Puerto Rico wins 'emotional' ice hockey championship hours after Hurricane Fiona made landfall

Scott Vargas and the Puerto Rico men’s hockey team took the ice with heavy hearts three hours after Hurricane Fiona made landfall on their island.

Playing in Division 1 of the AMERIGOL LATAM Cup final, Puerto Rico earned its first organizational championship with a 4-3 victory against Argentina at the Florida Panthers IceDen Sept. 18 in Coral Springs, Florida.

There was a brief celebration in the locker room, but not before players and staff quickly grabbed their phones to check on family members and friends in the direct path of the deadly hurricane.

"It had only been a few hours since the hurricane made landfall. We didn’t know everything but we knew it was going to be pretty tough," Vargas told USA TODAY Sports. "I think it solidified the fact there wasn’t much we could do from a locker room in Florida, but we knew we could represent Puerto Rico at the highest level we possibly could. That’s what we set out to do on the ice."

Hurricane Fiona left more than 1 million people without power and nearly half of a major water authority's customers lacked running water in the aftermath of the storm, which came just five years after Hurricane Maria killed roughly 3,000 people and destroyed the island’s electrical system.

"It was a very small thing we could do for everyone who was ultimately going to struggle and is still struggling today on the island," Vargas said.

Vargas, whose father was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, co-founded and incorporated the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association in 2019. He's a former NCAA Division 3 hockey defenseman, who later played overseas in Finland. Vargas, 31, now serves as the organization’s president and on-ice captain.

During their first trip to the LATAM Cup in 2019, Vargas, his father and two brothers made up four of the 10 players on Puerto Rico’s roster. Three years later, the organization had more than 200 player-members and brought 105 athletes to the 2022 LATAM Cup, which saw both Vargas’ Division 1 squad and Puerto Rico’s Under-20 team win championships. The island’s Under-16 team took second place and its Under-12 and women’s contingents finished as semifinalists.

"I couldn’t be more proud of every single team," Vargas said. "What we’re trying to get each person in the organization to understand is you’re representing an entire nation. There’s some gravity there. Every time I put the jersey on, I always feel it being much larger than myself. There’s a lot of responsibility."

Vargas said the organization recently became part of the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee. On Wednesday, Puerto Rico joined the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the worldwide governing body for the sport, as its 83rd member association. For Vargas, both affiliations represent significant growth for hockey in Puerto R

Win for Puerto Rico

Zachary Newman, 30, was born in San Juan and learned about the hockey organization from one of his teammates in a men’s league in South Florida. Alfonso Diaz, also a member of the Puerto Rico squad, recruited Newman ahead of the 2022 LATAM Cup where Newman led the team in scoring with nine points (four goals, five assists) in five games.

Newman, whose expecting a child with his wife in November, scored the first goal in Sunday’s game and described an emotional pregame meeting between the players in the locker room.

"We got together in the locker room and said, 'We should do this for Puerto Rico,'" Newman said. "When we heard the storm was hitting Puerto Rico head-on, we knew we had to do this for the island and band together. We got it done."

Puerto Rico built up a 4-1 lead after two periods, but nerves began to take effect when Argentina scored twice in the third. Newman said Vargas and some of the other senior players on the team offered reassuring words on the bench.

"Just keep your head down," Newman said of the message, "and play for that 'PR' on your jersey – Puerto Rico – and you’ll be fine."

Axel Lifvendahl and his younger brother, Eric, also joined Puerto Rico for the 2022 LATAM Cup, marking the first time the pair had ever played on the same team. Instead of fully enjoying their championship win, the brothers were more concerned with the welfare of family members. The Lifvendahls, whose grandparents grew up on the island, have cousins who live in Puerto Rico and were affected by the power outages but were able to find safe shelter.

"The emotions in that final one were definitely running high," Lifvendahl, 26, said. "It’s obviously really tragic and a lot of us having close family members still struggling. To stay focused was sort of difficult, but it added fuel to the fire and gave the guys a little kick in the butt. When we spoke to our mom, it was almost exactly what they needed as fans. One small win doesn’t go a long way, but for someone’s mental state it really meant a lot more than just a hockey game.

"It was a testament to the resilience of Puerto Ricans and it was powerful, definitely."

Vargas said resilience is a central definition of "Boricua" – a term that describes a person Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican descent – that is widely used by the Puerto Rico Ice Hockey Association.

"We use the term 'Boricua,'" Vargas said. "And we’re all Boricua. Everyone has a different background and connects with the culture in a different way. But there’s still a core part that shines through: resilience. I was taught that to be Boricua is to be resilient. Our team lived that and embodied that resilience to make Puerto Rico proud."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico, ice hockey team showed resilience