Making their mark: Latinos in hockey

The Sharks are celebrating Hispanic Heritage night and their part in growing the game.

The need for diversity has been something that has plagued the NHL for much longer than their Hockey Is For Everyone initiative has been around. Latino communities in particular haven’t seen themselves reflected in the world of hockey until recently. The first Latino NHL player, Bill Guerin, who is of Nicaraguan descent, was drafted in 1989. Another Latino player wouldn’t be drafted until Scott Gomez in 1998. As it stands right now, there’s still only a handful of Latino players in the NHL; among them are Al Montoya, Max Pacioretty, and Alec Martinez.

Sharks fans are familiar with a few others. Raffi Torres spent two seasons in San Jose before retiring last year. Torres is of Mexican and Peruvian descent and was one of the most prominent Latino hockey players during his time in the league. Until last year, he held the title of highest-drafted Latino player, going fifth overall in 2000.

Former Shark and Long Beach native, Matt Nieto, speaks best to the importance of growing the game. Growing up in California, hockey didn’t seem like the natural choice for a young Nieto. But the Sharks were still new and exciting and the early 90s saw a growth in youth hockey in California. Taking hockey out of the traditional market gave Nieto opportunities that might not have existed otherwise.

“Probably everybody that he hung out with is either in a gang or on drugs or something,” she said. “It’s good that he got out of this environment for sure. I think hockey saved his life, absolutely. Hockey became a way out for a Mexican-American kid in Southern California.

“When he was born, we lived in a really bad neighborhood,” Mary Nieto said. “There were drive-by shootings. He jokes about it, that Snoop Dogg lived around the corner. It’s true, but Matt wasn’t born then.”

Nieto, of course, would go on to be the first California-born player to be drafted by the Sharks in the second round (47th overall) of the 2011 draft.

His story isn’t unique. The best chance the sport has for fostering diversity is growing the game outside of traditional markets. Auston Matthews grew up watching hockey in the desert, thanks to the Arizona Coyotes. Matthews would usurp Raffi Torres by going first overall in the 2016 draft. He became the second Latino player to win the Calder Trophy for best rookie, after Scott Gomez.

Matthews is an indelible talent. His impact on the game is something that cannot be quantified, but is felt every time he takes the ice. Auston Matthews, a Mexican-American kid from Arizona, becoming one of the most exciting players to ever hit the NHL is what USA Hockey should be about.

But it’s not just in the US and Canada that Latinos are finding their way to hockey. Mexico has been part of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) since 1985 and is seeing a major growth since debuting their women’s team four years ago. Costa Rica is home to the only ice skating rink in Central America. Puerto Rico hosted a preseason game between the New York Rangers and the Florida Panthers in 2006.

The impetus, though, seems to rest on players. In 2013, Raffi Torres said the outreach had come from him.

Torres’ heritage has come in handy with the Phoenix market. He told Fox News Latino that he’s done some local media that is specific to the Latino community — but when it comes to the NHL, he said, there hasn’t been much Latino outreach.

“I’m always willing to do stuff for the community,” Torres said. "I let them know that, but I’m just going to go about my business.”

With one of the league’s biggest superstars being Mexican-American, and the league expanding into new, diverse markets, the face of hockey is changing and Latino hockey players and fans are finding space for themselves in the NHL. Multiple teams have hosted Hispanic Heritage events. The Sharks have been at the forefront, given that the Bay Area has seen a significant growth in their Latino population over the last twenty years.

Extending the reach of hockey has been part of the San Jose Sharks for as long as they’ve been in the NHL. This year, they a commissioned local Latino artist, Jesse Hernandez, to design their Los Tiburones giveaway jerseys. The Sharks are also adding a Spanish language broadcast to Saturday night’s game against the New York Islanders.

Diversity can only do good things for hockey. Today on Fear the Fin, we’ll be showcasing stories from Latino hockey fans in our Fanpost section. Like the Sharks, we’re happy to be part of growing the game.

Read this piece in Spanish here.