Claudia Téllez recently became the first Mexican player to apply for the annual Canadian Women’s Hockey League Draft. This year the draft will take place in Toronto, Canada on August 21, 2016. Téllez is a member of the Mexican women’s national ice hockey team, which began only in 2012 with the 2018 Winter Olympics in its sights.
While the team still has the chance to qualify for the Olympics, with two spots left to teams via a qualification tournament, Mexico is ranked no. 26 in the world, according to the IIHF’s most recent estimates, and unlikely to make it to Pyeongchang. That, however, isn’t stopping Téllez, who sees a spot in the CWHL as a win-win for her own development and her country’s.
Excelle Sports spoke with Téllez via Skype on her career and the development of the Mexico women’s ice hockey team.
[Note: The interview was conducted in Spanish and translated into English by Kate Cimini.]
Kate Cimini: When did you first become interested in hockey? How did your story begin?
Claudia Téllez: I started…it wasn’t anything big when I started. I played basketball since I was in high school.
Where are you from?
I’m from Guadalajara. Now I live in Mexico City, but I’m from Guadalajara, Jalisco. When I was seventeen they invited me to play inline hockey in the new rink in Guadalajara, so I started playing at 17 and kept playing until a little while ago—28,29. I left inline hockey and started playing ice hockey. I played inline for 14 years.
You were one of the first people on the national women’s ice hockey team, yes?
Exactly. Everything started approximately four years ago. The Mexican Ice Hockey Federation began working towards the goal of classifying for the Winter Olympic Games four years ago. The IIHF states that, in order to be in the league you have to have players, teams and you have to have this league for at least one year. Then you can apply to the World Championships. (The IIHF’s regulation on how teams can earn membership can be found here in greater detail.)
Once you’ve accomplished this, you can try for the Olympics. We’re going to the first phase in October, playing against Hong Kong and Turkey. This all began four years ago when we drew from all the girls who played inline hockey [in Mexico]. [The Federation] reached out to us, and we started this project together. I don’t play inline hockey anymore, just ice hockey. Frankly, I came to Mexico City precisely to work towards building a national team.
At the moment, Mexico is the only team that represents Latin America in international ice hockey competitions. How do you see that fact changing? Do other countries need a similar project like Mexico’s Federation?
It’s a big project, this problem with Latin American countries. The fact is, many [areas] don’t have ice rinks. They do have hockey, they have inline hockey. The teams that come to Mexico to play in the Pan-American tournament, they only play inline hockey and it’s very difficult work for them, to find ice to practice on.
They are very enthusiastic [about playing on ice] but no one is investing in ice skating rinks. But the people and leaders are very interested, and that’s why they love the tournament we put on in Mexico so much. I used to work for the Mexican Ice Hockey Federation. That’s why I moved to Mexico City. I couldn’t have come without a job, so the President of the Federation offered me work on this particular project in addition to playing for the Mexican national team.
I decided to leave my position recently to dedicate myself 100 percent to being an athlete and improving my game. Now I live in a sports village with national team athletes. Most of them are preparing for the Summer Olympic Games. I live pretty close to the rink. It’s a situation that let me leave my job and dedicate myself entirely to preparing for an Olympic program. Before, as part of my job the President asked me to organize the first Pan-American Tournament, which was three years ago, [when I worked for the Federation].
I brought that to life, and the second one as well. I had already left when they began working on the third but I helped a little with that, too. I was the head of operations, so I ran those events.
What do you do to earn money now?
The CoNaDe (Comisión Nacional de Deportes), which is the National Sports Commission, gives a stipend to every female athlete. It gives all of us on the women’s team a stipend. It’s very little money but at least we can survive. Well, for survival it’s pretty decent. Here in the village they give me food, housing, I pay for detergent and they wash my clothes…I also get a gym membership, there’s a swimming pool, physical therapy, and the government pays for training for the entire women’s team. It’s not a lot of money that they give us, but what we have in the village makes it more than sufficient for us to live on. And by coaching the children’s team I earn a little more, too.
Mexico’s only had a women’s national ice hockey team for four years. How have you seen women’s hockey grow in your country over those four years?
Well, there were not many players who left inline for ice hockey. There were about 50 of us out of 200 players. Yes, it has grown a decent amount, but the most growth has been with the girls. Before, our group was mainly made up of [older players]. Now you see girls 20 and up, 25 or so in clubs, out on the ice at the rinks. And little girls, three and four years old. That’s really important. If there were going to be growth, there needed to be interest.
As a matter of fact, we have enough [young players] to fill a U-18 team to go to the next Women’s Worlds.
Do you see this application for the CWHL Draft as a step that could help Mexico’s national team, or do you think it stands a better chance of helping you in particular?
No, of course it helps our team. I’ll tell you that the President of our Federation (Joaquín Ángel de la Garma San Millán) chatted with Brenda Andress because we’re interested in entering a team, a club in the league (CWHL). It’s complicated because, well, they don’t know us, they don’t know our level and they were pretty interested in the idea but [ultimately are holding off].
They did tell us that it would be a good first step if Mexican players applied to the Draft. I think it would help promote ice hockey as much in Mexico as it does in Latin America. Mexico started the Pan-American Tournament, which more than anything, was developed to promote Latin American ice hockey.
It’s complicated to travel to the United States and this, at least, would be a kind of change. It’s much easier for Latinos to travel to Mexico. [Growing ice hockey in Latin America] is the reason behind this tournament and is my intention as well…to be part of this growth and part of the CWHL would be so cool. And it would open doors to other things, as well.
So why apply to the CWHL? What interests you in it?
I love hockey and ever since I was very little I’ve always looked up to the best players. I always watched the Olympic Games. I don’t know if we’ll reach that level–it’s something that depends not just on me, but on my teammates and staff–but I think the CWHL is an option that can help me grow as an individual.
It would be something historic for Mexico, and perhaps even for Latin America, if a Mexican player played in the CWHL. I think that players could emerge [if they played] there. That’s where my interest lies. I’ll do whatever I can to promote and support ice hockey in my country.
Why did you apply for the CWHL draft and not the NWHL’s training camps?
Everything started here. We began attending Hayley Wickenheiser’s tournament about four years ago and on various occasions have had the opportunity to be coached by the Calagry Inferno. I think that’s where I fell in love with the league. All the teams and both leagues are great but I think I prefer the CWHL and the support the people there have given us.
Do you hope that you’ll see your Mexican national team teammates join you in the CWHL over the next few years?
Yes, of course. When they learned I had I entered they were very happy for me, and I hope they will as well, once they finish school. If they want to, of course. If they’re interested in Mexico starting its own team.
Have you selected any teams in particular for this Draft?
I would like it if a team in Toronto selected me. I like how they play, but apart from that I can see myself there. I have friends, acquaintances and know coaches in the area.
What would you say are your strengths as a player?
Puck handling is what I practice the most and I think it’s one of the better parts of my team’s game. I think I would call myself a playmaker, maybe a little bit of a sniper, too. I’m a player that creates opportunities for others, and can also score. My slapshots are also pretty good, too. They’re very strong.
What do you want to accomplish by playing in the CWHL?
I want to make a name for myself in the sport. My sport and, I don’t know—open doors for my teammates, maybe help grow other divisions in other countries. It’s complicated, isn’t it, and rising in a division is very, very difficult. I think that could happen, though, if I go to the CWHL, right?
I know it’s very complicated. I think I am a strong enough player, but what I lack is speed. And that won’t improve unless I play there [with faster players].
The time we play at [on the national team], the weather, the tempo; our speed is a bit slower. When we play in Canada we definitely—we go to Toronto every August to play six games in preparation for the Olympics. That helps us, but most of all, it helps our speed.
I really want to play in the CWHL. I hope they give me the opportunity to prove myself.