An unexpected sport takes root amid the palm trees and sandy beaches of Turks and Caicos.
If it looks like a hockey rink, sounds like a hockey rink and smells like a hockey rink … this must be the Turks and Caicos Islands, in the Caribbean, right?
Eight years ago, this island paradise first embraced Canada’s proudest export — with a tropical twist — to form the Provo Hockey League. At the Graceway Sports Center, a plastic-tile floor stands in for the traditional icy surface while in- line skates replace metal blades. All while the average daily temperature is 85 degrees.
“A lot of people can’t believe there’s hockey here,” says Allan Larkin, league commissioner and father of one of the players. “But there is.”
Despite roots that extend back less than a decade, hockey is now one of the most popular sports on Providenciales, the most populated island in Turks and Caicos, with 15,000 residents. It’s second only to soccer, with family members and hockey fans f lling Graceway on a typical weekend.
There are many Canadians living on Providenciales, and their love of their national sport sparked the in-line-hockey fever now felt here, though this version is played with a hard plastic puck rather than ice hockey’s vulcanized-rubber one.
“We started playing hockey in the bushes,” says Gilles Diotte, Canadian expatriate and volunteer referee in the league. “There were a bunch of men playing ball hockey on a beat-up tennis court at an abandoned hotel.”
But after kids discovered the sport, it moved up and over to Graceway. The nonprofit, volunteer-run league is now flourishing, with nearly 100 youths. The melting pot of native, Canadian, American and European kids is a heartwarming, international mix of smiling faces in helmets that prompts Diotte’s wife, M.C. Joly, to laughingly call it “the United Nations of hockey.”
And this is hockey, played on a surface known as Sportdeck, with full protective gear. Boys and girls up to 17 years of age pay $350 to play on one of nine teams in three divisions. Although league games are limited to the teams on the island, a select group of players for the TC Islanders travel team has traveled to the United States several times to participate in tournaments — evidence that they take the sport quite seriously.
So seriously, in fact, that several former players have moved to the United States to pursue their passions. One such player, Josh William, plays ice hockey at a prep school in Atlanta and is already in the youth system of the National Hockey League’s Atlanta Thrashers. He’s so good that he’s been accepted at a hockey-oriented private school in Montreal.
If you know hockey and watch it here, you’ ll be struck by the kids’ intensity level. The younger ones, as in ice hockey, fumble and fall more than the older athletes whom years of practice have given the grace that familiarity with hockey breeds. But they all play with genuine passion and hearts wide open to the sheer joy of the game.
“A lot of these kids have good hockey sense,” says Larkin, a Canadian who played ice hockey in his homeland before coming to Turks and Caicos to be a contractor. “And you just can’t coach hockey sense; they either have it or they don’t.”
This day, it’s clear the kids have it, with teams like the Surge, Dragons and Sharks f lying up and down the rink surface. A notable difference between this and ice hockey is auditory; instead of the slashing sound of skates on ice, it’s the thumping thunder of wheels on the Sportdeck surface. What’s particularly interesting is how native kids excel at a sport that is brand-new to their culture.
“It’s amazing, a lot of the local kids had never heard of hockey, and they just picked it up so naturally,” Diotte says of the natives who make up about 40 percent of the league’s players.
It is a sport near and dear to the Canadians who started it here, and now to the kids they’ve taught it to.
“This is the fifth year for my kids; it’s a sport that really stuck,” says Oneal Delancy, who has a son and a daughter in the league. “They do other sports, but by far, hockey is their favorite.”
Mike O’Connell, a former junior ice-hockey player in Canada and now a coach in the Provo Hockey League, doesn’t have kids here, but he volunteers so that he can keep close to the sport he loves.
“These kids are just amazing,” O’Connell says. “They’ve just embraced this sport.”