By George Da Silva – National Teams of Ice Hockey
This is an interview I have been wanted to do for a very long time since my background is Portuguese.
Mauricio Xavier is the President of Federação Portuguesa de Desportos no Gelo and is a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 1999.
Mauricio Xavier has a real passion for the game and over the last 8-10 years he has been trying to bring and ice rink to Lisbon, Portugal with no success, now he is taken to social media to gather support.
Portugal is the only country in Western Europe not have an ice rink.
We got a change to talk to Mauricio about the history of the game in Portugal and his struggles to get an ice rink built in Lisbon, Portugal.
Can you introduce yourself to our audience and give us a brief history about Ice hockey in Portugal?
My name is Mauricio Xavier, born in Lisbon, 50 years old and currently the President of the Portuguese Ice Sports Federation. I spent 13 years of my youth in Montreal, Canada, where I nurtured my love for Hockey, where I learned how to skate and played a couple of years in an organization called Sun Youth. I just loved the game ever since, and has always been my favorite sport.
Ice Hockey was first played in Portugal around 1996, when an Ice Rink opened in a town called Viseu, which is around 270kms away from Lisbon where I live.
Like me, a lot of players would drive up from Lisbon and other parts of the country, once or twice a month to practice and sometimes play. The season would then usually end with a long weekend trip to Madrid to play on an official sized rink, as the one in Viseu was far from regular sized. Since we were a group of newcomers, Inline hockey and ex-emigrants Ice hockey players that had played abroad, this was an opportunity for us to play as one against a local Spanish team, which is something we still do every once in a while.
Ice hockey ended in Viseu in 2004 when they closed down the mall the rink was in, for renovations, and Ice Hockey has not been played there ever since. The reason for this is because the rink is now in the middle of the mall’s food court and offers no way of protecting spectators from flying pucks.
Can you talk about Ice hockey league in the country in the the early 2000s?
The players that would regularly attend practices on weekends in Viseu, created a team called the Viseu Lobos and decided to invite Inline Hockey players from around the country to form another team called the Inline Stars, and started playing against each other about once a month. One or two seasons after, a whole Inline team called the Vikings also joined in, and for about three years we had a 3 team championship. Because of the small rink size, we would play 4 on 4 and I believe the Lobos and Stars each won some championships.
In the last 8-10 years you have been trying to get and ice rink built in the Capital of Lisbon. What has been the main obstacles to getting this done?
There are a few, but the main one is financial. First of all, Portugal has been in a serious economic crisis for most of that time, where we even had to borrow money from the IMF, and investment dropped drastically. It seems nobody wants to invest in an unknown project, because it has never been tried and there is a notion that it would be very expensive to maintain in a warm climate like we have here in Portugal. Leaders also want to promote a country that is sunny all year around and in their view, having an ice arena contradicts that notion. Then, one of the biggest obstacles is soccer. Portuguese are crazy about it. Everyone is a fan, and that’s basically all they care about, especially in this Cristiano Ronaldo and Euro Cup winners era. All other sports get very little attention.
Roller Hockey is very popular in the country and there is some inline hockey too, how have you tried to get the hockey community to come together to help your cause?
That’s real difficult to happen George. Out of the secondary sports, and here it is regulated by another Federation that is a FIRS affiliate. We don’t get along. They don’t want their player playing either Inline or Ice Hockey, and really they are kind of afraid we grow and steal players from them, like they see happening in countries where roller Hockey used to be played more intensely like Italy, Argentina, Brazil and even Spain.
Even for Inline Hockey it is very difficult to get playing and practice time, because the indoor pavilions are all occupied for roller Hockey. Right now, there are no more than three Inline teams, two of them being in the Lisbon Suburbs. One in Sintra, and another in Cascais.
Have you reached out to the Portuguese communities in Canada mainly in Toronto and Montreal for help?
Not directly, no. I do know and talk to some Portuguese people that are into hockey, living in Montreal, Toronto and New Jersey and some are ready and eager to help, but not to extent what we need, which is an ice rink in Lisbon. Your question however has given me some ideas which I will pursue in the near future.
As there been any interest by Portuguese NHLers John Tavares, Mike Ribeiro and Adam Henrique in helping your cause to get an ice rink built?
Well, no. Not yet. I do want to. I don’t think they even know we play here in Portugal. I have thought of getting their help, but I believe we need to have the rink first. I don’t expect them to just come over and build a rink for us. We have to show we deserve their help by first building the rink. That will show our will and interest.
I know from conversations with NHLPA people hockey players like to help, and I will love seeing these players you mentioned on ice with a whole bunch of Portuguese youngsters. That’s how I see them helping, as well as maybe donated some equipments for the kids to start playing.
The last two years the Portugal has played against the Czech Republic. How did is come about?
We were lucky to get a great Czech ambassador here in Portugal, who found out we played Ice Hockey here in Portugal, and was fascinated by the idea of bringing over a group of his friends that get together in Prague for a weekly outdoor game. They came over two years ago, where we played a game in a temporary ice rink installed in a Bullring. we usually use every year in Elvas, also around 250kms from Lisbon. Last year the same group met for the second edition, in that outdoor rink in Prague used by the ambassadors friends, and this season we will get together again on the 14 of January in Elvas.
The sad thing about that, is that, last year we had the biggest ice rink ever installed in Lisbon. Even though it was temporary, and it had flimsy boards, it was installed in one of Lisbon main squares. It was promised to return this year, but it has been cancelled in the meantime.
Portugal National team played there first ever game in 2000 against The First Portuguese Canadian Cultural Center. Is their any future plans to have games against Canadian teams?
Unfortunately, there are no plans. George, without a rink there can’t be any plans. We’d love to have them over, but we never know soon enough if we’re going to have a decent rink! Even this year we were hoping and had been promised we would have the big Ice rink for the games with our Czech friends, only to see the sponsor cut that rink from their plans.
We welcomed any Canadian Inline Hockey team that would like to come over and play with us.
I’m hoping the trade deal between Canada and the European Union helps us out in the future.
What would an Ice rink do for winter sports in Portugal?
It would do wonders. Right now, in Winter Sports there are only skiers, snowboarders and a few speed skaters. Most of them have to go abroad to develop their sports. With an ice rink here in Lisbon, we would have a place to do it here. The temporary ice rinks don’t stay around long enough to help develop any of the ice sports, so an ice rink would obviously help create hockey, figure and speed skating champions. I’m positive on that George. Portuguese have excellent capabilities in skating sports. We have kids becoming World and European champions in Roller Figure skating, we have very talented roller hockey players that I’m sure would make great hockey players. I’m a firm believer they just don’t do it on ice because there is no rink. It would also be a great alternative for the people that don’t like soccer.
You also do NHL Hockey commentary for Sports TV in Portugal, How are you received in the sports community and who is your favorite players or teams?
Well, I know we don’t attract much attention as the the soccer games. We have the inconvenience of being
Premium Sports Channel where people have to pay extra to watch, and it isn’t cheap because of all the soccer they get. Another Inconvenience is that the games are live around midnight, local time. We did however do Blackhawks – Ducks game, the have a pretty big fan base, this American Thanksgiving game that we broadcasted at 9pm. We had a huge following on our facebook page, even though the other 4 sports channels were all showing soccer games.
You see, The Portuguese people love roller hockey when it’s well played and if they get to see snd follow ice hockey they’ll soon get addicted to it. Unfortunately I don’t think it’ll get the same fan base as soccer, but I believe there is room for ice sports in the country. All we need is a little push with a ice rink, so we can offer lessons and training during the winter months. I’m sure interest will start growing exponentially afterwards.
As for my favorite team, this is the easiest question to answer. I’m a true die hard Montreal Canadiens fan.
I grew up in Montreal during the 1970s, so there was no reason not to like them.
Guy Lafleur was my favorite player, and the reason I always wore #10. Nowadays some of my favorite players are guys like Connor McDavid, Austin Matthews, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Brett Burns.
From the Canadiens I Like Radulov, Galchenyuk, Price, and I am also rooting for the teams where Tavares, Ribeiro and Henriques play for if the Canadiens are not in the mix.