William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past 10 years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the sport. Today, he profiles the Dallas Stars hosting the first Amerigol LATAM Spring Classic tournament March 24-27, featuring teams representing four countries and Puerto Rico.
Al Montoya said he had heard about the Amerigol LATAM Cup and how the seriousness of the hockey is matched by the revelry of the fans at the tournament.
But the Dallas Stars director of community outreach and retired NHL goalie was amazed by what he saw when he attended the tournament hosted by the Florida Panthers at their practice facility in Coral Springs, Florida, in October.
“The action was wonderful, the music, the jerseys, the flags in the stands,” said Montoya, who was the NHL’s first Cuban American player. “I didn’t expect to see all that. I think that’s the beautiful thing about the tournament, the passion the players and the fans put behind it.”
What Montoya saw inspired the Stars to host the first Amerigol LATAM Spring Classic March 24-27 at The Children’s Health StarCenter in Farmers Branch, Texas.
The spring tournament will feature five men’s teams and more than 100 players representing Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
The Stars are providing free ice time, officiating, ground transportation, meals through a local restaurant and supermarket and tickets for the players to watch Dallas host the Vancouver Canucks on March 26.
Hosting the tournament this month and in 2023 is part of the Stars’ ongoing effort to expand hockey within the Hispanic community, which accounts for nearly 42 percent of the population of the city of Dallas, according to recent U.S. Census data.
“This kind of helps us grow the game of hockey,” Montoya said, “and not by us by doing anything, but by these players coming here and having the opportunity to play hockey from Latin America … where hockey is not their traditional sport and where maybe they don’t have ice rinks.
“We have ice rinks, we want to engage with the community, we want to continue to build the game of hockey. Why? Because everyone wins at the end of the day. We get to make our game a better, more rounded game and these players get to experience the game of hockey, which they love.”
Montoya has been Dallas’ community outreach director since September 2021. He became the first Cuban American player in the NHL when he debuted with the Phoenix Coyotes on April 1, 2009. Selected by the New York Rangers with the No. 6 pick in the 2004 NHL Draft, he went 67-49-24 in 168 games (136 starts) with six teams before retiring after the 2017-18 season.
Montoya and Lucas Reid, the Stars’ director of amateur hockey & partnership development, pitched the Spring Classic idea to Amerigol International Hockey Association president Juan Carlos Otero and the LATAM Cup teams at the tournament in October.
Otero said teams have been eager to hold more than one tournament a year to give players from countries with few or no ice rinks more opportunities to play.
With ice unavailable, many of the players compete in inline hockey in their homelands. They usually arrive days ahead of the LATAM Cup tournament to practice on ice and adjust from skating on wheels to steel blades.
“From the beginning, everyone always wanted to have a second (tournament) because as far as playing on ice, the coaches have access to the players once, maybe twice a year,” said Otero, who launched the LATAM Cup in 2018. “So when this opportunity came up, I thought it was great.”
Montoya said the spread of the Omicron COVID variant worldwide late last year slowed down planning for the Spring Classic. But after a decrease in cases ebbed, Stars officials said they were determined to make the tournament a reality.
“These tournaments are like their Stanley Cup,” Montoya said. “When they step into our Dallas Stars facility, we want them to see that this is their tournament, that this is their weekend, whether it’s signage or the music, whatever.”
Sam Uisprapassorn, a coach for Colombia’s national team, said he and his players can’t wait to arrive in Dallas. The Colombian men won the LATAM Cup Division I title in October.
Uisprapassorn said the Spring Classic will be a good tuneup for Colombia as they prepare to play in their first International Ice Hockey Federation-sanctioned tournament, the IIHF Development Cup May 4-7 in Fussen, Germany.
They’ll compete against Algeria, Andorra, Ireland, Liechtenstein and North Macedonia in the tournament for national teams whose associations are IIHF members but don’t participate in world championships. Colombia has been an IIHF associate member since Sept. 26, 2019.
“The Spring Classic is a win-win for all the countries, for all the federations, and for the NHL teams that have been gracious to host us,” Uisprapassorn said. “I think the Panthers have done a phenomenal job in what they’ve done, and I expect that the Stars will follow suit.
“And it’s really helpful when we have a champion like we do in Al Montoya, someone that really understands our culture being Latino and he understands our culture being a hell of a hockey player as well.”
Photos: Courtesy BC Photos, Dallas Stars