On Sept. 15, Puerto Rico hockey prepared to face Venezuela in an 8 p.m. primetime matchup in Division II of the 2022 LATAM Cup.
The tournament featured teams from Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East competing across six divisions, including Men’s D-I and D-II.
The D-II team was Venezuela’s best. Its national hockey association debuted in 2018, two years before Puerto Rico’s.
Flags covered the stands in the stadium rink as noisemakers and competing chants of “Puer-to-Ri-co!” and “Ven-ez-uela!” rang out.
Hector Vargas, a fifth-year exercise science major at UB, Antonio Vargas, a UB graduate architecture student, and their brother Daniel took the ice for Puerto Rico.
For the first time in their lives, they played as teammates.
“We grew up playing hockey together, to be on the same team for once was very special,” Hector Vargas said.
The brothers practiced for hours together on their backyard rink, imagining a moment like this.
Among a sea of spirited fans, they seized the moment.
Hector Vargas ripped a wrist shot from the face-off circle late in the first period to give Puerto Rico a 1-0 lead.
In the second, Antonio Vargas forced a turnover and took the puck for a breakaway goal.
In the third, Daniel received a pass on the left side of the ice and fired a precise wrist shot past the Venezuelan netminder, 28-year-old Maximilian Avila, to seal the game.
The brothers combined for five goals in their 7-2 international debut victory.
It happened on the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month.
It was also Roberto Clemente day, a day honoring the Puerto Rican icon and MLB legend.
The stage couldn’t have been bigger.
“It seemed like it was meant to be,” Antonio Vargas said.
Breaking barriers on the ice
Hector Vargas plays for the UB Hockey D-II club team. He first competed for Puerto Rico in March 2022. He found the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association (PRIHA) on Instagram, reached out, and earned a spot on the team for the 2022 Amerigol Spring Classic, hosted by the NHL’s Dallas Stars.
Back home in Western New York, Antonio and Daniel watched their brother earn a silver medal with Puerto Rico in that event.
Inspired, the brothers joined forces for the 2022 LATAM Cup, another Amerigol event sponsored by the NHL.
Antonio was unsure about taking time off from school while pursuing his masters at UB, but thought the opportunity to play international hockey was too good to pass up. His professors helped him with that decision.
“All my teachers were very supportive. They were like ‘Go take care of business, we’ll be ready for you when you get back,’” Antonio Vargas said. “I figured I had to take it.”
Antonio Vargas’ decision gave him the chance to play alongside his two brothers for the first time.
On Tuesday, Sept. 13, the three brothers huddled underneath a bus shelter in the Buffalo airport parking lot.
A bus arrived and they swung their suitcases and massive hockey duffels onto the baggage rack.
They entered the terminal and hustled to their 6 a.m. flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
After they landed, the three brothers traveled north to Coral Springs. They arrived at a pavilion in the field of a high school campus.
Adjacent to the field was the Florida Panthers Ice Den. The NHL practice facility hosted the week’s events.
At the pavilion, the brothers enjoyed a meet-and-greet with other members of the PRIHA. Players from six divisions mingled, including the top men’s and women’s players in Puerto Rican hockey.
They shared a common sense of national pride and relished the opportunity to compete for their homeland.
“Any hockey player has probably worn many different jerseys, but to have a flag and represent a country, it’s very honorable,” Hector Vargas said.
PRIHA and the LATAM Cup also gave players the platform to represent Latin Americans and Hispanics in hockey, a mostly white sport.
“It means a lot, especially coming from a young age of hockey, thinking Hispanics couldn’t be on the ice, and now we’re in a whole tournament of Hispanics,” Liana Vazquez, a women’s skater, said.
Liana and her sister Alyssa grew up feeling like hockey outsiders.
“To finally not be the only Latina in the locker room meant a lot,” Alyssa Vazquez said.
‘My family is my world’
Throughout the tournament week, the Vargas brothers received support from near and far. Their parents, Hector Sr. and Christine Vargas, traveled to Coral Springs to watch the games in person.
Their grandmother, Maria Rivera-Corral, watched her grandsons online and kept up with her family via phone.
And without her, they wouldn’t be there.
To prove their PRIHA eligibility, the brothers used Rivera-Corral’s birth certificate.
Rivera-Corral was born in Puerto Rico and came to the U.S. when she was 3 years old. She grew up with a strong family bond. She helped her parents learn English while they taught her Spanish.
She was thrilled to find out her grandsons were reconnecting with their roots and playing for Puerto Rico.
“I was overwhelmed. It was the greatest thing that ever happened,” Rivera-Corral said. “To me, it was a blessing.”
After the brothers’ stellar tournament performance, Rivera-Corral said, “It’s amazing to see these young men… with the challenge of going to college, playing hockey on top of it. I’m very impressed with the three boys.”
While reminiscing about the tournament, Rivera-Corral kept describing the smile on her face.
“My family is my world,” she said.
While the Vargas brothers’ story is one of personal achievement, they’re also a permanent part of Puerto Rican sports history.
The 2022 LATAM Cup concluded on Sunday, Sept. 18. Puerto Rico’s D-II squad fell short of a medal.
Their D-I squad, however, won gold for the first time. They joined Puerto Rico’s 2021 women’s squad and the 2022 U-20 squad atop the Latin American hockey podium.
Momentum followed their success, and on Sept. 29, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) recognized Puerto Rico as its 83rd associate member. This, preceded by the gold, was a watershed moment for PRIHA.
While fans and players across divisions celebrated Puerto Rico’s triumph on the ice, they mourned tragedy on the island.
Hours before Sunday’s championship game, Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico and left over a million people without power.
The devastation was a somber reminder of Puerto Rico’s struggles and lack of support from the mainland U.S.
PRIHA used its victory as a sign of the collective resilience possessed by Puerto Ricans.
Scott Vargas (no relation), PRIHA founder and D-I captain, commended players for persisting through tragedy to represent their nation.
“We built an amazing community. I think you saw that throughout the weekend… we represent Puerto Rico, we represent 23 states in the U.S…. everyone is Boricua [Puerto Rican by birth or descent] though,” Scott Vargas said.
UB’s Vargas family never lost their connection to the island. Hector Vargas Sr. visited with his parents as a child. Following past hurricanes, the brothers’ grandfather sent generators to the island to help their recovery efforts.
For the brothers, Puerto Rican stories, food and culture shaped their identities. Their Puerto Rican ancestors paved the way for their lives today.
They added a new page to the family history in September. As three of the first 200 hockey players to represent Puerto Rico in international competition, Hector, Daniel and Antonio Vargas blazed a trail for the next generation of Puerto Rican athletes.
“It was so fulfilling,” their mother, Christine Vargas, said. “I think they feel more connected than ever to Puerto Rico.”
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