Every Sunday at Peng to the Point, we talk about the world away from the San Jose Sharks.
A San Jose kid is trying to bring hockey to a Texas border town.
Nathaniel Mata was five when he started playing hockey in an unlikely place: At a mall ice rink in San Jose.
“I fell in love with it right away,” Mata recalled. “It was like a learn to skate type of class. Learn to play hockey type of class.”
It was 2000, so naturally, the San Jose Sharks’ Patrick Marleau became his favorite player: “After that, we started watching Sharks games. We went to a couple of games before we moved over here to Texas. Ever since then, I’ve loved the Sharks.”
Eastridge Ice Arena, formerly of Eastridge Mall in San Jose, is long closed. But now, Mata is spreading the gospel of the sport in a more unlikely place: McAllen, 85 percent Hispanic, near the southern tip of Texas. There are, on average, about 152 days a year when the high temperature in McAllen is over 90 degrees. That makes it one of the hottest places for ice hockey in Texas.
“It’s a different story here in Texas,” Mata said. “Hockey is not as as prevalent as in the Bay Area. And I know the Bay Area is nothing compared to Canada.”
Last year, the 25-year-old founded RGV Roller, a non-profit organization that promotes hockey through encouraging kids and adults to participate in inline and roller skating, along with floor and roller hockey.
After all, it was roller hockey that helped keep Mata in the game when his family moved to Texas in 2002.
“I found roller hockey was really cool because it was a little bit more affordable to get the gear,” he recounted. “You didn’t have to rent ice time.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic engulfed the United States, RGV Roller had held two successful community events at a local roller hockey rink. In January, RGV Hockey Fest 2020 introduced hundreds of participants to the sport. In February, Fall in Love with Hockey & Skating continued the theme with a Valentine’s Day twist.
“Before the pandemic, things were running along really smoothly,” Mata offered. “We were gonna have a whole summer of hockey camps and learn to skate camps.”
It’s been eight months and counting without any RGV Roller events. But Mata is already brainstorming post-pandemic plans. Giving away hockey equipment is a cornerstone of Mata’s plans to make sure hockey is for everybody.
“We could still definitely use [used] gear and equipment,” he shared. “We could definitely use as much financial support as we can. Be able to buy goalie pads for kids. We want to buy sticks and pads.”
Mata is also seeking guidance: “[People] could reach out to me if they have any sort of advice of how to run adult hockey leagues or in-line hockey leagues. For a lot of us, it’s really new to us.”
He’s also hoping that more roller hockey rinks will eventually be built in McAllen and surrounding Rio Grande Valley, population one million-plus: “There’s just one place to play hockey in a huge area.”
There’s also an ice skating rink in McAllen that’s currently closed.
Whatever the future holds, Mata is just glad that he’s in the position to pay it forward.
“When I was a kid, I would have loved to have these type of programs down here in Texas. They didn’t really exist unless you were on the ice,” he noted. “So I just really want to give people the opportunity to start with roller hockey. And then, if they really do enjoy it, they could find their way to the NHL, ice hockey.”
Mata continued: “Hockey is trying to figure out, how do we grow the game? You just have to give people the opportunity, a rink, a place where they could learn the game.”
That’s what Eastridge Ice Arena gave Mata: The chance to fall in love.
“I would love if Sharks fans realize that one of their own sons is down here in Texas, spreading the good word,” he said. “I’m always wearing the teal.”