A slap-shot rattles the puck off the glass. Two players battle in the corner. It is minus five degrees Celsius and steam is rising. A skate blade cuts a clean sheet of ice. A defenceman misses a poke-check, and FC Barcelona rife the net, taking the lead over bitter rivals Madrid. The crowd goes wild, blaring foghorns and waving banners. Music blasts over the dilapidated sound system and the spectators burst into a chant: "...We've got a name/that everyone knows/Barça! Barça! Baarça!"
It is a Saturday night at Camp Nou, but there is no Ronaldinho, no Thierry Henry and no seats that cost €1,000. This is the Pista del Gel—the ice rink-only a few metres from the football pitch that is the emotional heart of Catalunya.
Unless you hail from Sweden, Latvia, Canada or those other regions where people are born instinctively knowing what two metres of fresh morning snow looks, smells and feels like, ice hockey will likely mean no more to you than a 10-second clip from a late-night sports programme showing something resembling boxing on skates.
"Hockey in Spain is a small world, but things are growing, things are working well. Our young players work very hard and are truly committed," said Antoni Garcia, president of Penya Barcelonista d'Hoquei Gel—the fan club for Barça's ice hockey team. "Besides football, basketball, handball, we also play ice hockey here in Barcelona. Hockey has always been here, on grass, in-line, even on roller-skates".
The competition from other sports has not dampened Garcia's spirits. "If we build more rinks, we will have more players, then we will get more publicity and sponsorship. Now, without publicity, what can we offer a sponsor? We need to show we have a serious league".
This season, Barça will compete against Puigcerdà and Veilha (both Catalan), Tzuiri Urdin, ADR Gasteiz (Basque) Majadahona (Mardileño), Jaca (Argonese) and even a French team, Anglet Harmandi. The French squad has just joined the league, mainly, it would seem, because it is closer and cheaper to cross the Pyrenees than travel to Paris or the Alps weekly. Barça has won the league five times, the last time in 2002.
The backbone of any sporting club comes from the determination and commitment of the players and ice hockey is no exception. Enrique Zapata, 39, is a lawyer by day, and Barça's captain by night, as well as a member of the Spanish national side. "There are two types of teams", he explained. "The village teams where tradition is always stronger, and the city teams, that must compete with other sports. The city clubs have good and bad periods, they need more support."
When asked how he discovered the joys of ice hockey, Zapata smiled at the recollection. "I was waiting for a bus. My mother asked if I wanted to go swimming or play hockey. I was seven years old. I am still happy with the decision.
"Spain is in the third division, but even so, hockey has taken me to many strange places—Bulgaria, South Africa, even Wales. This year we hope to go to China to represent Spain in the Olympic games."
As with all sports, but perhaps especially one that is classed as 'minority', it takes great dedication and devotion to put in the hours that success requires. "It is not easy. I have a full-time job and I have kids. I spent my university years studying on the bus."
Ivan Codina, assistant captain, started playing when his Canadian neighbours took him skating. He was six years old. Almost a decade later, he crossed the Atlantic to Ontario for a semi-professional tryout. "The coach told me I was equal (to Canadians), but he couldn't afford to bring a European player over. But it was a great experience. I learned a lot.
"In Barcelona, we are pure lovers of the sport. We need to build more rinks, start working with schools, more media. Also it is a great way to learn English, even Swedish!"
When asked about the current season Codina was optimistic. "We have a wonderful coach, Eugeni Semeriak. He has played everywhere: Latvia, for the Soviet National squad; he was a professional for Germany. He knows what the limits are, what he can ask for and what he can get. This year we have a good shot at the cup".
Ice hockey in Barcelona began in 1972, with the building of the rink at Camp Nou. Like football, it has been influenced by foreigners, who have coached, played and taught the necessary skills over the years, but it has remained essentially local. "We are allowed five non-Spanish players per game", said Antoni Garcia. "It is important to keep the game local and not be a league for foreigners in Spain. So we focus on developing young players, we want them to be the base of the team."
Regardless, the club remains open to new members and since each team has at least 18 players, with five foreigners allowed, there is space for qualified players from abroad. "When I look out at the ice, I see the United Nations," said Javier Zapata, an ex-Barça player and organiser of the veterans' league, whose ice-scarred members play pick-up games weekly, and take part in the occasional tournament abroad. "We have players from almost 20 different countries, from Poland to Brazil. It is great fun, we keep in shape, but now that we are old, our goal is to make it to the last period."
Ice hockey here is open to children, teens and adults providing of course, they can skate. If they don't have the knack of wielding sticks at snarling opponents in defiance, hurtling down the ice at speeds of up to 40 kilometres an hour or sliding in front of a hard rubber puck moving at up to 200 kilometres an hour, then they can join the skating school at the rink and learn the finer points of the sport.
Although ice hockey is not cheap, the monthly dues are about the same as a local football club. "The problem is the equipment is expensive," said Antoni Garcia. "It is rare and imported. But we try to keep a 'library' of gear for the beginners, so equipment should not be a deterrent."
The only other skating school in Barcelona is directed by Dan Posen, a Canadian and professional trumpet player, who arrived in Barcelona 17 years ago and is the resident hockey school coach. He does not tire of preaching the sport's benefits and joys. "In cold countries ice hockey is a religion," he said. "But here in Catalunya it is a shared passion and it is very difficult to do. It really brings people together, good people."
Ice hockey is the speediest team sport on the planet. The atmosphere is fast and furious. Although the rink is cold, the bar is open and admission is free. So whether out of curiosity or a yearning to kill a case of northern-country homesickness, the doors of the Pista Gel at Camp Nou are open to one and all.
For more info:
www.fedhielo.com - Federación Española de Deportes de Hielo
www.pbhoquei.com - Penya Barcelonista d'Hoquei Gel
www.fceh.org - Federació Catalana d'Esports d'Hivern
www.fcbarcelona.com - FC Barcelona
www.hockeyhielo.com - Up-to-date statistics and schedules
www.skatingclub.cat - C/ Roger de Flor, 168, Tel. 93 245 2800
www.fcbveteranshoqueigel.com - Veteran's information