Thursday, July 15, 2004

Roller hockey riding a wave of popularity


International tourney here reflects sport's growth

By Colleen Kane
Enquirer staff writer

[photo]
Norwood's Bob Reihs, 26, controls the puck during a roller hockey game at Sports Plus in Evendale.
The Enquirer/SARAH CONARD
A group of British teenagers who call themselves the Undertakers zip around a rink at Sports Plus arena Monday evening. They slap a puck back and forth and into two nets, warming up for a scrimmage against a team of 35-and-over Americans.

They've been introduced to several American sports in the five days they've been in Ohio, playing football at their host's barbecue and going to a Dayton Dragons baseball game - where their coach, Pete Jones, finally learned what an RBI is. But this rink in this arena - this is why they've made the trip from the Midlands of the United Kingdom.

Because if roller hockey's your game, there's no better place in the world than Cincinnati the next two weeks.

The Undertakers are among the more than 375 teams and estimated 12,000 people who will attend the North American Roller Hockey Championships (NARCh) Friday through July 31 at Sports Plus. Players 6 years old to more than 35 will come from across the United States and countries such as the UK, Canada, Japan and France for NARCh, considered the biggest hockey tournament - roller or ice - in the world.

"To play against the best teams, you've got to go to NARCh," said Daryn Goodwin, NARCh president.

HOW THEY DIFFER
Never watched roller hockey before? Here's how it compares to ice hockey:
• Equipment: Roller hockey uses blades with inline wheels and ice hockey uses hockey skates, so stopping is the biggest change when moving from one to the other. Most of the same padding and helmets are used in both. Inline's puck is slightly lighter and can move faster.
• Players: There are four skaters plus a goalie on the floor at once for a team in roller hockey, but five skaters plus a goalie for ice hockey.
• There's contact but no checking in roller hockey.
• There are no icing or offsides penalties in roller hockey.
WANT TO PLAY?
Try these leagues:
Skatetown USA
Where: 8730 North Pavilion Dr., West Chester
When: Beginning this fall - open house Sept. 11, registration deadline Sept. 18.
Cost: $125 per child plus one-time $28 jersey fee; $800 per adult team.
Time: 10 weeks (eight regular-season games plus playoffs).
Register at: Skatetownusa.us
Cincinnati Inline Hockey League

Where: The Hockeydome, 5282 Kings Mills Road, Mason; and Sports Plus, 10765 Reading Road, Evendale.
When: Next session this fall - sign up mid-August.
Cost: $175 per child (USA Hockey membership included); $900 per adult team.
Time: 10 games, plus playoffs, weekly practices and three skill-development clinics.
Log on: Playinlinehockey.com
IF YOU GO
What: The North American Roller Hockey Championships (NARCh), 375-plus teams with players ages 6 to 50.
When: Friday through July 31, games starting as early as 6 a.m. to as late as 1 a.m.
Where: Sports Plus, 10765 Reading Road, Evendale.
Directions: I-75 to Exit 14 toward Woodlawn/Evendale to Glendale
Milford Road; left on Reading Road.
Cost: Free for spectators.
Schedule
Gold divisions: Friday-July 23.
Girls' division: Friday-Sunday.
High school division: Sunday-
July 21.
Division 1: July 26-29.
35-and-over: July 29-31.
Cub, Atom divisions: July 23-26.
Platinum divisions: Tuesday-July 31.
Pro division: July 22-25.
Silver divisions: July 27-31.
The NARCh Finals in Cincinnati are open to any team that played in one of 25 regional qualifiers. Those tournaments helped to place teams in one of 30 divisions, sorted by age group, which include high school, college and women's divisions, and skill level - Silver, Gold or Platinum. A pro division, in which players will compete for a total purse of $20,000, also will be played July 22-25. Games sometimes will be played 20 hours a day on the facility's three rinks, two of which will be converted from ice to roller rinks.

"We've come to have some great hockey," Jones said. "You cannot find anywhere better in the world to play roller hockey than this."

Of course, NARCh - and roller hockey, for that matter - were not always this big.

Local, nationwide growth

Al Rountree and Doug Louder remember the early 1990s when, if you wanted to play roller hockey, you went to an open parking lot.

At that time, Rountree was trying to help a group of neighborhood kids who wanted to play hockey but couldn't afford ice time. They started playing roller hockey in a schoolyard. He and Louder also started playing in a primitive Cincinnati Recreation Commission league.

"They had orange safety nets for boards," Louder said. "It was really bad, more a safety hazard than anything. And that was played with a ball. It was windy and the ball would go all over the place."

Then in 1996, Rountree went to his first big tournament. It was in Illinois, played on a real court with boards and a puck. Soon after, he began to put together a business plan. He purchased The Hockeydome in Mason in 1999 and developed the Cincinnati Inline Hockey League, which now also plays out of Sports Plus.

He saw participation at The Hockeydome increase from 62 to 396 kids in three years. His league now has an average of 120 kids per session (four sessions a year) and 25 adult teams per session.

Likewise, Ken Roesel of Skatetown USA said he has seen roller hockey participation double every year, peaking with 360 kids this year. Rountree also puts on tournaments, clinics and camps, and fields a group of travel teams - the Cincinnati Storm - several of which will play in NARCh. The Skatetown Swords, the group of select teams out of Skatetown USA, also will play in five NARCh divisions. Altogether, at least 25 teams from Ohio will play in this year's NARCh, including Louder's Lizard Kings, a 35-and-over Platinum team, and high school teams from Lakota West and Moeller.

NARCh also has seen growth. Now in its 11th year, it has exploded since its inaugural tournament in St. Louis in 1994, which saw 38 teams compete. Ten thousand players participated in the NARCh regionals this year.

"We've just offered what we think is a great product," Goodwin said. "We have pride and integrity ... and over the years the word has spread."

People are finding out that, "bottom line, it's just a fun sport," Goodwin said.

And that includes a group of people who might have been skeptical when the sport started - ice hockey players.

Melting icy feelings

Ice hockey players used to look at roller hockey, as Goodwin termed it, "like it was the red-headed stepchild."

"A lot of people think of it as playing in a parking lot, shooting into a garbage can, but it's so much more than that," Goodwin said. "They'll be amazed by the talent level."

Respect for roller hockey is growing, and both Goodwin and Rountree said they're seeing more crossover players and more ice coaches looking to recruit roller players.

A number of big-time ice hockey players have been involved in NARCh, including Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Van Ryn and collegiate players Gabe Gauthier of NCAA champion Denver and T.J. Hensick of Michigan.

The Undertakers' Dan Taylor, 19, wanted to play ice hockey, but there were no rinks nearby so he took up roller hockey instead.

Louder, 44, played on ice since he was 8 but found as he got older, ice time for adults was scheduled too late. Sometimes games wouldn't start until midnight, not an option for a guy who had to work at 6:30 a.m., so he made the switch. He also likes that there is less contact in roller hockey because there's no checking - better for smaller players.

Some ice players use it as a break from their usual game in the offseason while still honing their skills. And rink time is cheaper - compare about $175 per person per session for roller to $520 a session for ice hockey. Entry-level players can decide if the sport is for them without as much investment.

More expansion?

Of course, there's always room for improvement.

"Because it's not as dominant as ice, you don't get quite the recognition as ice," Louder said. "And there's no NHL equivalent of roller hockey, which would really boost the sport a lot."

One professional league, Roller Hockey International, folded in 1999, partly because there wasn't a minor league or feeder system. But Rountree said he could see a professional league in the future, which would add to the recognition of the sport.

As for his leagues, bringing teams such as the Undertakers to Cincinnati can only help with publicity.

"I hope it does bring a lot of notoriety to Cincinnati," Rountree said. "People could get intrigued and want to play, and then our leagues will grow."

E-mail ckane@enquirer.com




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