Hockey Night in Mexico

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:49 AM ET

"Hello and welcome to the Lomas Verdes Arena in Mexico City, the temperature is 20C for tonight's hockey game between South Africa and Ireland.

"There's no room for Eire after its 1-0 loss to Luxembourg, while Armenia faces Mexico later today ..."

Imagine Danny Gallivan reciting that intro, never mind Don Cherry doing Coaches Corner in a plaid sombrero. But if the malnourished hockey fan cared to look south this week -- 1,500 kilometres from the home of the Dallas Stars, to be exact -- they would see the five most diverse, developing nations in the International Ice Hockey Federation battle in a 3,000-seat rink at the Division III world championship.

"This will be an adventure for everyone," said Irish coach Jim Graves, whose team ranks 44th in the IIHF, one spot ahead of last-place Armenia and behind South Africa (38), Mexico (41) and Luxembourg (42).

Graves, born in Gimli, Man., is one of many Canadian connections in this tournament, which runs today through March 13. His roster includes Irish-born Canadian Garreth McNeill and a pro tennis coach from Toronto, Larry Jurovich, who has an Irish passport. Kevin Kelly has been working hard as a rent-a-goalie on both sides of the Atlantic, anticipating a lot of pucks in Mexico.

Last week, Brendan Shanahan of the Red Wings told the Sun he's interested in managing a future Irish entry stocked with Canadian-trained players.

CANADIAN INFLUENCES

The Armenians and South Africans also are sprinkled with Canadian influences. Yet the Mexicans could have the best talent pipeline to the north and are favoured to win here and advance to the B pool next year.

Their coach is Joaquin De La Garma, who once attended a private school in Toronto, makes frequent visits to procure used NHL equipment for novice Mexican players, knows Mike Gartner and learned bench strategy from Toronto's Rick Cornacchia.

"Rick (who coached Team Canada at the world juniors and the Oshawa Generals, among others) was my mentor," De La Garma said on the phone from Mexico. "Rick ran a coaching clinic here and I attended some of his at York University."

The middle-aged De La Garma said he has played hockey since he was 11, in the first indoor rink ever built in Mexico courtesy of the father of the country's current hockey federation president, Alfonso Gomez Haro. De La Garma folded his construction business a few years ago to work full time with the junior and senior hockey programs.

"Hockey is not as big as soccer here, but the people are discovering it and they love the body contact," De La Garma said. "We have a four-team league based around Mexico City that runs from October to March, but some of our younger players have experience in Ontario (with Jr. B teams)."

They include goaltender Alfonso De Alba (Toronto Aeros), Juan Pablo Roberts (Aylmer) and defenceman Daniel Pinciro (Notre Dame, Sask., Hounds).

Sponsors make sure the national team has new equipment, but poorer Mexicans who want to live the hockey fantasy usually just rent helmets, shoulder pads and the like for 25 pesos (about $2 Cdn) and another few pesos for an hour or so of ice.

NOISY CROWD

Tickets at this week's tourney average about $6 and 3,000 are expected for the home team's dates. The Mexican League final usually fills Lomas Verdes with a noisy, soccer-type crowd. Fighting only came to prominence in the past few years, after some Anaheim Mighty Ducks' farmhands dropped the gloves during a tour.

"The crowd went crazy," De La Garma recalled. "I don't like fighting , but hockey is hockey."

However, with strict IIHF rules in place, don't look for any Baja Bullies to emerge this week.

De La Garma shrewdly scheduled exhibition games against Central Hockey League teams in Texas to better prepare for this week.

"I think they lost by a lot, but just that experience gives them a big advantage," Graves said in sizing up the field. "Luxembourg is mostly formed from a club team, the Luxembourg Torpedoes, which plays in a second-division German league. South Africa is a team of mystery, but we know they have some Canadian-trained players and that there's a good league in both Cape Town and Johannesburg. They were in the B Pool with Luxembourg until last year.

"We beat Armenia 15-1 in last year's tournament in Iceland, but our biggest problem is our players are split between Dublin and Belfast and we don't get the practice time or the game situations we need. We tend to take silly penalties as a result."

"There's a lot of fight in these boys," Graves said. "They put that green sweater on and they feel the passion. I'm sure it's the same for all teams."


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