Jamaica’s Winter Olympic ice hockey dream bolstered by IIHF acceptance

With the International Ice Hockey Federation calendar coming to a close, the IIHF held its Annual Congress in Helsinki ahead of this weekend's semifinals and title game of the 2012 World Championships.

During the Congress, Jamaica and Qatar, two countries which aren't known for anything close to cold weather, were accepted as the 71st and 72nd members of the IIHF. Aside from the usual superpowers of Canada, Russia, Sweden and the U.S., there are plenty of non-traditional hockey countries among the now 72 nations currently members.

According to the IIHF, Qatar becomes the third country from the Gulf region, joining United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. There are two rinks in Qatar and its hockey program was founded in 2010 and currently features a senior league with five teams and 70 players.

Despite having a single rink in the country and only 20 players, this is just the first step for Jamaica as it has bigger goals for the future in regards to its hockey program.

This past winter, the Jamaican Olympic Ice Hockey Federation was founded.

Yes, that's right, Jamaica has Olympic plans.

After becoming the story of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, later portrayed in the movie "Cool Runnings," Jamaica's goal is to participate in a future Winter Olympics. The original goal was to participate in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, but given the timetable, it was impossible, so all eyes are focusing now on the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Currently, Jamaica is considered an associate member and not yet ready to participate in any IIHF events, but the groundwork is being laid.

In December, the Jamaica Olympic Ice Hockey Team (JOIT), based in Denver, met with Olivia Grange, the minister of Youth, Sports and Culture in Jamaica. Also there helping the JOIT was Willie O'Ree, the first player of color to play in the NHL.

The JOIT was founded by an American father and son of Jamaican decent. The son, 22-year-old Edmond R. Phillips, was born in Columbus, Ohio, and has played hockey since he was young and is a current level-four coach.

O'Ree was contacted by Les Franklin, who runs a diversity program in Denver, to help out. They plan to search out players of Jamaican decent, have them train in Denver, and eventually qualify for the 2018 Games. Assisting the group is Devon Harris, an original member of the Jamaican bobsled team.

There seems to be plenty of support for Jamaica's goal to make this happen.

From the The Gleaner in December:

The JOIHT will not require financial support from Jamaica's already cash-strapped coffers, but have budgeted that to achieve their goals it will cost about US$1.7 million, money that they claim they are well on the way to acquiring.

"We have some funding sources in place. Members of our team are on the boards of major banks in the United States. We have celebrities, we have sports figures. We just spoke with a prominent Jamaican hockey player in Canada who has pledged his support. We have so many people who are willing to come on board financially, and we are also going to make Jamaicans all over the world be part of it, if they want to contribute."

We don't know yet whether or not NHL players will participate in Sochi, let alone Pyeongchang in 2018, but given a six-year head start, Jamaica has some time to develop its own hockey program. Qualifying for the Olympics may seem like a lofty proposition, but Jamaica has taken its first important step in that direction.

A Jamaican bobsled team sounded crazy at one point, too.

Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy

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