Hockey Dawn in Jamaica

Could the Caribbean paradise of Jamaica spawn a puck-themed sequel to Cool Runnings?

Jamaica | BCBusiness
Ocho Rios, just one of Jamaica’s many colourful experiences.

Could this Caribbean paradise spawn a puck-themed sequel to Cool Runnings?

Forget about sprinter Usain Bolt’s Olympic gold medals; clearly Jamaica’s biggest sports story of 2012 was receiving associate membership in the International Ice Hockey Federation last May. The initiative, driven by a Colorado-based Jamaican-American hockey player-coach named Edmond R. Phillips, might seem unlikely for this rink-free land, but could deliver another source of sporting pride for Jamaica. So, does the Caribbean’s fifth-largest island nation have a latent potential for hockey culture? It’s not as if Ocho Rios—a humid coastal resort town—is overflowing with jerseys honouring NHLers of Jamaican heritage such as P.K. Subban and Chris Stewart.

When I look more closely, however, I notice that Jamaicans have the ability to talk a good game. Kevin, my waiter at the Jewel Dunn’s River Beach Resort’s Italian restaurant, proclaims, “It’s all about my new brother right here!” when he brings my delicious lasagna. When I tip him, I get “maximum respect.” Ya, mon.

STAY Ian Fleming Villa at Goldeneye is an exclusive retreat with private pool and beach (from US$5,500; For something more affordable check out Montego Bay’s Hilton Rose Hall Resort (from US$270;
SAVOUR From organic arugula salad to kingfish kebab to jerk pork with mango sauce, Jakes Country Cuisine offers one of the South Coast’s finest gourmet experiences on a seaside patio (entrees from $7;
SEE Make the 45-minute trek up Dunn’s River Falls, a natural wonder that pours directly into the Caribbean. Knee-deep in cool, bubbling water beneath palm trees are photo ops aplenty at this Ocho Rios highlight (
SOUVENIR Jamaica’s Blue Mountain coffee is so exquisite that Starbucks doesn’t even exist on the island. Score a half-pound bag for US$12 at the Doctor’s Cave Beach gift shop in Montego Bay (
STATS Population 2,709,300; Area 10,990 sq. k.m.; Capital  Kingston; Currency  $1=93 Jamaican Dollars; Time UTC-5 (2 hours ahead of B.C.)

I decide to get a refresher on Jamaica’s diverse athletic prowess, and ride a snow-free ski lift to the summit of Mystic Mountain, an outdoor adventure park. At the top, I browse through a small museum chronicling the country’s sporting successes from cricket to netball. That includes, of course, the 1988 Olympic bobsled team, which inspired the Disney movie Cool Runnings. And after zooming down a kilometre-long bobsled-inspired roller coaster, then a wild drive south through the mountains—during which my chauffeur cordially inquires more than once, “Am I scaring you?”—I realize Jamaica’s need for speed could easily translate to hockey.

I gradually acclimatize to careening around blind corners and dodging potholes as we climb to 915 metres. But on bumpy, narrow back roads, other obstacles abound: watermelons, goats, bicyclists, girls in school uniforms, you name it. I’m impressed by the ubiquitous red earth, signaling this 235-kilometre-long island’s abundance of bauxite ore, the main source of aluminum. (That could yield a heap of the old-school hockey sticks Brendan Shanahan favoured.)

On the south coast, when I’m not chilling in my seaside cottage at Treasure Beach’s Jakes Hotel, I continue my quest for hockey-transferable experiences. I throw myself into a tour of Jamaica’s oldest sugar factory and distillery with Derek Sanderson-like gusto. Founded in 1749, Appleton Estate now produces 10 million litres of rum annually. I check out a donkey-powered sugar-cane press, taste fresh-made molasses and sample a whopping 11 varieties of rum, as does another Canadian tourist in an Edmonton Oilers T-shirt. Someday, when Gary Bettman awards Jamaica an NHL franchise, the club can aim to sip Appleton Estate rum from the Stanley Cup.

By now I’m intoxicated by Jamaica’s potential to be the next hockey Mecca, and after taking a safari on the Black River I decide the future NHL team should be called the Kingston Crocodiles. During this one-and-a-half-hour journey in an open-air motorboat on the country’s longest navigable river (53 kilometres), we spot two American crocodiles beneath the mangroves. They grow as big as five metres and 544 kilograms in these peat-darkened waters. One of the crocs opens its jaws like a Disneyland animatronic creature.

Are they dangerous? “Not usually, unless a mother’s protecting her babies or you’re bleeding,” says our captain, Cornell, who illustrates this by stopping the boat, stripping down to his underwear, and hopping into the river. “He’s a big animal, but he has a small brain.” I intuitively grasp the similarity between the crocodile and Todd Bertuzzi.

Heading to Jamaica’s westernmost tip, where the resort town of Negril provides non-stop partying, I glimpse more of the country’s hockey future. Cardio training and beer? Sure. I run the rollicking annual Reggae Marathon 10K race in 25 C heat at 5 a.m., then rehydrate seaside on Red Stripe ginger lager. In Negril, I also discover that—by the standards of a hockey traditionalist—Jamaicans are way too prone to diving. The spectacular sunset plunges of local divers from 30-foot cliffs at Rick’s Cafe would surely incur Don Cherry’s wrath. (“Ya can’t be flopping around like that, kids!”)

Before flying home from Montego Bay, I grab a final meal at the famous Scotchies jerk shack, just off Highway 2000. If you believe you are what you eat, jerk chicken—grilled over sweetwood and served chewy with hot sauce and breadfruit—is the perfect fuel for future Jamaican answers to Brad Marchand and Dave Bolland.

Will the Jamaican Olympic Ice Hockey Federation realize its ambitious goal of qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics? Seems dubious, but don’t rule out Cool Skatings.

Local Knowledge

Mandeville-born entrepreneur Jason Henzell operates Jakes Hotel on the South Coast, and chairs the board of the Breds Treasure Beach Sport Park and Academy, a 6.9-hectare youth sports tourism venture.

What’s the relationship between the hotel and the sports park?
People are becoming more concerned about their health. We offer yoga and personal trainers, mountain biking—we have some great trails. Jakes is the largest employer in the village, and so we want to bring fitness into Treasure Beach’s identity with the sport park.

What have you learned from developing the sports park?
That it’s important to build partnerships, to have good coaches and to articulate a vision of what you want to do.

How are you being innovative?
We’re one of the only hotels in Jamaica that owns its own private airdrome.

What’s your main challenge in attracting foreigners?
Treasure Beach is an unknown destination. Once we can bring a coach here, that goes away. A coach actually prefers to have a team in a more isolated area where there are fewer distractions.

What does the future hold?
We’ve created a festival called the Jamaica Soccer Cup. Next, we want to build a Jamaica Cricket Cup and Jamaica Tennis Cup. We also have a program called Edusport with community coaches that visit schools. It’s not just about winning and losing. We want to have a social and economic impact.