21 March 2005

Hockey, Mexico-style: The Zamboni is broken, and the players are on strike. Sigh


From the Ottawa Citizen

David Agren
Citizen Special

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- The old barn looks like something from the Canadian Prairies with its rounded roof and small ticket booth next to the front door. Inside, a sprinkling of fans shiver on the wooden bleachers, sipping coffee and eating doughnuts. Players in full equipment chase the puck up and down a dimly lit rink.

Welcome to Ice Land in Guadalajara, where turmoil over money plagues the local hockey scene -- just like in Canada. The four adult teams in Mexico's second-largest city packed up their skates and sticks two months ago to protest high rink fees and ice conditions that could charitably be described as horrible.

"The owner doesn't care about maintaining (the rink)," complains Omar Guzman, a defenceman in the recreational league and coach of the peewee and bantam teams here. "The Zamboni doesn't work properly."

The surface in Ice Land is carved to shreds. Puddles cover the back portions of the faceoff circles in the rink's south end. Tire marks from the Zamboni mar the centre ice area. Several feet before the end boards, the ice is a tangled mass of impassible shards. One corner lacks proper boards and glass is missing from behind one of the nets.

Although the rink is third-rate by Canadian standards, the rental fee is high. "It's expensive, Guzman explains. "If this was good, (the price) would be fine."Despite the actions of their adult peers, the peewee and bantam squads still practice on the substandard surface, providing Western Mexico's only live ice hockey fix.

At first glance, these guys resemble a decent Canadian house team. Take number 19: he looks like an average hockey player with his green Dallas Stars jersey, black CCM pants and and white helmet. But while leading a two-on-none break he fans on a pass, loses an edge and slides on his backside into a giant puddle behind the net. With the rink in a state of disrepair, the players move one of the nets 10 feet toward centre to avoid the mess. The puck jumps haphazardly over the players' sticks all practice long.

Obviously, not many youngsters take up ice hockey in soccer-mad Mexico. About 80 players, covering all age groups, skate regularly in Guadalajara, a city of almost five million people. A team from the city travelled to the famous Quebec International Peewee Tournament earlier this year, losing all of its games, including a 14-0 thrashing by a French squad.

Guzman, 25, has suited up for Mexico in several lower-tier world championship tournaments. The team finished in last place on one occasion and near the bottom the rest of the time.

"We have good players," he contends, but the team needs "more support."

Sporting dreadlocks, jeans and a blue Disneyland pullover, he puts the 13 youngsters through a standard series of skating and shooting drills, but takes time during water breaks to make out with his girlfriend, who watches all of his practices and plays with the city's lone female team.

He idolizes New Jersey Devils defenceman Scott Stevens for the way he hits. As practice winds down, he introduces a contact drill; he bodychecks each player -- some half his age -- trying to get by him with the puck. Disgusted with one slacking player, he crosschecks him from behind into the boards -- an infraction that would bring a five-minute major in any Canadian league.

Still, it's a reminder of home for this Canadian -- until the practice ends and the players leave the cold, dark rink for the gentle breeze of a warm Mexican evening.

David Agren is a Canadian writer living in Mexico.

19 March 2005

Sheltering dogs causes friction with neighbors for retired priest

Story by : David Agren

Lawrence Gerard, a retired Catholic priest from New York, shelters more than 60 dogs in his yellow and blue home across from the U.S. consulate on Calle Libertad. He rescued most from the street. Some were dumped at his home by their owners. Many have been abused at some point.

"I keep hoping the number goes down," he said in his living room, where small dogs, ranging from poodles to a cocker spaniel covered the floor and a black Scottish terrier, fresh from getting a bath and a haircut, chewed on a knapsack. He locked two overactive mutts in the bathroom, where they scratched at the door.

"Every time I go somewhere, there's a dog waiting to be rescued."

Sheltering so many dogs has caused quarrels with two local business owners who have complained to city hall. A restaurateur across the street objected to the smell and noise coming from Gerard's property. The owner of the vacant building next door, which has a side patio overlooking Gerard's front yard, also complained.

"He’s blaming me because he can't rent the place," Gerard said of his neighbor.

The owner of a restaurant operating on the other side of his home has never voiced displeasure with the dogs. A tarp blocks the patrons’ view of Gerard's place.

According to Gerard, the business owner across the street wanted to adopt a pet husky four months ago, but the former priest declined his request. Gerard recalled the man telling him at the time: "I'm going to bring you down."

The business owner, who runs a nameless loncheria on Calle Libertad, was unavailable for comment last week. David Arias, an employee, confirmed that someone at the small restaurant had lodged a complaint with city hall.

Gerard defended his dogs' behavior: "They're silent until the morning.

"All the dogs are in the house for the night."

During the interview, the large dogs in front of the house barked at the occasional passerby and a deliveryman bringing a sack full of lunches. But mostly, the canines inside napped while the outside dogs moped around the premises.

Shortly after the altercation with the business owner, Guadalajara bylaw officers paid Gerard a visit.

They slapped him with fines totaling 8,000 pesos, which he refuses to pay.
Gerard added that several officers quietly solicited bribes.

"I never offer a bribe. Never," he said adamantly.

The citations mentioned problems with noise and odors and allege he runs a business, but said nothing about having too many animals. One ticket, which a dog partially chewed up along with an envelope full of important documents, described Gerard as "an aggressive Gringo."

"It shows you the attitude they have towards me," he remarked.

Adding to his woes, he recently posted a sign in front of his house to encourage dog adoptions, but it prompted the health department to accuse him of running a business without the proper licenses. Even worse, the sign encouraged more people to leave unwanted dogs in his care than to take one home.

Caring for homeless dogs consumes Gerard's retirement. He seldom leaves the house, venturing out mainly to drop off packages at the post office, visit a nearby veterinary clinic and buy enormous amounts of dog food.

"I have to stay and watch the dogs so the city council won't come and take them away," he said, adding that some of the canines fight, requiring him to stay put and play peacemaker.

The financial costs are large. He spends 200 pesos to have each dog vaccinated and checked by Alberto Martin Cordero, a veterinarian at the San Francisco veterinary. All the bitches are spayed at a cost of 400 pesos each.

"I don't get that money back," he said.

He charges 200 pesos to adopt a dog, a sum he said shows a potential owner is serious about the decision and can afford to look after the new pet.

Although capable of receiving donations through his registered charity called Saint Vincent's, Gerard mostly finances his mission with his retirement income and by selling vestments, incense pots and chalices.

He acknowledged his house is less than ideal and would move if he could afford to.
"I'd rather be in a more secluded area," he said.

Until then, he promised to keep fighting city hall and living in Guadalajara, saying: "It seems to be my destiny to come here and do this."

14 March 2005

Happy St. Patrick's Day


St. Patrick's Day arrives a little early in San Patricio-Melaque, Mexico.

Photo by Aaron Paton