Holiday on ice for Mexicans

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:06 AM ET

Your first reaction is probably that they're going in the wrong direction.

Given a choice, most folks at this time of year would opt for a southerly migration to the warm shores and frozen drinks of Mexico.

Not the Pumas of Mexico City, who, for the seventh year, have made their way northward to spend a week in Ottawa. In February.

And they love it.

The Pumas of Mexico City, a couple of minor hockey teams, are in town for a week to play teams around the region.

Last night, they were in Cumberland at the Ray Friel Centre to play the novice house league Cumberland Cyclones and the Atom Cumberland Snipers in the Mexi-Cana Hockey Challenge.

"They have been waiting all year long to do this trip," said Rosa Llano, the director general of Mexican minor hockey. "They know this is a place where hockey is the most important thing. They enjoy being here and that's why they want to come here, to experience a place where hockey is important."

CHANCE MEETING

The concept of the Mexi-Cana Challenge was born as a result of a chance meeting between Llano (whose son wound up as the captain of the Mexican national junior team, yes, there is such a thing) and Michel Charron, the former Hull Olympiques assistant coach and colour analyst on Ottawa Senators broadcasts on CJRC.

They met at a hockey tournament in suburban Montreal in 1997 where their sons were playing.

The Mexicans wanted to bring some kids to Canada for a hockey school and Charron made the arrangements.

When the Mexicans wanted to get their minor hockey better organized on a national level, they consulted Charron.

He coached the junior team at the world championships in Division Three (the lowest level) in 1999 and kept in contact with them. He took a six-month sabbatical to help them organize their national program.

Mexico won the Division Three world junior championship last month over New Zealand in Mexico City.

Charron said it's important for the young kids' development to get exposure to the level of competition they experienced last night.

"It gets them more into a hockey mentality," he said. "In Mexico, hockey is just another sport. The national sport is soccer."

"It's growing slowly," said Llano. There are about 2,300 minor hockey players in Mexico with most of them playing out of the five rinks in Mexico City. There about 10 rinks total in the country.

The kids got a chance to practise at the Corel Centre Wednesday as a warmup for last night's action.

The novice Pumas lost 5-0 to the Cyclones in the first game last night.

"It was exciting," said little Pumas goaltender Jorge Nikaido Licona, who faced the onslaught. At one point he wound up being knocked deep into his net by another wave of Cyclones attackers.

"I was a little nervous." Pumas coach David Navarro Ventura said, using Llano as an interpreter. He said the Mexican teams need to work on their positioning and skating.

"It was a good game because it gave us a chance to learn," he said.

After the game, he brought all the players to the bench, sat them down and had a conversation with each of them until organizers shooed them off to their dressing room.

"When you have young players, it's important when you lose to explain what happened and why you lost," he said.

In the nightcap, the Pumas played the Snipers tough and it took a Cumberland goal with five minutes left in the game to decide it, 2-1 in favour of the hosts.

The Pumas are off to Stittsville tonight to play at 5:30 and 6:50 p.m. at the Stittsville Community Centre. There's also going to be a game on an outdoor rink in Gatineau Sunday.

The Pumas played outdoors last year after Charron got the idea watching the Heritage Classic, the outdoor game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers.

The game was a huge hit with the Mexican and Canadian kids alike.

Did we mention that for many of the visitors, this is their first time seeing snow, never mind skating on natural ice? And they've made a bunch of new friends.


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