BURNABY – Like many a female athlete, Fernanda Chavez gravitated to a sport because her dad played and her brothers were playing and she wanted in on the action, too.
What makes her story unique is that Fernanda Chavez is a hockey player from Mexico City. That’s ice hockey – not field hockey, not street hockey, not ball hockey.
Ice hockey in Mexico City? Now that is growing the game.
Chavez, 17, began playing when she was 10. She’s now a member of the Mexican women’s national team, which is participating in the third annual Hayley Wickenheiser International Women’s Hockey Festival at Burnaby 8-Rinks. The Mexicans are one of 62 teams taking part in the Thursday-to-Sunday event.
Chavez responded like a seasoned veteran Saturday when queried about her start in the sport.
“Good question,” she replied in near perfect English. “Well, my dad when he was little, he played in Mexico. Then he teached my brothers and I how to play. My little brother is a goalie for the under-14s and my older brother doesn’t play anymore because he is going to university.”
She was a little at a loss for words, however, when asked to describe what specifically she liked about the game.
“Everything,” she said. “It’s a sensation… the action… I can’t explain. I love checks. I play with boys and I like to be hit and I can hit them. Fighting? No. Just checks.”
Hockey is still in its infancy in Mexico. According to Wickenheiser, there are 22 rinks in the entire country, six of them in Mexico City. Last summer, she touched base with the head of the Mexican Ice Hockey Federation and national team coach Diego Da La Garma during a development camp in Finland.
She told them about her tournament – often referred to as WickFest – and they indicated an interest in participating.
“So they called us and here they are,” Wickenheiser chuckled. “It’s crazy. They’re really putting a lot of money into hockey in Mexico. It’s pretty basic what they need. They’re not skilled and I think, for some of them, it’s the first time they’ve even had their skates sharpened properly. So it’s a whole other world for them and I’m really happy they came.”
The Mexicans are playing competitively in the midget portion of the tournament but they were also treated to a special practice Saturday morning led by Wickenheiser herself. Fernanda Chavez admitted she didn’t know a lot about Wickenheiser when she first heard about her team’s trip to Canada. So she did what anyone with a computer would do.
“I searched her on Google and I found her story,” said Chavez. “It’s amazing. She’s one of the best players in the world.”
Da La Garma, the national women’s coach, is an old goalie who has spent time in Ontario playing and working in summer hockey camps. He admitted hockey in Mexico has a long way to go, especially when it comes to facilities.
“The rinks in Mexico City? Honestly? Terrible,” he said. “The ice is, like, pretty bad but we are building two new rinks that will be top class. Actually, we’re bringing everything in from Canada, boards, ice maker, everything. But, right now, it’s not that good. The boards are not good and most of the rinks are in shopping malls, which doesn’t help. We only have three or four that are specific for sports. Hopefully that is going to change pretty soon.”
According to Da La Garma, there is plenty of hockey interest in Mexico even if there are few quality rinks.
“Believe it or not, we are huge hockey fans,” he said. “We probably get four or five NHL games on TV a week so that’s not bad at all.”
The Mexicans’ appearance at WickFest is another feather in the cap of Wickenheiser, who seems to have no shortage of energy and no lack of ideas.
Now 34, she’s still working on her kinesiology undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary, still considering medical school, still playing for the national team and still suiting up for the women Dinos when her schedule permits. She opted to skip the school’s weekend series at Saskatchewan to attend WickFest.
“I think, in the greater scheme of things, this is the right thing to do,” she explained. “It’s four days out of my life and I feel it’s important to be here on site and not just put your name behind something and not show up. It’s worked out well. It’s a challenge but it also fills me up with energy. It’s been kind of everything that I hoped it would be to this point.
“I started out with an idea in mind to build a legacy for women’s hockey and do something that’s a little different and outside the box,” she added. “It’s a hockey tournament but it so much more than that. We’re looking to the development of the whole player. This is our third year and it seems to be our best so far.”