No Ice? No Problem: In-line Hockey Takes Off
MIAMI (AP) _ Chris Leitner of the ’Cudas skates by two defenders at the point and it’s a race to the goal. But he loses his balance and crashes just right of the net before getting off a shot.
Most 11-year-olds would be crying after such a spill. Some adults might even whimper. But this is hockey and there is no time for tears with the Sparks breaking out toward the ‘Cudas’ goal and Leitner crumpled on the concrete.
Shortly before professional hockey moved into the Sunbelt states, the old-time four-wheel roller skates _ quads _ underwent a dramatic transformation. In-line skates, coupled with a growing interest in hockey, have caused an explosion of youth, adult and professional roller hockey leagues.
No ice? No problem.
In Florida and California _ where local ponds rarely freeze _ the sport is played on driveways, parking lots and basketball courts with skaters of all ages chasing a hard rubber ball instead of a puck.
``I just play wherever I can,″ said Kirk Weiss, 14, who competes in two South Florida leagues. ``If there’s people playing on the side of the street with a net, I’m going to join in. You can almost say hockey’s my life. With baseball and basketball, I just got bored.″
Darryl Seibel, spokesman for USA Hockey, the governing body for hockey based in Colorado Springs, Colo., says the industry estimates 2.5 million people have played in-line hockey.
``In-line activity is absolutely soaring in the United States,″ Seibel said. ``There’s a demographic shift as more and more people are moving from the northeast areas, traditional hockey areas. ... People are moving from these areas and taking the game with them.″
Since every player must, at the very least, have a stick and skates _ never mind the gloves, helmet and other accessories _ in-line hockey has translated into big dollars for sports equipment manufacturers.
Henry Zuver, director of the International In-line Skating Association in Atlanta, says companies made $125 million because of the new sport _ and that’s a conservative estimate.
``The Wayne Gretzky types have put a face and name to a particular type of sport and kids want to be like those players,″ Zuver said. ``But they didn’t have access to ice, especially when you get to Southern states where the cost of ice time is prohibitive.″
Ice time at the Miami Ice Arena, for example, costs $200 an hour _ about enough to outfit a child for roller hockey.
Karhu USA Inc. in South Burlington, Vt., says it enjoyed a 300 percent increase in sales of off-ice products last year. Companies like UltraWheels in Minneapolis have seen their value shoot up nearly eight times. Canstar _ a big name in hockey _ was just purchased by Nike.
``Hockey, in general, is booming right now,″ said David Smallwood, vice president of U.S. hockey operations for Karhu. ``With roller and street hockey, there is no geographic boundary. ... It has been the biggest growth area for our company in the last three years and we are projecting record increases into 1997.″
The grass-roots support for in-line hockey is epitomized in West Kendall, a suburban area south of Miami, where two brothers from Manhattan and a friend have jump-started youth and adult hockey leagues.
Tom and Bill Ryan moved to the Miami area in the early 1980s. They were able to play some roller hockey on quads, but that didn’t last long. Then one day in 1991, Tom Ryan saw some young adults playing with a ball on in-line skates.
``He said, `We can’t play with a ball,‴ Bill Ryan said. ``But we started to play and we realized we can play with a ball and it can be pretty fun.″
Their hockey fanaticism soon led them to open Ryan’s Roller Hockey shop with Willie Leitner, father of Chris, and found the Hammocks Roller Hockey Club. They began playing on a basketball court at Hammocks Middle School, and then in the parking lot in front of their store.
The Ryans later spotted an old abandoned basketball court across the street from a local country club. With a little sandblasting, the court became the perfect roller hockey surface _ smooth, hard and the size of a professional rink.
``We basically started with 10 kids. Now we are up to about 150 and that was just in two years,″ said Bill Ryan.
The youth teams play traditional five-on-five hockey with a goalie and offsides at the blue line. There’s not supposed to be any checking, but there’s plenty of bumping and dumping _ what the referees shrug off as incidental contact.
The Hammocks youth league is divided into three age groups _ 7-9, 10-12 and 13-17 _ and runs all year.
``Every kid has to have full equipment,″ Bill Ryan said. ``Nobody really gets hurt. They get bumped and bruised here and there, but that’s about it.″
Now and then, a group of mothers will boo a player who gets too rough. So there is supervision beyond the two officials, who routinely send players to the penalty box for roughing, tripping and hooking.
Each Saturday, parents picnic on one side of the makeshift rink, cheering on their children with as much enthusiasm as any Little League crowd.
``Parents come out here at 9 a.m. and they are still here at 3 p.m.,″ said Willie Leitner. ``It’s a good place to hang out.″
For James Stratton, other youth sports were too competitive. Though every team plays to win in the Hammocks youth league, it doesn’t come at the expense of fun, he said.
``My kid played football, but the coach was so concerned with winning, it wasn’t a lot of fun to come out and see the kids crying,″ said Stratton, whose 11-year-old son James Jr. plays on the Stars, a team Stratton coaches in the 10- to 12-year-old division.
For the players, the non-stop action is infectious and doesn’t exclude lesser-skilled players or girls. The goalie for the Flames _ last season’s champions in the 13- to 17-year-old division _ is a teen-age girl.
``You can’t hide from it,″ said Bill Ryan, whose chipped front teeth speak of his love for the sport. ``In baseball, they can put you in right field and then the ball never gets hit to you. On the hockey team, you can’t hide from the ball or puck.″
Not that stars aren’t emerging in these youth leagues.
On a recent Saturday, a scout for the Miami Wildcats _ an upstart professional roller hockey team in the Continental In-line Hockey League _ was taking a look at 17-year-old Jimmy Blankenship of the Flames.
``A couple years ago, when it was real small I told everybody to get into this because you won’t be shut out. Now, it’s exploded,″ said Blankenship, who plays, officiates and coaches in the league.
Connie Blankenship, Jimmy’s mother, coaches the Flames and a team in the youngest division. For her, the Hammocks hockey league is exactly the right medicine for adolescents and young adults.
``I can speak for the Flames _ as a team they are family,″ she said. ``They go to the movies together, they all spend the night together on Friday night, they have barbecues after the games. We had a couple of kids who were getting in trouble, they were headed for gangs and it turned them around completely.″
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