In a country not known for its winter sports, or winter for that matter, ice hockey seems to be the new rising star. Reminiscent of the famous Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 Calgary Olympics, the El Castillo Knights ice hockey team is taking the spotlight and defying the tropical heat.
Despite a lack of snow-covered slopes and icy temperatures, Costa Rica has been represented at a number of Winter Olympics by its downhill skiing team. Now, ice hockey is building interest with both locals and expatriates. The Knights cut up the ice at the only ice skating rink in Central America, installed in 1982 at the Castillo Country Club in San Rafael de Heredia, north of San José.
The man with the plan was, and still is, Canadian-born Bruce Callow, attributed to have founded ice hockey in Costa Rica in 1996. The political and public affairs officer for the British Embassy is head coach of the Knights, and continues to support the sport he brought to the tropics.
Having visited Costa Rica in 1988 and 1989, Callow volunteered with various nongovernmental organizations in Nicaragua before moving permanently to Costa Rica in 1992. Like so many before him, he planned to stay a year but found himself delaying his departure.
“I came back to Costa Rica in 1992, planning to spend a year here, traveling, studying Spanish and teaching English,” Callow told The Tico Times. “But it turned out to be a little longer.”
Having been introduced to ice hockey at the age of 7, Callow missed his home country’s favorite sport here in the tropics.
“We played on outdoor rinks back in (my childhood), and I still love skating on rivers and lakes whenever I’m up in Canada in the winter,” he comments nostalgically. “Hockey has always been a big part of my life, and it was one of the things I missed most living in Costa Rica. So when I had the chance to play it again I jumped at it.”
Ever grateful of the positive values he learned from team sports, Callow expresses faith in the widespread virtues of ice hockey.
“I had the benefit of some great coaching; winning was important, but having fun and teamwork was even more so,” he says. “I was taught to love the game, and all the players on those teams got equal ice time.”
Callow claims that “ice hockey is growing all over the world, from South America to Australia to the Persian Gulf. It’s a fast and exciting game that attracts people, and despite the relatively small number of people who play it here in Costa Rica, we have kept it alive for 10 years.”
The sport has come a long way since the first official game was played in Costa Rica on April 30, 1996. In the beginning, three programs were established, with the Castillo Country Club program emerging in 1997 and continuing, with the exception of one year, ever since.
Callow humorously recalls ice hockey’s humble beginnings in Costa Rica at the Real Cariari shopping center in 1996.
“They had a synthetic ice surface in the middle of the food court and were happy for a hockey-hungry Canuck to start a hockey program with them,” he recalls. “The rink was long and thin, and the pucks would sometimes fly off into the food court while people were eating. It was a bit of an unusual and potentially hazardous scene, but we didn’t register any fatalities.”
He later worked at another synthetic rink in a converted warehouse in Santa Ana, southwest of San José, since closed for financial reasons, despite passionate support from the people who played there.
Callow will be the first to tell you that ice hockey has an undeserved reputation as a violent sport.
“People often think that hockey is a violent game. It’s a rough game, but that aspect is promoted too much,” he says. “I have no patience for goons who are just out to hurt people, and who need to cover up their lack of ability through violence.”
The El Castillo Knights coach says he gained leadership experience for coaching from serving as captain of his hockey team back in Calgary. With classes instructed by him and fellow Canadian Kevin Darichuk, the Castillo ice hockey season lasts March through December, with players ranging in age from 6 to 15.
“We used to have some pretty good pickup games with the expat community at the rinks in Real Cariari and Santa Ana, but the program at the Castillo Club, which is a private club, is focused on the youth team,” Callow explains.
At times the team has consisted of both female and male players, some of whom have gone on to act as assistant coaches.
“We are planning a busy year of activities for 2007, including clinics, trips and exhibition games,” Callow says. “Some strong veterans this year could easily play competitively in their age group in Canada.”
The name “The Knights” gels well with the Castillo Club image, Callow says, in that it “fits in well with the style of our team at the Castillo Club – which actually has a real castle – and it also fits the gentlemanly style of hockey we play.”
The castle he speaks of is on the grounds of the club and was the residence of a European count in the 1800s.
Drawing attention from all over the globe, the program in Costa Rica has received a visit from the Vancouver Flying Pirates team, trained with the Canadian women’s Olympic team in Calgary and won a Challenge Series tournament in Mexico. Boosted dramatically by a grant from the North American National Hockey League Players’ Association’s Goals and Dreams Fund, the Castillo program looks good to continue for many years yet.
“The recent visit by the president of the Costa Rican Olympic Committee, Jorge Nery, to the Castillo hockey program ranks as a high point,” Callow says of the official’s visit in March.
He also recalls fondly a Canada Day game at the Santa Ana rink in 2000, with former Canadian Ambassador to Costa Rica Denis Thibault and a Mountie (a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer) in full dress costume.
“That was a great day,” he beams.
Emphasizing the importance of youth in up-and-coming sports such as ice hockey in Costa Rica, Callow claims that his greatest achievement has been being able to play with his two sons, Kenneth, 11, and Tony, 8, both born here in Costa Rica.
“They are getting better each year and are growing up in Costa Rica with this Canadian tradition,” he says with pride.
When it comes to the future of ice hockey in the tropics, Callow has high ambitions for public interest in the fast-rising sport.
“I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface in terms of the potential for growing ice hockey in Costa Rica,” he says. “My dream is to expand the rink at the Castillo Club, and there is a project on the drawing board for this.We get some good crowds at the ice rink checking out the practices and games – many people have never seen an ice rink before, which is part of the attraction.”
The Castillo Country Club ice rink is open only to club members, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends; coaching sessions are on Saturdays. For more information, visit the Knights’ Web site at www.costaricaicehockey.com, call 203-3439 or e-mail [email protected].