How Spanish hockey announcers translate the game

Courtesy Francisco X. Rivera

High-sticking is one of hockey's most literal penalties. Roughing can mean various things. The definition of interference can be nebulous. But high-sticking is self-explanatory, in that a player's stick hit an opponent because the stick was, in fact, too high.

It's self-explanatory, that is, unless you're a Spanish language hockey announcer and there's no verbatim translation for "high-sticking" in your vernacular.

"How it would sound literally, it would suck. It just sounds horrible," said Francisco X. Rivera, who calls Los Angeles Kings games in Spanish for ESPN Deportes (1330 AM).

Rivera, one of three Spanish play-by-play broadcasters in the NHL, uses a variation of the word "baston," meaning "cane." So does Hector Lozano of Univision Deportes Chicago (1200 AM), who calls Chicago Blackhawks games in Spanish. "For high-sticking we say 'baston alto,' which you could probably translate as 'high cane,'" he said. "It's something about the sport itself, where there's no literal translation for a lot of terms. So you have to work with what you have. Obviously, we have a lot of the terminology that's done in English rather than Spanish. Icing is kind of difficult. But offsides is easy: 'fuera de juego.'"

Not easy? When there's a scrum for the puck between several players in the corner.

"I couldn't figure out how to say that the puck was in the middle of their skates, and the players were trying to dig it out. So I would say they were 'chopping onions and cilantro and tomatoes,' just to make a reference to how it looked when they were trying to get the puck out of the corner," said Jesus Lopez, who calls Vegas Golden Knights games in Spanish on ESPN Deportes (1460 AM).

English-speaking hockey fans take these things for granted. Even the most fundamental concept in the game -- a body check -- doesn't have a literal Spanish proxy.

"When someone smashes someone else into the wall, I'd yell, 'There's a ham sandwich! Torta de jamon!'" Lopez said.

Sometimes, making the translation whimsical can communicate the spirit of the thing.

"Checking is something that I really can't translate," Rivera said. "So I use 'get close to someone,' which is something you use to describe a boyfriend or girlfriend. Why not make it fun, you know? Respecting the people that are giving 100 percent on the ice, but also respecting the people who are new, and have never seen this sport before."

It's said that sports play-by-play broadcasters "paint a picture" of what's happening during the game, from the atmosphere to the action. Spanish language hockey broadcasters cater to many listeners who have no idea what the painting is supposed to look like, and use a smaller palette than their English- and French-speaking counterparts.

But it's still art.

In the three NHL markets that offer Spanish broadcasts, these announcers aren't just changing the language of hockey, but attempting to broaden the game's appeal to an underserved market.

"It's no easy task to get Latino people to believe in something that they were not involved in. It's not easy because our roots are really, really deep, as far as sports are concerned," Lopez said. "But if you deliver to the Latino community something to go crazy about, they'll want to be a part of it."

The Kings, Golden Knights and Blackhawks are currently the only teams that offer games in Spanish. The Florida Panthers did for their first three seasons, and then again from 2014 until 2017.

"As part of our continuing effort to better connect with our Hispanic fans, the NHL is exploring the possibility of broadcasting games in Spanish at the league level," said David Proper, Executive Vice President, Media and International Strategy for the NHL. "But our clubs long ago took the lead in this area. Florida, Dallas, Arizona, all three California clubs, and now Vegas each have made significant outreach -- including, in some cases, entering into separate Spanish-language media deals -- to work within their respective communities to better serve their fans."

The Blackhawks partnered with Univision in 2016 to create a Spanish-language broadcast. The team's success during the previous decade had created a groundswell of Latino fans. According to data from Scarborough market research in 2014, roughly 520,000 Hispanics in Chicago said they had either watched or listened to a Blackhawks game in the previous 12 months, and about 162,000 had attended one.

Univision had broadcasts for all of Chicago's other teams, save for the Blackhawks. Lozano had done games for the Bulls during their three-peat, as well as the Bears and the Chicago Fire of MLS. Though he was a long-time Blackhawks fan, he had never done play-by-play for hockey.

"My father grew up with soccer. But he loved watching the Hawks, because of the speed," he said. "To tell you the truth, when the Blackhawks were winning those Stanley Cups, I would do live shots at a bar in the Latino community. It was maybe 90 percent Latino, and it was packed! And everybody was wearing a Blackhawks sweater. We were having trouble getting into places because it was so packed. Everyone wants to be associated with a winner, right?"

That's what Lopez has experienced in Las Vegas, rather quickly. The Golden Knights entered the NHL as an expansion team in 2017 and completed a miraculous inaugural season that ended with them losing in the Stanley Cup Final to the Washington Capitals.

"It's growing, it's growing. When you walk into a Latino supermarket, you see all these people wearing Golden Knights hats and shirts. There are stickers on the cars," said Lopez, who majored in journalism and did play-by-play in Guadalajara for boxing and soccer.

"During the Stanley Cup run, I had people on my show that were telling me that for the first time in their lives they weren't watching the Mexican national [soccer] team because they were watching the Golden Knights. That's incredible," he said.

Lopez has been a hockey fan for most of his life. "I never knew I'd be doing hockey one day," he said. "Everything I knew about hockey goes back to 1988, when the Kings acquired Wayne Gretzky. My brother had season tickets. He invited me to watch those games. I like hockey, but I was never really a big fan of it, because I wasn't going very often. Not as much as I wanted to. It's not a cheap ticket. One of the most expensive in sports."

The Knights broadcast every home game on ESPN Deportes 1460 AM, and plans this season include having that Spanish feed available as a second audio channel during select home games on AT&T SportsNet.

The Kings restarted their Spanish-language broadcasts this season, having ended them in 1997-98. There are 10 broadcasts planned for this season, with an eye toward expansion next season.

Rivera, in his 13th year in the industry, said he found a love for hockey as a child through the classic Nintendo video game Ice Hockey.

"I used to play the ice hockey game against my dad," he said. "It gave me the first taste of the sport. You had the fat guy, checking everybody and shooting with power. And then you had the skinny guys with speed. You had the speed and the power. And the fighting. They have a great sport, with fighting like boxing in it. At the time, it blew my mind."

Rivera would go on to call hockey at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, but he found a Spanish-language approach to the sport a bit overwhelming at the time. The action was too fast. It was difficult to track the players.

"I assured myself that this wasn't going to happen to me again," Rivera said. Prior to his first Kings game this season, he sat in front of his TV and called preseason games in his home to study up.

"We want to give them a full hockey experience," he said. "The live hockey experience. Because when you have that experience, you fall in love with the game. That's what happened to me. I was blown away."

Minting new hockey fans by getting them into the arena for a live game is a time-tested method, no matter the market or demographic. But how do you get Latino fans interested enough in hockey to get them there and have them feel like they belong?

'Make hockey feel like soccer' would seem to be a natural answer. It was actually the answer given to Lopez when he was attempting to find his voice as a hockey broadcaster.

He recalls a meeting between the Golden Knights and Lotus broadcasting about doing games in Spanish before their inaugural season, and then immediately jumping into the studio to do a demo reel to for the gig.

"I gave it to my boss, the head of Lotus broadcasting," he recalled. "I didn't convince him at all. He told me, 'I want you to do the soccer thing. It's more fun when you're doing soccer. Can you make hockey sound like soccer?' So I started to call the goals soccer-style."

The sports share some of the same DNA: shots, goals, goalies, some of the strategy, a modicum of the violence (and embellishment of violence, many would say). But the connection is not perfect.

"There's a net and there are goals and there's low scoring. But at the same time, the action is way faster," Rivera said. "To me, it's sort of like basketball. A combination of basketball, soccer and how about boxing? Boxing is huge in the Latino community and in Latin America. If you see fighting for the first time, you see that no one gets red carded. Sure, you get five minutes for fighting, but this is the only sport where you can fight in the game."

(It should be noted that fighting in the NHL continues to be in steep decline, with 16.36 percent of games including a fight.)

Along with those watching the game, there are also those playing it. "I hope eventually some Latino players jump into the league. That would help," Lopez said.

There have been notable players of Hispanic descent in the NHL through the years and currently. Scott Gomez, who is of Mexican and Colombian descent, won the Stanley Cup twice with the New Jersey Devils and was an Olympian. Bill Guerin, who also won the Cup twice, is of Nicaraguan descent. Vegas winger Max Pacioretty is of Mexican descent. Then there's the biggest hope for crossover success for the NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, who grew up in the American Southwest and whose mother is Mexican.

"I think it's a great start," Lozano said. "Obviously, we need more representation."

Matthews' rise to stardom was an anomaly in the NHL and was as non-traditional as you could get: growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona; playing copious amounts of 3-on-3 hockey on rinks that were the size of NFL end zones; and eventually getting noticed by USA Hockey's development program after amassing 100 points in 48 games with the AAA Arizona Bobcats. But the catalyst for all of this? Falling in love with hockey at an Arizona Coyotes game, as a fan, and then having available local ice on which he could hone his skills and stoke his passion for the game.

That's why it wouldn't be at all surprising to see another top NHL prospect emerge from the desert in the next decade, now that the Golden Knights are in Las Vegas. They constructed a practice facility in Summerlin with two sheets of ice, providing young players with something many of them never had: opportunity.

That opportunity extends into school programs. The Knights, like other NHL teams, have reached out to local schools to develop hockey programs that wouldn't require ice. The team donated full floor-hockey-equipment packs to middle schools in Clark County. For each school, that included 60 sticks, multiple nets, border controls to create a rink in a gymnasium and training for school staff on how to facilitate games.

"They're growing in size and economically in this market," said Golden Knights president Kerry Bubolz. "I'm seeing more and more people of a Hispanic heritage following the team. I see them at the games. We're seeing it in our metrics digitally and socially."

According to all three broadcasters, the key to that outreach is authenticity. It can't seem perfunctory. The message can't be superficial. Latino fans aren't just looking for multilingual broadcasts and advertising. According to Lopez, they're looking for an invitation, like the one the Golden Knights sent to that community.

"Hockey was always considered a white people's sport. We were never invited," Lopez said. "But then Bill Foley said things like, 'I want to have a Latino hockey star come out of Las Vegas.' And those are the kind of things that drive people to believe they're included in this project. There are over 60 million Hispanic people in the U.S. It would be a shame for the NHL not to take advantage of it."

But the effort doesn't have to stop at the U.S. southern border, according to Lozano.

"I would love to see an NHL game in Mexico City. That would be awesome," he said. "I get a lot of tweets from fans in Mexico when I post from United Center. It would be a big hit. And a party."

An NHL Stadium Series game at Estadio Azteca, the heart of fútbol in the city? Lozano thinks if this growing courtship of Latino fans continues, and more Latino fans continue to follow and play the sport, all things are possible.

"Spanish language broadcasts for games will only help the sport grow even more," he said. "You know how they call soccer 'the beautiful game?' I really think that hockey is the other beautiful game."