Despite not being seen as a stereotypical sport for Latinos, hockey’s popularity in Latin America and with Spanish-speakers has grown in recent years. Despite not having the history of sports like baseball, boxing, or soccer, the National Hockey League (NHL) has seen an increase in Latino fans since 2013, while two of the league’s franchises offer Spanish-language radio broadcasts. And, in 2016, the league made history by drafting a Latino player with the No. 1 overall pick.
That’s not to say that Latino players have never made an impact on the NHL before the current wave. Today’s Latino players owe a debt of gratitude to former NHL forward Scott Gomez, who paved the way when he became the NHL’s first Latino player back in 1998; he was drafted 27th overall by the New Jersey Devils that year, and made his debut during the 1999-2000 season. Gomez became the first Latino player to win the Calder Memorial Trophy (the NHL’s Rookie of the Year award), and went on to play for 17 years, for a variety of teams, including the Devils, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, San Jose Sharks, Florida Panthers, St. Louis Blues, and Ottawa Senators, before hanging up his skates in 2016. He’s now an assistant coach for the New York Islanders.
Today’s Latino players owe a debt of gratitude to former NHL forward Scott Gomez.
Gomez ranks in the NHL’s top-200 all-time with 1,079 games played, he ranks fourth on the Devils all-time list with 484 points in their uniform (he has 756 total career points), and, in addition to the Calder Trophy, he also won two Stanley Cups (2000, 2003), and was a two-time All-Star (2000, 2008).
Following Gomez into the NHL were players such as winger Raffi Torres (the league’s second highest Latino draft pick: 5th overall back in 2000), defenseman Raphael Diaz (played seven NHL seasons before becoming a star in Switzerland), and goaltender Jorge Alves (the Carolina Hurricanes equipment manager, who was the emergency goalie for one game back in 2016).
Hockey is one of the fastest growing sports among Latinos in North America. Mexico now has a national hockey team and a professional hockey league, and its women’s team has been improving dramatically in recent years. Other Latin American countries such as Brazil, Chile, and Argentina are also putting teams together, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation. It’s not much, but it’s definitely a sign of the game’s growth.
With the 2017-2018 NHL season already underway, here are four Latino players who symbolize how the game has grown in the region, while also highlighting how far it has to go.
Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs)
The 20-year-old Matthews–who is Mexican on his mother’s side, and speaks fluent Spanish–was the aforementioned history-making first overall draft pick, selected by Toronto in the 2016 draft. He has already lived up to every ounce of the hype, playing in all 82 regular season games of his rookie season, scoring 40 goals and dishing out 29 assists. With him on the team, the Leafs made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2013.
At the end of his rookie campaign, Matthews was awarded the famed Calder Trophy. In receiving that award, he also became the first Maple Leafs player to win the trophy since Leafs legend Brit Selby won it, back in 1966. This season, the Leafs are back for more and with Matthews leading the way–he already has three goals and three assists this season–the expectations are higher than ever for the NHL’s tortured franchise.
Matt Nieto (Colorado Avalanche)
Heading into his fifth NHL season, Nieto has already played 265 career games. It’s a sign of his durability, which will be needed in the uber-competitive Western Conference. At 24-years-old, this Mexican-American is part of a youth movement that is rebuilding a franchise that hasn’t won the Stanley Cup Trophy since 2001, and has only been to the playoffs twice since 2008. With 81 career points under his belt, Nieto is one of the more experienced players on this young Avalanche roster.
Max Pacioretty (Montreal Canadiens)
This 10-year veteran is of American, French-Canadian, and Mexican descent. Pacioretty has also spent his entire career in a “Habs” uniform, playing in 565 games, scoring 210 goals, and handing out 202 assists. He has also suited up for Team USA Hockey at both the junior and senior levels, for a total of 22 games between 2008 and 2016. While wearing the red, white, and blue, the 28-year-old played in the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships (2008), the IIHF World Championships (2012), the 2014 Winter Olympics, and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Al Montoya (Montreal Canadiens)
The NHL’s first-ever Cuban-American player, and Pacioretty’s teammate, has one of the most important and most underrated jobs in the game: backup goalie. Carey Price may be the main net-minder in Quebec, but if injury or poor performance occurs, that’s where Montoya comes in. And the 10-year veteran has proven he can hold his own on the ice, as he has career record of 63-46-22, a 2.61 goals against average, a save percentage of .909, and seven career shutouts. Make no mistake about it, Montoya is always prepared when his number is called, rare though it might be at times.