Peter Negron proudly wears his heritage on the back of his head.
The freshman goaltender for New York’s Hamilton College has the Cuban and American flags painted on the back plate of his mask, a tribute to his mother who came to the United States from the Caribbean island nation.
“It represents my heritage as a whole,” Negron told me recently. “My mom came over when she was three, so that’s where that comes from.”
Hockey has come a long way since Scott Gomez became the National Hockey League’s first Hispanic player when he broke in with the New Jersey Devils in 1999-00.
Gomez, the son of a Mexican-American father and Colombian mother, retired in 2016, but his legacy continues. The four-team Liga Mexicana Elite launched south of the border in early November. Mexico City will host the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Under-18 Women’s World Championship Division I Group B Qualification in January.
And players of Hispanic heritage are thriving in hockey at all levels, helping to shed the notion that it’s an exclusively-white game.
“It’s not only the Hispanic culture, you’re seeing a lot more African-American players, a lot more Asian players,” Negron said. “I think it just shows the sport in itself is growing. It’s an appealing sport to people of all colors. It’s awesome.”
Players of Hispanic descent are leading scorers on their teams, like Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, a Mexican-American who’s arguably already the best National Hockey League player from Arizona (sorry, Sean Couturier) in only his second season in the league.
They are team leaders, like Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty, a Connecticut-born left wing of American, French-Canadian, and Mexican Heritage.
They are women, like Claudia Tellez, a Guadalajara born and raised member of Mexico’s national women’s hockey team and a 2016 eighth-round draft pick of the Calgary Inferno of the professional Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
And there are more players behind them, making their way up hockey’s ladder.
When Rangers fans serenade rookie center Cristoval Nieves with boos, they’re not critiquing his on-ice performance – they’re calling him by his name.
“Boo” is shorthand for “Bugaboo,” a nickname Nieves’ parents game him. It’s now an affectionate cheer from the Rangers faithful to the 23-year-old, 6-foot-3, 212-pound forward who was a 2012 second-round draft pick.
Nieves, an Upstate New York native of Puerto Rican heritage, has no goals and 3 assists for the Rangers in 10 games this season. He had 6 goals and 12 assists in 40 games in 2016-17 for the Hartford Wolfpack, the Rangers’ American Hockey League farm team.
He was a star at the University of Michigan from 2012-13 to 2015-16, winning a Big 10 championship with the Wolverines in a senior year in which he had 10 goals and 21 assists in 35 regular season games.
After two seasons with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Plymouth, Michigan, Florida-born forward Randy Hernandez has taken his talents to an even colder climate – Sioux City, South Dakota.
The 6-foot, 176-pound 18-year-old right wing from Miami is skating this season for the Sioux City Musketeers in the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the U.S.. He has 2 goals and 3 assists in 14 games for the Musketeers.
Hernandez is the son of Cuban immigrants who arrived in the U.S. little more than 20 years ago.
His grandfather, a psychiatrist who arrived in Miami from Cuba via Spain in 1972, ignited Randy’s interest in hockey when he took him to a birthday party at Miami’s Kendall Ice Arena when he was six years old.
Daniel Perez also went to a chillier place when he left balmy Jersey City, New Jersey for wintry Orono, Maine, to play hockey for the University of Maine Black Bears.
A 6-foot-4, 23-year-old junior forward, Perez has a goal and 1 assist in nine games for the NCAA Division I Black Bears this season.
He was a high school and junior hockey star, scoring 48 goals and 41 assists in 86 games over two seasons for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights of the Eastern Hockey League and 39 goals and 27 assists in 65 games for St. Peter’s Prep of Jersey City.
Hockey runs in the Perez family. Daniel’s 16-year-old brother, Stephen Perez, played for St. Peter’s Prep, the Jersey Hitmen of the United States Premier Hockey League, and the Jersey Wildcats of the North American 3 Atlantic Hockey League.
Peter Negron is getting his first taste of collegiate hockey tending goal for Hamilton’s Continentals, an NCAA Division III team that was ranked 10th in the nation in early November.
The 19-year-old joined the team after playing at the Kent School, a Connecticut prep hockey power whose graduates include Boo Nieves, former New York Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano, and Boston University hockey Head Coach David Quinn.
Negron, who shares Cuban and Puerto Rican roots, caught the hockey bug from Andrew Margolin, a cousin who lived nearby in Mahwah, New Jersey.
Margolin was a goaltender on Boston College’s 2007-08 NCAA Frozen Four championship team before finishing his collegiate career at Division III Connecticut College.
“I remember vividly me always hanging out in his room and him putting me in the net to shoot the mini-hockey ball,” Negron said. “I remember always going in his basement, seeing all the goalie gear and really being into it. It always intrigued me.”
Just as the game intrigued Scott Gomez, the NHL’s first Hispanic star. Gomez isn’t a player anymore, but he’s still in the game as an assistant coach this season with the New York Islanders.
“This is what I know and this is what I want to be a part of,” Gomez told NHL.com in May. “To be able to give back and work with guys and see it on the ice…I’m definitely excited about that.”
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