, Mariano Finizio and backstopped by the talented and promising goaltender Franklin Ordenez.
Going forward, this tournament will be instrumental in continuing to move the program forward. To be able to be a part of it was something I will remember and cherish forever! In fact, the majority of the participants could agree that it was an incredibly unique opportunity to play hockey abroad and be a part of helping this young hockey program grow there. I think I speak for all of us when I say this tournament was the highlight of our recreational league “careers.” Teams from Calgary, Canada, Los Angeles, USA and the Falkland Islands came to participate in this thrilling inaugural tournament. Without the dedication and hospitality of the organizers this never could have happened.
The Tournament took place the weekend of November 18th-19th, 2017. Most of the teams arrived in Costa Rica a few days before the tournament to enjoy the exotic and popular vacation destination before turning their attention to the upcoming tournament. With 4 games in just two days they would not only have a difficult challenge, physically speaking, but would also have to adapt to the smaller ice surface, no glass along the boards and 3 vs 3 tournament format.
All in all the tournament was a huge success. In a flurry of activity, each team playing two games a day, all teams battled for every inch of ice and the games were quite close. Speak with any tournament organizer and they will tell you that when organizing a tournament with unknown teams from different locations, let alone different countries, it is a challenge to asses team strength and skill and achieve good parity among participating teams. This time, however, the hockey gods smiled upon us and we all agreed the parity was about as close as you can get for a first ever tournament of this nature.
“It was quite an exhausting experience and I am sure the next one will be easier to organize. Having the stands of the rink full of fans cheering for hockey was a surreal and unforgettable experience.” – Bruce Callow
Though all of the games were hotly contested, ultimately the Canadian Citizens from Calgary and Ruination from Los Angeles would face off in an all too familiar USA vs Canada gold medal game. After a hard fought game that would see the lead change multiple times the Calgary Citizens would raise the first ever El Castillo Ice Hockey Tournament trophy after their well deserved 7-5 victory over our US team. I have to say, the trophy could could not have gone to a more classy team. Congratulations on making history boys!
Ultimately, there was a whole other side to this competition that far outweighed the simple concept of who would win and who would lose. (Although as athletes and competitors everyone certainly played their hardest with winning in mind.) It was about something bigger than ourselves or any one team. Being a part of growing the sport so far from home and helping this young program get to the next level was real reason we were all here.
What made this tournament so special for me, for us all, was that we all bought in to this idea and the camaraderie was unlike anything I have experienced in a tournament before. We all came away with new friends from other countries and that in itself speaks volumes for what took place here in Costa Rica.
At the end of the day the Castillo Knights were the big winners. Despite all odds and with limited resources they put together a team that competed above its level against teams significantly more experienced. They were the David to the visiting Goliaths and their heart and tenacity not only won over the fans, many watching live hockey for the first time in their lives, but earned the respect and admiration of us visitors. Additionally, the atmosphere in that club was incredible and contagious as it was easy to get caught up in the excitement and emotion watching the other games. If this first taste of Costa Rican Hockey is any indicator, this program has a bright future!
Hats off to what you have accomplished down in Costa Rica Bruce! We all hope to visit and compete again in Costa Rica in 2018. Thank you for keeping the dream alive all these years and letting us all play a part. That was one hell of a weekend we will not soon forget!
– If you’d like to read more here are some links to other articles about the tournament.