Hockey eyes Hispanic fans for growth

The NBA has become a worldwide sensation. The NFL has its sights set in London and a return to Mexico City. And Major League Baseball is fresh off a trip to Cuba, staging preseason games in Mexico City and about to host a pair of regular-season games in Puerto Rico.

And what about hockey? The NHL is also setting its sights on Mexico as it strives to grab the attention of U.S. Hispanic fans. And it starts with the Florida Panthers.

In the not-so-distant future, a hockey stick and a puck might just be as common a sight in a Hispanic kid’s bedroom as a soccer ball or a baseball bat. Consider it the ultimate example of cultural fusion, yelling “goool!” on the ice as well as on the pitch.

“Every Cuban (at) the office was talking hockey, not soccer or baseball,” said Panthers fan Stan Zalezky, a season ticket holder since 2009. He attended Game 5 of the playoffs against the New York Islanders. “The fever is there, and that is excellent for the game. Any time you can bring in people to support the game and the team in a non-hockey atmosphere, that is really exciting.”

Consider that, according to a study conducted by Sports Media Watch in 2014, the Stanley Cup Finals were just barely a blip in the sports radar of minorities with 632,000 viewers compared to 10.5 million for the NBA Finals.

That may be part of the reason why the NHL is mulling over the possibility of playing two preseason games in Mexico City. Live hockey moves people in a way that it just doesn’t on television, so bringing the product itself to fans is vital.

“This is an exciting sport; it never stops. It has a lot of similarities with soccer, nuestro balompié. This is an optimal time to introduce hockey to the Hispanic community,” said Arley Londono, the first Hispanic play-by-play NHL announcer. Arley has been lending his voice to hockey since 1993 and currently calls Florida Panthers games.

“Twenty-three years fly by. People now say all the time: ‘Ruge Panteras!’ (Panthers roar!)”

Octavio Sequera, a long-time staple of Spanish radio for hockey fans, also feels the love from the Hispanic community in South Florida, and hockey’s rising popularity within his audience inspired him to come up with his very own goal call.

“My love for hockey goes back to the '80s watching [Wayne] Gretzky and [Mario] Lemieux play. It’s just sports, they are universal and they transcend everybody, regardless of nationality,” Sequera said before calling Game 5 of the first round of the playoffs between the Panthers and Islanders.

“I had to create a term to relate with my audience when the Panthers score a goal, so I came up with ‘Tomalo!’, which means ‘take that!" said Sequera, who makes his calls on South Florida's 1210 ESPN Deportes Radio.

The Chicago Blackhawks emulated the Panthers and had their first Hispanic radio broadcast last March.

According to league representatives, the NHL has also set up an Industry Growth Fund (IGF) established in 2013 by the NHL and NHL Players Association “to support club business initiatives and projects intended to promote long-term fan growth.”

Teams such as the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings hosted Latino/Hispanic Heritage Nights this season. The Kings sweetened the deal for their March 20 game against the Philadelphia Flyers with a complimentary L.A. Galaxy soccer ticket and two passes to the Conga Room, a Latin nightclub in L.A. Live. Meanwhile, the Devils enticed Hispanic fans to attend their January 2 game against the Anaheim Ducks with sweepstakes to win a luxury suite at a Marc Anthony concert.

However, there are only so many giveaways and “heritage nights” you can have. Hispanic fans need someone to identify, a hero to root for, and no team appears to know this better than the Florida Panthers with their beloved backup goalie Al Montoya, otherwise known as “El Gran Cubano.”

Feeling the love in South Florida

The NHL shattered barriers with Scott Gomez, the first Hispanic player in the league who is of Mexican and Colombian descent. He was born and raised in Alaska, and is also a two-time Stanley Cup champion. Gomez was a goal-scoring sensation since his professional debut in 1999 and played 13 games for the Ottawa Senators during the 2015-16 season, but his biggest impact in the game was that he opened the door for players like Al Montoya to pursue their own hockey dreams.

“The Latino community is proud. It's something that I'm proud of, too. I hope it inspires more young Latinos. They'll see me and say, 'If Gomez can play, maybe I can play,'" Gomez said in 2012. Today, Montoya has taken over the spotlight as the Cuban sensation on the ice.

Montoya’s popularity with fans goes beyond his 12-7-3 record and 559 saves this season or his five career shutouts. In addition to bringing Hispanic fans to a packed BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, Montoya is known to give back to the community both on and off the ice.

“The support has been great. It’s nice to have a Cubano backing me up and people can relate to that. If Al hadn’t played as well as he did, we wouldn’t have gotten to the playoffs,” said Roberto Luongo, Florida’s starting goalie. Luongo -- a Canadian of Italian and Irish descent -- sits next to Montoya in the locker room, and they had an excellent relationship this season despite competing for the same spot.

Meanwhile, Andrea Ocampo, the Panthers’ Latin Market manager, reporter and game presenter, praised Montoya’s work with the community when the hockey gear is off.

“Al has been amazing as our spokesperson. People can relate to him, and he has done everything from interviews to charity events,” Ocampo said. “He never imagined he would be embraced so warmly here. People yell ‘El Gran Cubano!' during games.”

Montoya has managed to make Panthers hockey a water cooler topic among Cubans, who would otherwise be enthralled with José Fernández’s performance on the mound for the Miami Marlins.

Montoya didn’t get to play in the postseason and had to be a spectator as the Panthers lost their first-round series against the Islanders in six games. He was so distraught by the team’s double-overtime defeat (one of three OT losses overall) in Game 5 that he wasn’t available to comment for this story.

However, Ocampo wants to let Montoya know that his contribution to hockey goes far beyond wins and losses. His performances have helped revive winning hockey in South Florida and bring in a whole new set of fans to the rink, according to Ocampo.

“I see lots of Cuban, Venezuelan and Colombian people (at the arena). Also some Puerto Ricans. We even brought the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to a game and they loved it,” Ocampo said.

Montoya also inspired the Panthers as an organization to play Latin music over the loudspeakers, speak “Spanglish” during a game, hold salsa-dancing contests outside the arena and establish hockey clinics for kids in Kendall, a predominately Hispanic neighborhood in Miami. Here, they teach Hispanic kids to play ice hockey while transitioning away from the more traditional field hockey, which is played on grass in countries that have no ice.

You could call that the “Montoya Effect.”

Ocampo is proud of the strides the Hispanic community has made in the NHL, but to her, that isn’t a choice. It’s a responsibility.

“Es algo tan nuevo, y en el Sur de la Florida se tiene que hacer. En otras partes se están haciendo experimentos, pero aquí yo digo que no puede ser un experimento. Tiene que ser una parte importante de nuestro aspecto de mercadeo. De otra manera, estaríamos perdiendo una gran oportunidad no solo para nosotros sino que también para la comunidad”.

“This is all so new, but it has to be done. In other parts of the country, they may see this as more of an experiment, but I would say that can’t happen here in South Florida. The integration of Hispanic fans has to be a vital part of our marketing approach, because otherwise we would be missing out on a great opportunity not just for us, but for the community as a whole.”