The country that gave us Bob Marley, Usain Bolt, Red Stripe beer, and the world’s funkiest bobsled team wants to add one more thing to its “famous-for” list: ice hockey.
The Jamaica Olympic Ice Hockey Federation is ramping up its efforts to build a national team that it hopes will follow in the legendary footsteps of the Jamaican Bobsled Team and compete in the Winter Olympics, as early as the 2018 games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Jamaica took the first step in its seemingly improbable quest in May 2012 when it joined the International Ice
Hockey Federation as an associate member. Step Two occurred last May when JOIHF announced the program’s management and coaching staff. The staff includes Head Coach Graeme Townshend, who was the NHL’s first Jamaican-born player when he debuted with the Boston Bruins in 1989-90; Paul Jerrard, who briefly played for the Minnesota North Stars, served as an assistant coach for the Dallas Stars, and is currently an assistant coach for the Utica Comets, the Vancouver Canucks’ American Hockey League farm team; and Cosmo Clarke, a former college player and minor leaguer who now specializes in strength training.
“There are quite a few players of Jamaican descent,” Lester Griffin, the Jamaica program’s assistant general manager, told me. “You have them playing in the NHL, you have them playing in the ECHL, college and juniors. It’s just a matter of letting them know about this and getting the message out there.”
Which brings us to Step Three. JOIHF is scheduled to hold its first-ever player tryout for Jamaican expatriates and other players of Caribbean heritage on August 23 at the Westwood Arena in Etobicoke, Ontario. Players from this and later tryouts will be considered for a 2015 exhibition touring team. That team will serve as an audition, of sorts, for a Jamaican squad that would play in IIHF tournaments and eventually attempt to qualify for the Winter Olympics.
“When the word first got out about this a couple of years ago I got a lot of calls from all over Canada, the United States, and parts of Europe from kids that want to be involved,” Townshend told me. “Now that the word is out officially that we’re having a tryout, I can just imagine there should be quite a turnout.”
With the clock rapidly ticking towards 2018, Townshend, 48, already envisions the type of team that he’d command in Pyeongchang. When he thinks Jamaica, he sees Slovenia. That country’s plucky seventh-place Olympic team had only one NHL star on its roster, Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar. The rest of the squad was a mix of younger and older international players, most of whom were bypassed by NHL teams.
“So I think our team would look something similar to that one,” Townshend said. “We wouldn’t have a big superstar, most likely, but we’d have a collection of players that I think could definitely compete. “We’d be relying on some former NHLers. Guys like (Montreal Canadiens defenseman) P.K. Subban (dad Karl Subban is from Jamaica and mom, Maria, hails from Montserrat) and the like wouldn’t be available to us because they’ve played for Canada, but players of that background. Then a collection of high-end juniors/college players who could fill the rest of the roster.”
Townshend, who runs youth hockey clinics and camps and served as a skills coach for the San Jose Sharks and Toronto Maple Leafs, was approached by JOIHF officials in late 2011 about becoming Jamaica’s bench boss. Coaching a team from a warm-weather country without an indoor ice rink and has potential players spread around the globe? Sign me up, Townshend said.
“I’m on the ground floor of something that I think could be special. We’ll see what happens,” he told me. “For me, I think it’s a celebration of the heritage of the island. I’m proud that I came from the island, that my parents came to Canada with nothing and built a good life for ourselves, and hockey was a huge part of it. Jamaicans are great athletes and they’re passionate, and that’s everything that hockey’s all about.”
Jamaica still has quite a few hurdles – pardon the track and field metaphor – to overcome before playing its first official international game. IIHF rules require full member nations to have ice hockey facilities and grassroots hockey programs in place to grow the sport in-country. JOIHF officials say they’re starting street and roller hockey programs. As for the ice hockey facility, that’s going to take more planning and much more fundraising by the non-profit group.
“We’re going down there next month with a delegation and taking a rink person with us,” said Griffin, a long-time youth hockey organizer and official in South Carolina and Michigan. “We’ve reviewed a few places where we could put ice in or maybe a couple of locations where we can build a rink.”
Jamaica may be at a standing start in its drive for the Winter Games, but its not the only country trying to build a competitive hockey team in a hurry. South Korea, the 2018 Winter Games’ host nation, recently tapped former defenseman Jim Paek, who won Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992, to coach its struggling national team.
Paek’s mission is to improve a team that was relegated to the IIHF’s Division I, Group B after it went 0-5 at the world championship which South Korea hosted last April. The nation is ranked 23rd in the world, wedged between Great Britain and Poland.
“Hockey’s a funny sport,” Paek, 48, told The Toronto Star recently. “Look at the 1980 U.S. team (when collegians won Olympic gold). Not saying we’ll do that, but you never want to set your goals low. You might as well shoot for the stars if you can.”
Townshend says never say never when it comes to South Korea and Jamaica chances on ice.
“I’d say 20 years ago, I was one of those ignorant people that laughed at the notion that Californians and Texans would play in the NHL,” he told me. “Now you’ve got Texans and Californians making the NHL. It’s not too far out of the realm of possibility that you’ll have a Jamaican born and trained player in 20 years.”
The Jamaican Olympic Ice Hockey Federation’s first player tryout is scheduled for August 23 at Westwood Arena, 90 Woodbine Downs Blvd., Etobicoke, Ont., Canada. For sign-up information, visit www.JOIHT.org.