Three Minnesota high school girls’ hockey players and natives of Colombia — all of whom were adopted within a few months of each other from the same place in Bogota — have been key contributors this week for Team Colombia at the Pan American Ice Hockey Tournament in Mexico City.
Despite being the youngest players on the team at age 15, they do have one distinct advantage over their teammates who still live and play hockey in Colombia: the three Minnesotans get to practice on ice.
“For almost 15 years, we’ve had in-line hockey in Colombia,” said Carolina Sierro, manager of the Colombian team. “That’s the only surface we can practice. It’s a sport that’s not well-known in Colombia.”
But through efforts like the Pan American tournament, which is in its fourth year, attempts are being made to grow the game in Central and South America. Those efforts are evident and have added to the cultural experience of the three Minnesotans on the roster — Tori Thorson and Caitlin Breen, who play at Duluth Marshall and Bella Sampsell, who plays at Breck (a private school in Golden Valley).
All three players scored goals over the course of Colombia’s first two games — victories Tuesday and Wednesday over Argentina and Brazil. But at this tournament, which runs through the weekend, hockey is only part of the experience.
“Right from the start when we got here, our teammates were super friendly and treated us like family,” Thorson said this week from Mexico City. “Even though we speak different languages, we already have great relationships.”
Breen echoed those sentiments, adding: “The girls are really understanding, and they want to learn English. We want to learn Spanish. We bond when we teach each other stuff.”
Sampsell said she learned about Colombia’s team when she and her family came across YouTube videos. From there, Sierro was contacted about potentially having the girls play in the tournament. Though they were initially deemed to be too young, they received special permission to play.
Sierro said the tournament started in 2014 as a result of the Mexican federation wanting to grow the sport of ice hockey in other countries. She said Colombia was “hooked” from the start. But the first time the country played in the tournament, players had only a few hours to practice on ice before it began.
“We don’t have ice rinks, and there’s no way we can practice. All we know is in-line,” she said. “The first time they switched from roller to ice it was hard — mostly with the stopping. They looked like Bambi with their legs. They were using the boards to stop.”
All three Minnesotans said their expectation was that their teammates would struggle because of that, but each added they have been impressed by their fellow players’ strength, athleticism and attitudes.
“All the teams just want to have fun. It’s really interesting to see everyone come together and just laugh about the game afterward with the other team,” Breen said.
“It shows how much passion they have for the game and how much they want it to grow.”