Scoring Fans With Hockey Night in Belize

It began with Mennonites playing in chicken barns, but now Belizeans lace up their blades in pro-style

The sun has been down for about an hour and a half. The temperature has dropped to a comfortable 30 º. Palm trees rustle in a tropical breeze. I am walking down a dirt road, drawn, like a moth, to a bank of floodlights interrupting the night. Parked alongside the road are so many pickup trucks that I feel like I'm in the middle of Saskatchewan. In the distance, I hear something familiar.

"Hello!" yells a young woman of about 17. She can tell I'm not from around here. (My tourist garb gives me away.)

"Hi!" I respond.

Rachel Dueck introduces herself and tells me she is from the nearby farming community of Spanish Lookout. She adds excitedly, "I like watching hockey games!" Sure enough, those floodlights now reveal a rink, right here in the middle of Belize.

Hockey? Belize?

How can this be? Well, it's simple. Belize has a sizable population of Mennonites, and it was they who brought hockey to Belize.

Mennonites? Belize?

Yes. The Mennonites came here to practise their Anabaptist brand of Protestantism in the late '50s, via Mexico, because Mexican land-purchase laws made it difficult for them to build new settlements as their populations grew. Many trace their roots back to Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta, some of the areas they settled after leaving Europe. There are strong ties to Canada, and many residents are Canadian citizens, though a surprising number have never set foot in this country.

Today Belize has many Mennonite communities. Some are very traditional, without even the most basic conveniences such as electricity, and some are very modern, with satellite TV and pickup trucks. Spanish Lookout is a modern community, perched near the Guatemalan border.

Tonight, the town has gathered for the playoffs. It's the final round, and the blue team is leading the best-of-seven series 2-1 against the white team. The crowd is excited, whooping it up in the stands and along the boards.

I wander over to a group of men watching the game intently and meet Eddie Reimer. Eddie normally coaches, but not tonight. His team, the green team, was eliminated in the semifinals. I ask him how hockey in Belize came to be.

"There's a couple of guys that played on ice and on a pond," he tells me. "And when they came out here to try it on Rollerblades, they brought sticks along from Canada and started playing chicken barns, and now we have a hockey floor."

He's referring to the official-size concrete rink the players built.

"It's interesting," Eddie says. "When it first started, it was just a game, like a friendly game. There were not even fans. Then everybody started to like it. And then, as it grew, fans started to come and start cheering for the groups--or for the team--and it just kept growing."

The rink is no different from an outdoor Canadian rink, except there's no ice. There are boards plastered with ads for farm-implement dealers, shops, a local restaurant.

Eddie tells me that his team had a lot of fans because it was its first time on ice, er, concrete. He laughs and says: "When we scored--we had only rookies--everybody cheered for us. If we scored, it was nice. We had fun. We didn't win a game, but we had a lot of fun."

Ken Dueck could be called the father of Belizean hockey. "I brought it down; I was in Canada for a year," he proudly tells me.

Ken spent a winter in Arborg, Manitoba. "I was there for school and then played hockey for a year. And when I came down I brought Rollerblades, and it became bigger and bigger.

"Hopefully, in some years we're going to have eight teams, and then we're going to call it the Belize National Hockey League or something like that."

The players face many struggles in order to play the game here: jumbo insects, their culture of nonviolence, and the logistics of getting gear. It's not like the players can hop in the truck and zip down to the mall to get pads. They have to be resourceful.

Eddie explains that the players get their gear on-line, from places like eBay. And there is the mule system. "If anyone goes up to the U.S., they bring one [piece of equipment] for him and one for his friend. It's slowly coming together."

Another problem is a limited number of sticks. In fact, if everyone were to break a stick tonight, the game would be called and the league could fold. At least temporarily.

Out on the slab, the game is surprisingly good. The players set up decent plays. They work as a team; they entertain the crowd. The bleachers bow under the weight of the cheering fans. This is where the scene becomes surreal. The crowd could have been plucked from any small rink in Canada. A surprising number sport ball caps from places like Steinbach, Manitoba, and La Crete, Alberta.

I ask Eddie about officiating. He explains that the original ref decided that after three years of wearing stripes, he wanted to play. He's now in goal for the white team. The current referee is brand new to hockey and had to learn the game and the rules. "He had a Dallas Stars game which he watched over and over again, 100 to 150 times, to get the offsides and to get the penalties," Eddie says.

Players also watch satellite TV to increase their knowledge. The lucky ones have pirate systems that let them watch Hockey Night in Canada. But don't tell anybody.

For a period and a half there have been no penalties. Is this because the players are Mennonites or because these are the playoffs? Eddie tells me they want to keep things clean. "If you fight, you're out of the game for that evening."

Before I know it, the game is over and the blue team is victorious. The series will continue next week to see who will be champion of all Belize. Then, after a short break, a new season will begin.

A fan tells me, "Spanish Lookout will probably be known for hockey in the future."

As I turn to leave, I spot Rachel again. "In Canada, hockey players are the most popular boys. Is it the same here?" I ask.

"It's like, if they play they're cool. Especially if they play real good!" she says with a wink.