Hockey gaining support in Mexico

HIDALGO, Texas -- The unlikely hockey hotbed of South Texas will be the site of some historic games this weekend when the Mexican national team plays U.S. professional teams for the first time.

The Mexicans will take on minor-league teams in Hidalgo on Friday, Corpus Christi on Saturday and Laredo on Sunday. The games are the latest sign of the hockey craze along the border, where the ongoing NHL lockout is a world away.

"I've been around in the world of minor-league hockey, and this is the best minor-league town I've ever been in," said Laredo Bucks spokesman Joe Dominey, whose team employs bilingual announcers and draws fans from Mexico.

Hockey is also booming south of the border, where soccer and baseball have long been the favored sports.

Mexico coach Joaquin De La Garma, who helped launch the national team in 1992, said nine new hockey rinks have since opened and there are now about 1,000 players in Mexico.

"We are growing quickly," he said.

De La Garma, a former Olympic rower and longtime hockey aficionado, said the team has come a long way since losing every game in its first international tournament in 1997. Last year the team took the bronze in Iceland in Division 3 of the International Ice Hockey Federation, the lowest level of international play.

De La Garma said the Mexicans expect quite a challenge from the South Texas teams, which play in the Central Hockey League and are made up mostly of Canadian, Midwestern and European players.

"It will be a great experience to play here," he said. "It's preparation for the world championship."

Mexico City is hosting the 2005 Division 3 championship.

The South Texas arenas should be full of Mexican fans this weekend, as they typically are.

New teams in Laredo and Hidalgo have been big draws since starting up in the past three years and giving Texas 12 minor-league franchises -- the most of any state.

In addition to sellout crowds, teens in the region are rushing to join junior teams, some from across the border in Reynosa or Nuevo Laredo.

In Laredo, the Bucks open their third season Oct. 22 at San Angelo buoyed by last year's Southeast Division championship. The last game was a sellout, with a spillover crowd of 2,000 watching on big-screen televisions in the parking lot.

In Hidalgo, which like Laredo has a young, fast-growing population and a sizable Mexican city just across the border, the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees began play last year and came in second to Laredo in the division.

The Killer Bees sold out 12 games, including their final six.

"It was unbelievable," team spokesman Chris Due said. "We were named the CHL franchise of the year."

He said season ticket sales are near the goal of 3,500 for an arena that holds 5,500. The Killer Bees open the season Oct. 23 at Austin.

Promoters say the games against Mexico are a milestone as hockey continues to spread to warmer climes and especially Latin America.

"A Mexican national team playing hockey here? People would have thought that would have been years off," NHL spokesman Ken Martin said. "In terms of the NHL, I think it's something we want to embrace and be able to do more of."

But then, Martin said, who would have thought the Lone Star State would support so many minor-league teams, including nine of the 17 CHL teams.

Martin said the Mexican team's growing popularity is good news for a sport that's trying to diversify.

"The face of the game is changing," he said.