Jamaica aiming for goal of bringing hockey team to 2026 Olympics

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Jamaica arrived at the Amerigol LATAM Cup looking beyond it.

The 2019 LATAM Cup champions have transcended the tournament. Jamaica brought a team so stocked with elite players, LATAM Cup organizers thought it best they only play exhibition games rather than compete for the title again.

How stocked? Jamaica had planned to bring a goalie, Anson Thornton, but the 18-year-old signed an entry-level contract with the Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday.

“It’s a great problem to have,” said former NHL forward Chris Stewart, who is Jamaica’s co-coach. “Strictly on ice, it shows we’re not that far away.”

“Not that far away” for Stewart and his team means competing in International Ice Hockey Federation-sanctioned events and the Winter Olympics.

Jamaica entered the LATAM Cup in 2019 with the mission of winning it to draw attention to its Olympics quest to government officials on the Caribbean island and persuade someone or some entity to build an ice rink there.

The mission continues at this year’s tournament. Jamaica has been dominant in its exhibition contests thus far, defeating Puerto Rico 10-2, Colombia 12-0 and Mexico 8-0. Jamaica also defeated Lebanon 5-4 in a shootout.

“Coming out of this tournament, beating everybody as we’re beating, is going to be just as good as defending the trophy successfully,” said Don Anderson, president of the Jamaican Olympic Ice Hockey Federation. “I don’t think we’ve lost anything by being here. I think we can gain a lot and use the positives out of this in a very constructive way.”

Jamaica is among a group of Latin American, Caribbean and Middle East countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Lebanon, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, playing in the tournament at the Florida Panthers IceDen that began Thursday and ends Sunday.

Like several of the LATAM Cup participants, Jamaica is trying to overcome obstacles that prevent it from competing on the international stage.

Jamaica is an associate IIHF member largely because it doesn’t have an ice rink. IIHF rules require that countries have an ice rink and work toward growing the game in-country to gain full membership and compete in tournaments.

Anderson and the JOIHF have made strides toward growing hockey in Jamaica. Hockey is part of the curriculum at G.C. Foster College of Physical Education in St. Catherine.

Anderson said the country’s field hockey federation has pledged 30 players, ages 10-14, for a floor hockey program at G.C. Foster.

At Stewart’s urging, the JOIHF applied for and recently received a grant from the NHL Players’ Association Goals & Dreams fund for equipment to help Jamaica’s efforts.

The fund is the world’s largest grassroots hockey program, providing more than 80,000 children in 34 countries the opportunity to play the sport over the past 21 years through equipment donations. It has donated more than $25 million to help grow the game of hockey.

“Partnering up with groups like Chris is involved in, JOIHF and others, we see as opportunities to grow the game in ways it hasn’t been done before,” said Chris Campoli, an NHLPA divisional player representative. “That’s really exciting. They’re getting in the game, it’s something different.”

Anderson there are plans under consideration by government officials and private investors to build a rink in Jamaica. He said he believes an agreement could be formalized within two years and Jamaica could be on track to compete for a men’s hockey spot in the 2026 Milano Cortina Olympics.

Just the thought of that excites Jamaica forward Jaden Lindo, who was selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the sixth round (No. 173) of the 2014 NHL Draft, played for Jamaica in 2019 and returned for the tournament this year.

“It would be an absolute dream come true,” said Lindo, now manager of the Penguins’ Community Hockey Programs. “I would be lying if I said it would be possible when I was a young kid. Whatever I can do to help the group and organization to reach that goal … I just want to be a part of it. I really want to see the game grow.”