It comes as no surprise to anyone living in Canada that hockey reigns supreme. Throughout the cooler seasons, arenas all over the country are filled with hockey teams for tournaments and games. Those same arenas can be found with beer league games for adults almost nightly. As soon as temperatures fall below freezing and our soccer fields become skating rinks, children fill the rinks from the minute school ends to the second dinner is ready. Even during the summer months, kids set up pick-up games on dead-end roads so that they won’t be moving the nets for cars too often. Arenas stay open year round, and throughout the summer one can find both young and old hockey players preparing for next year’s seasons. With all due respect to lacrosse, hockey is without question Canada’s game.
But what about the rest of the world? Generally speaking, we know that Russia, the United States, and the Scandinavian countries have also been bitten by the hockey bug. Are there other countries that are catching on to the sport?
I had the opportunity to sit down with Frank Gonzalez, a Council Member for the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the President of the Spanish Ice Sports Federations (FEDH). Gonzalez explained that although the IIHF hosts about 32 World Championships every year, it is not the sole purpose of the Federation.
“Our main objective is for ice hockey to develop all over the world. We are the only international federation that puts a lot of money into development. [We focus on] developing all of our countries, as we are a global organization. We have 75 nations as members, and we could have pretty close to 100 very soon.”
It may come as a surprise to some that there are 75 countries around the world that play hockey at any level. Europe has the biggest grouping of hockey-playing countries, but what other countries are playing?
“We have many countries in the Asian continent, and also South America that want to come into the organization, but we do have a criteria to accept members. They can be an associate member or a member with a right to vote. To be able to vote, you have to take part in the world championships, and to participate you have to meet the criteria.”
Gonzalez has been serving as the Spanish delegate to IIHF congresses since 1991, and has been on the IIHF council since 2003. Being part of the Federation for so long, he has an idea of which hockey regions are developing at high speeds.
“I think Asia is number one. Right now, we have many teams in Asia that are preparing to take the step to be able to compete in our Championship program. They are investing a lot of money, and China wants to get the Winter Olympics of 2020 as well, and I think that will be a strong step for Asia, especially China, to prepare for that event. Just like South Korea, who are ready to compete, but they really have to step up and build up their programs.”
As he is representing Spain, Gonzalez knows very well how well hockey is developing in Spain and surrounding European countries.
“On the European side, there are many countries that want to make that step, but cannot move forward because of financial issues. Take Spain, for example. We lack the culture and tradition, but we have many players who are leaving the country to study in Canada, the US, and European countries where hockey is the number one sport. This year we have about 10 players who will come back and join our National team, who are all the age of 20 and 21, so we will have a very young team.”
Spain has been bouncing back and forth from Division 2A and 2B while participating in World Championships, and Gonzalez has high hopes for the future of hockey in Spain.
“We started a development program in Spain in 2007. From 2007 to 2014, we have been scaling the world ranking from number 36 to 30, so we have been developing quite nicely. Last year we won Division 2B, and this year we will be competing in Division 2A Championship in Iceland. All of our other teams, including our Women’s team, are in Division 2B.”
In a country where soccer, basketball, European handball and water polo all reign supreme, promoting a different sport is an uphill battle, but Gonzalez feels that it is a challenge worth pursuing.
“I think we’re in the right process, because we have noticed a change over the last five years in players as young as 15. They have better skills, and they are getting faster and stronger. Our main goal is to get to Division 1 in the next two years. I think we need time, and we need the money. We are currently in an economic crisis, but we are still there. I would say a big jump will come in the next five years.”
Gonzalez’s son, Pol, left Barcelona to play hockey in Ontario, and is currently studying at Concordia University while playing on the Concordia Stingers Men’s Varsity hockey team. He will be one of 10 players studying abroad who will return to represent Spain in this year’s Division 2A World Championships. Frank is hoping that in the future, players will be able to continue developing their hockey skills without having to leave Spain.
“The goal is to make it so players don’t have to leave the country to develop. This will happen when we have the facilities, and that our tradition and culture changes a bit. We are still a nation in a warm climate that still cater to the soccer players and basketball players. I think it’s good. Our players get a feel for what hockey really is, especially in countries like Canada, Finland and Sweden.
“The seed is there, we just have to move slowly about it to make sure we don’t lose the teams we already have, as well as the arenas that we have. That’s the problem we have in Spain; they will be changed to a bowling alley.”
Hockey is a game that is still rapidly developing in regions all over the world. The IIHF’s goal is to make sure that countries interested in playing hockey have all the resources and assistance available to promote the game.
“The IIHF is a hockey family, and that includes the NHL, KHL and other organizations. Hockey is now a small world; wherever we go, as far as New Zealand or Malaysia, there is hockey being played that nobody has heard of. Even Mexico and Argentina are playing hockey.”
Although hockey is still developing in other countries, Gonzalez has no doubts about where hockey stands in Canada.
“Hockey is the game of Canada. For everything they do, how they love the game, how their culture is really embedded in their tradition. I think hockey will continue to grow in Canada, and that is the main objective for the IIHF. We are looking for continued grown, and the more youngsters that get into the game, the better it is for our game and for the character of the players.”