By Bill Kaufmann – Calgary Sun
Twenty years after he brought hockey to Central America from his Calgary hometown, the fruits of Bruce Callow’s passion for the game has been recognized by the sport’s shrine.
A crimson jersey worn by his Costa Rican-born son Anthony, a player with that country’s El Castillo Knights is set to be hoisted at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
For former Brentwood resident and Sir Winston Churchill high school graduate Callow, it’s a fitting score to mark two decades in a land better known for steamy jungles, volcanoes and basking iguanas.
And the hall of fame exhibit also reflects the increasing entrenchment of the sport in a region where it remains a novelty.
“We feel great because we’re basically celebrating 20 years of ice hockey here and we’re moving beyond survival,” said Callow, a musician and music teacher who’s lived in Costa Rica since 1992.
The teams, based in the Costa Rican town of Heradia, has also sent the hall souvenir pucks and calendars for a possible exhibit.
They’re mementos of an odyssey that began on plastic “ice,” whose unlikely existence even caught the attention of a hockey-crazy Canadian prime minister and became a weapon of hockey diplomacy at the ambassadorial level.
Bruce Callow. File photo
In 1996, four years into his new life in Costa Rica, Callow became homesick for hockey.
He’d married a local woman and had two sons to whom he wanted to impart that beloved element of his Canadian identity.
“You’d think being in the tropics would cure everything, but it doesn’t cure your urge for hockey,” he said.
The quest for a permanent hockey presence began in the humblest of surroundings — the middle of a shopping mall’s food court.
Skaters of the embryonic movement took to a plastic surface, or “viking ice” made of tiles clad in a silicon liquid.
“Maintaining it got to be a problem,” he said, adding the faux freeze didn’t impress many prospective players.
“You had to sharpen your skates all the time because it dulls them more quickly.”
Nevertheless, the arrangement had an inescapable Canadian flavour: rink boards clad in the Maple Leaf were assembled by a Canadian handyman while the effort was sponsored by a local rock radio station owned by a native of the Great White North.
It drew the startled curiosity of the locals whose idea of a goalie was a soccer netminder, said Callow.
“Kids were watching from the sides saying ‘what’s that?'” he said.
“For the kids learning to skate, it had never been done before, but they were enthusiastic.”
And it wasn’t long before the slowly-growing group which had dubbed themselves Mundo de Hockey, or hockey world, secured real ice at a pleasure rink at the Castillo Country Club.
Callow made a decision to train in the sport’s international style, which emphasizes skill over brute strength, something more palatable to Costa Ricans with an affinity for soccer.
“Their hand-to-foot coordination is superior to Canadians’,” said Callow in 2000.
Eliana Vasco Correa’s son and daughter caught the hockey bug in 2016, quickly pulling their mother into it.
“A couple of weeks later I gave it a try, and loved it,” said Correa, 35, who initial perception of the sport softened.
“When I first saw it, it was a tough and dangerous sport but once I started playing, I found out I was wrong — I felt very safe with all the protective gear.”
Though hockey’s long found traction in hot weather markets like Arizon and Florida, Correa said it remains an odd fit in Central America.
“It’s quite strange in such a tropical climate, but that is part of its charm,” she said.
Since the program’s inception, voyages to the sport’s mother country for sustenance of various types have become essential.
In 2000, the Calgary Flames anted up 20 helmets for their tropical understudies while local sporting good stores followed suit with other equipment.
A year later, the National Hockey League Players’ Association came through with 34 new sets of gear.
“We wouldn’t have gotten here if it hadn’t been for them,” Callow said of the donors.
In the summer of 2011, a particularly promising Costa Rican prospect, David Vargas, got the call from Penticton’s Okanagan Hockey Academy, which provided him with a two-week scholarship at their camp.
Right-winger Vargas, then 17 and a Sidney Crosby devotee, was thrilled by the NHL pedigree of some of its coaches.
“Since they are professional trained hockey players, of course I want to learn from the best ones,” he said at the time.
Vargas has since gone on to become a coach with the Knights, as have Callow’s sons Anthony and Kenneth.
The unlikely puck passions of his young devotees has also been rewarded by trips to Calgary where a pilgrimage to the Scotiabank Saddledome to bask in the Flames’ glow was the highlight.
This coming October, that kind of excursion will skate a stride further as eight members of the Castillo Knights take to the ice for an intermission shootout during a game between the Florida Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Those kids have never seen a game before and they’ll be skating on the same ice as Sidney Crosby,” said Callow.
But it was the arrival of a special guest in Costa Rica — Canada’s best-known hockey aficionado — that had a decisive impact on the movement’s fortunes.
Then-prime minister Stephen Harper was speaking at a business leaders’ roundtable in Costa Rica in August, 2011 when Canadian ambassador Neil Reider convinced him to pay the knights a visit.
The previous year, a certificate from Harper praised the program that “provided the youth of Costa Rica with the opportunity to experience the joy of Canada’s national pastime and the world’s greatest sport.”
“Neil planted the idea early to come here — apparently the prime minister wanted to skate with us but it didn’t happen,” said Callow.
But the visit’s gravitas encouraged the Castillo Country Club to cease mulling over an expansion of the rink to actually do it.
It was completed in 2014.
“That visit was instrumental in getting our new rink built,” said Callow.
That was enough to attract new players, including a record number of female enthusiasts and a nucleus of 60 players groomed by homegrown coaches like Serge Salvador, Aurelio Cence and Jorge Castiglione.
It’s also set the stage for Costa Rica’s first hockey tournament in November when teams from Calgary, Los Angeles and Britain’s Falkland Island face off with the hometown Knights.
The latter squad was wooed by Callow through connections made when he led a group of journalists to the islands in 2012 as a staffer with the British diplomatic corps.
They’ll be up against players with a bit of individualist streak, said the movement’s founder.
“I’d call it an offensive style, a tendency to stick handle all the way to the end of the ice,” said Callow.
“I’ll say ‘hey, can you pass it to me, please?'”
It’s a request made in Spanish, or Callow’s best custom-crafted hockey Spanglish.