Puerto Rico Hockey’s Rapid Rise

When Puerto Rico Ice Hockey debuted, they had 11 players. Four of them had the last name Vargas.

“It was me, my two brothers, and my father,” said Scott Vargas, founder of the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association (PRIHA). 

Scott Vargas and his team first played in Puerto Rican colors at the 2019 Amerigol LATAM Cup, an annual exhibition tournament for Latin American hockey teams. In May 2020, Scott Vargas officially organized Puerto Rico Ice Hockey under PRIHA, and began grassroots recruiting efforts. 

Just 27 months later, the association boasts over 200 players. Six Puerto Rican teams, and three Caribbean teams, will travel to the 2022 LATAM Cup. PRIHA will send over 130 players to represent their heritage on the ice, at the Florida Panther’s Ice Den in Coral Springs.

PRIHA’s mission is “to foster and promote the sport of hockey in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Latin America, and beyond.”

Following Puerto Rican National Olympic Committee guidelines, players eligible to compete for Puerto Rico Hockey fall into one of three categories: players born in Puerto Rico, players with Puerto Rican heritage, or players with full-time residency in Puerto Rico.

According to Scott Vargas, most PRIHA members have heritage, and live in the 50 United States. Nearly six million Puerto Ricans live in the continental U.S., with three million on the island of Puerto Rico. Cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia are hotbeds for Puerto Rican culture, and players in those areas want new ways to represent their national identity.

“Puerto Ricans are a prideful group of people, and they want new ways to tap into their background, their history, and their family,” said Scott Vargas.

In Buffalo, NY, a Puerto Rican Hockey player named Hector Vargas saw the association as an opportunity to represent his national pride. 

(Hector Vargas training in Buffalo)

Hector Vargas plays CHF hockey for the University at Buffalo. He found Puerto Rico Hockey through a suggested Instagram post. Six months later, he and his two brothers are traveling to South Florida to compete in the 2022 LATAM Cup. His parents and sister will be in the stands. 

With paternal grandparents born in Puerto Rico, Hector Vargas grew up with Hispanic culture, language, and food. The opportunity for him to play international hockey was special.

“The first time holding that jersey, with the flag on it, it was very humbling,” said Hector Vargas. “I see guys I admire, like Yadier Molina and Marcus Stroman… and we play for the same pride and it’s awesome.”

Hector Vargas first played in Puerto Rican colors in March 2022, at the inaugural Amerigol Spring Classic. The Dallas Stars opened their facilities to Latin American teams.  It was a welcome opportunity for players to showcase hockey for their countries.

Puerto Rico advanced to the championship game. They fell to a talented Argentina Team in the Finals.

(Hector Vargas receiving a silver medal in Dallas)

The Spring Classic became Amerigol’s second annual event, and it featured a second NHL partner. The Dallas Stars joined the Florida Panthers in supporting the growth of Latin American Hockey. They brightened the spotlight on players from Puerto Rico and other nations. 

Fans arrived in droves to wave their flags. Hector Vargas said the atmosphere in Dallas was “electric,” and the media attention was “surreal.” NHL.com and Bleacher Report published multiple reports of the events.

Alongside international tournaments, organizations like PRIHA often take matters into their own hands to recruit and develop players.

The Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association hosted its inaugural Serie de Primavera in May 2022. The Chicago event brought 105 Puerto Rican players together. It included 32 hours of on-ice activities, and eight exhibition games with local Chicago teams. The four-day camp attracted over 200 fans from the community.

(Scott Vargas [left] in Chicago)

“This really validated what we’ve done over the last two years. We knew we had the membership growth, but we finally got the engagement,” said Scott Vargas. 

Scott Vargas said events like the Serie de Primavera allow PRIHA to grow the game in a different way. It allowed them to tap into different demographics, many of which had limited exposure to hockey, especially Puerto Rican hockey.

PRIHA’s members almost universally share a story of desire to play hockey for their nation. Before founding the association, Scott Vargas searched for an avenue to play Puerto Rican hockey, but saw “no progress.” He saw a “clear energy but a lack of structure,” which inspired him to establish PRIHA in 2020.

Puerto Rico’s first appearance, at the 2019 LATAM Cup, allowed its original players to achieve their goal of playing international hockey. Growth and success came quickly, and PRIHA sent five teams to the 2021 Cup. The top men’s team won silver, and the women won gold.

In 2022, PRIHA continues to expand. They filled six teams for the 2022 LATAM Cup. For the first time, each team has a manager and coaching staff. PRIHA’s board of directors, committees, and advisory board allows President Scott Vargas to lighten his load. In 2021, he ran all five Puerto Rican teams while competing on the ice.

“I think Puerto Rico is the most prepared program, as far as youth, women’s, and men’s… every team has a full roster. I think we’re going to compete for a medal in every division,” said Hector Vargas.

To succeed, Scott Vargas’ philosophy revolves around “professionalism, accountability, and responsibility.” He said, “If we give 100%, the rest falls into place.”

Off the ice, Scott Vargas hopes to expand the association’s reach. He expressed a vision of one day hosting an event in Puerto Rico itself, fostering the next generation of Puerto Rican players. He’s proud to “be a part of history,” and build something bigger than himself. 

Despite the hours of dedication and labor to grow Puerto Rican hockey, the members are determined to reach their ultimate goal. They aim to join the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and compete on the “main international stage.”

Scott Vargas applauded the ambition of PRIHA’s members, “they want to keep climbing higher.” 

The 2022 Amerigol LATAM Cup takes place at the Florida Panther’s Ice Den, September 14-18. 

Free livestreams for every game are available on HockeyTV.com.

For more information about PRIHA, its mission, and its annual events, visit puertoricoicehockey.com

Author: TantaloTakes.com

Ryan Tantalo - University at Buffalo Student, Journalist, Hockey Announcer, Broadcaster

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