By Jonathan Hiltz When Bruce Callow found out that a local mall was being built in his adopted country of Costa Rica, he didn’t think much of it. But when he discovered plans to build a synthetic skating surface in the center of the food court, it sparked dreams of introducing hockey into this tropical nation. Callow had first travelled to Costa Rica in the summer of 1988 as a political science student and moved there full time in 1992 after working with NGO projects that supported development in Central America. In 1996, when he found out about the synthetic rink, he proposed a hockey program to the mall administration, and they hired him on the spot. Later that year, he started teaching hockey classes at the Castillo Country Club, which has a real ice rink, after pitching a similar proposal. “It was a pleasure rink that didn’t have hockey boards,” Callow said. “But it was a place to ice skate, so we enjoyed it despite the limitations.”
Callow had played hockey back home in Calgary since he was seven and missed it dearly. Roller hockey was already fairly popular in Costa Rica, but he felt he could get something going on the ice, and he wanted his sons to grow up playing the game.
The Castillo Country Club, built in 1974, was and still is the only actual ice rink in all of Central America. With basic facilities and a dream to expand, however, Callow hoped Costa Ricans would take an interest in hockey. Despite the program’s humble beginnings and not having much equipment, Callow established a small but dedicated group of players in his first year. “Some had skated a bit on the rink and others were complete beginners,” he said. “Costa Ricans are good at soccer, so switching to hockey isn’t very hard for them.” With that, the El Castillo Knights were born. And 20 years later, they’re still going strong. With help from the NHL Players’ Association’s Goals and Dreams initiative, Callow has gotten gear for his players and even received a hockey net from Stephen Harper after Canada’s prime minster paid a visit to Costa Rica in 2011. Support has come from lesser lights, too, including Chris Maltese, a hockey coach in California who found the program on the web and donated a batch of composite sticks to help out. Thanks to the support, Knights players have taken part in hockey schools in Canada, played a tournament in Mexico and have had guest coaches come from as far away as Sweden. David Vargas is one of those players. Five years ago, he saw the Knights playing at the rink and casually asked Callow if he could join. “Right away Bruce said, ‘For sure you can, welcome to the group,’ ” Vargas said. “After a year and a half with the team, Bruce got me a scholarship to an ice hockey camp in Penticton, British Columbia.” He was only a beginner, but Vargas kept practising and has now been with the team as a player for four years and nearly two as a coach alongside Callow, now 50, and another Canadian, Serge Salvador. As a “veteran” with the team, Vargas enjoys teaching other Costa Ricans who are complete beginners like he was. He hopes that in the future, the Knights will have the opportunity to play in international tournaments and receive funding to create other teams in the country to have more competitors domestically. And he just might get his wish, as the program continues to grow. Last year the rink at the country club was expanded (though it’s still not quite regulation-sized), and there are plans in the works to grow an old-timers program. Maltese is bringing his men’s league team down from California later this year for a game against the Knights, and Callow hopes to raise funds to play tournaments in Quebec and the Falkland Islands. Long-term, the program’s biggest goals are to get affiliated with the Costa Rican Olympic Committee and the IIHF. With thousands of Canadians living in this tropical paradise, taking advantage of the spectacular weather and hospitality, Callow is happy to have brought a little Canada for Costa Ricans to enjoy, too.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the August 17 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.