The National Hockey League (NHL) is exploring the possibility of expanding its fan base in Mexico, which has a growing Hispanic population.
10:20 a.m. Eastern
Mexico’s Eric Gomez is a writer.
The NHL’s growth into the American Sun Belt over the past three decades has helped to diversify the league’s geographical and fan base. Phoenix, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Miami, all of which have large Latino populations, have enjoyed the advantages.
The league is now preparing to take its next big step: Mexico.
“A few of years back, I was thinking to myself, ‘How amazing would it be to simply play an exhibition game in Mexico City?’” Auston Matthews, the great center for the Toronto Maple Leafs and a Mexican immigrant, recently told ESPN. “It would be incredible to play a hockey game in Mexico and see what happens.”
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Enter Matthews, the NHL’s leading goal scorer last season who, regardless of ethnicity (his mother, Ema, is from the Mexican state of Sonora), is one of the league’s greatest stars. The four-time All-Star grew up in the Southwest and is passionate about bringing his favorite sport closer to his origins.
“I’m very proud of where I came from and my ancestry,” Matthews added, noting that his mother is Mexican. “Obviously, we’d be going a long distance for a preseason game, but I don’t know, it was the first thing that sprang to mind when this subject was brought up to me.”
Any NHL game in Mexico would be a huge step forward in his league’s efforts to reach out to Latino fans in general. The NHL just launched its Spanish-language website two years ago, and Hispanic Heritage Month will be honored for the first time in 2020. Individual teams within the league have increased their attempts to engage with Spanish-speaking supporters in the United States and beyond.
The Dallas Stars, who moved to Dallas from Minnesota in 1993, conducted clinics in Mexico City in 2019 for youngsters as young as four. More recently, the Stars recruited Al Montoya, the first Cuban American player in the NHL, as their director of community engagement, with the aim of attracting Latino supporters. “Without us, you can’t reach us,” Montoya added. “It’s all about representation. Growing up, I didn’t see anybody who looked like me.”
Montoya attended an exhibition soccer game in September at Dallas’ Cotton Bowl featuring Mexico’s two most popular clubs, Club America and Chivas de Guadalajara, as part of his ongoing attempts to attract fans. Montoya preached the gospel of hockey in the parking lot outside the stadium during the game, which drew almost 50,000 fans. Montoya recruited hundreds of new followers in one day with the help of complimentary tickets for those who signed up.
Montoya said, “That was amazing.” “People today have a plethora of [entertainment] choices. We must no longer depend on individuals making their own decisions about hockey. We must go to their location.”
Similarly, the Los Angeles Kings have made an attempt to reach out to Latino-dominated areas in Southern California and beyond. The team conducted virtual learning sessions with youngsters in Mexico City in September of last year, following up on an in-person camp they did there in 2018.
The Kings are also one of just a few NHL teams to have a Spanish-language radio broadcast crew. The Arizona Coyotes (who moved from Winnipeg, Canada, in 1996) made history in 2019 when Alex Meruelo, a Cuban-American businessman, became the first person of Latino ancestry to become the majority owner of an NHL club. Meruelo then recruited Xavier Gutierrez, a Mexican native who was born in Guadalajara, as the Coyotes’ – and the league’s – first Latino CEO.
In a 2020 interview with ESPN, Gutierrez mentioned the potential of bringing the NHL to Mexico sooner rather than later.
Gutierrez replied, “That’s something we need to look at.” “It would be fantastic if hockey could be brought to Mexico in some manner.”
There are still many obstacles to overcome, like the practicalities of hosting. In Mexico, there is presently no large-scale arena devoted to hockey.
“The most crucial aspect is the facilities. We need a venue capable of hosting an NHL game. In Mexico, there’s an ice rink, which is unusual for their venues “Daly remarked.
Should a facility ultimately meet NHL requirements, it would need to be situated in a desirable area with sufficient demand. Mexico City is an obvious contender, with a metro population of almost 22 million people. Cities like Monterrey (population: 5.3 million) and Guadalajara (population: 5.2 million) may be considered. According to Daly, the NHL is doing study on venues and locations.
A game in Mexico would almost likely have to include Matthews and the Coyotes, the Kings, the Stars, or any other team with a strong Latino following. It’s impossible to overlook the chance for fans of all ages to cheer for one of their own.
“It’s on us to convey these guys’ tales,” Montoya added. “People will turn up if we do. Latinos are Latinos, and Latinos are Latinos.”
Emily Kaplan, an ESPN NHL reporter, contributed to this story.