Twenty years ago, Roller Hockey International played its last game when the St. Louis Vipers defeated the Anaheim Bullfrogs to win the 1999 RHI championship. Just like Reggie Dunlop from Slap Shot knew his team was going to fold at the end of the season, Christian Skoryna figured it was the end of the road for his Vipers. “I had heard the rumors that this could be our last season,” said Skoryna, the RHI’s all-time leading scorer. “I felt in my gut that this could be it for the league, so that added to the satisfaction of going out as champions.”
Eight years prior to the Vipers’ championship, RHI was founded by Dennis Murphy, who knew a thing or two about starting professional sports leagues. Murphy was the driving force behind the American Basketball Association, World Team Tennis and the World Hockey Association.
And just like the WHA before it, RHI had its share of bold, colorful jerseys and fly-by-night teams while also making its mark on the NHL.
This is the story of Roller Hockey International.
In 1991, Murphy gets the idea to start a new hockey league. Wayne Gretzky’s trade to the Kings in 1988 causes participation in hockey in the U.S. to surge. As a result, the interest in inline skates also booms. The time is right to combine the two into the newest major-league sport. Unlike the WHA, which was a direct competitor of the NHL in the 1970s, Murphy’s new league will be played in the summer on concrete, with players wearing inline skates instead of the traditional “quad” roller skates.
Murphy collaborates with real-estate developer Alex Bellehumeur and lawyer Larry King, who previously worked with Murphy in 1973 to start World Team Tennis. Former Montreal Canadiens star Ralph Backstrom, who played in Murphy’s WHA for several seasons and was an early adopter of inline skates for off-ice training, is named RHI commissioner.
Dennis Murphy, RHI Co-Founder and League President: One day, I saw kids playing roller hockey on the street and thought, my goodness, this would go over pretty well.
Alex Bellehumeur, RHI Co-Founder and League Chairman: Dennis came into my office and said, “Let’s start a new league in roller hockey.” I said, “What the hell is roller hockey?”
Larry King, RHI Co-Founder and CEO; Owner, Sacramento River Rats: Dennis got all enthusiastic about the idea, and away we went.
Jeanie Buss, Owner, Los Angeles Blades, 1993-97: Hockey was really having this huge movement in Southern California after Gretzky came to Los Angeles in 1988, and inline skating was a part of all of that. You saw a lot of rinks being built, ice rinks that had an adjacent roller rink as well.
Murphy: I blame myself for some things, but I’ve got to take credit for this. I got a lot of people involved in sports. Most of them have done really well. When I called my connections about roller hockey, they pretty much went along with me.
To build hype for the forthcoming league, a five-game inline hockey exhibition tour is held in August 1992. Team USA defeats Team Canada four games to one. The next summer, 12 teams take part in RHI’s inaugural season. SportsChannel America televises some RHI games in the U.S. during the 1993 season. To stock the rosters, players are drafted or signed as free agents. The league also holds open tryouts in various cities – with a $50 registration fee. The tryouts are held more to raise startup funds than to find players.
Victor Gervais, Forward, Anaheim Bullfrogs (1993-98): Bullfrogs coach Chris McSorley called me and sold me on coming to play in Anaheim. I thought to myself, is this going to be like roller derby? Was it going to be a joke? I didn’t know anything about roller hockey at the time.
Daniel Shank, Forward, San Diego Barracudas (1993), Phoenix Cobras (1994), Anaheim Bullfrogs (1995), Orlando Jackals (1996, 1997): I played for the San Diego Gulls (of the IHL), which was owned by Fred Comrie. Mr. Comrie purchased the San Diego Barracudas franchise and signed me. We decided to have a mascot and promote the team. I was the Barracuda! I put on the costume and skated on the boardwalk along the beach to promote the team. I had a few cheerleaders with me, and we’d hand out publicity material to people on the beach. I did it because I wanted it to work, to make sure it took off.
Jimmy Vivona, Defenseman, Connecticut Coasters (1993), New York Riot (MLRH, 1998): I’ve been playing roller hockey since I was three. I grew up on roller skates. I played in the best roller-hockey league in New York, the famed Fort Hamilton Roller Hockey League in Brooklyn. The Mullen Brothers, Joey and Brian, played there. It was the toughest league I had ever played in, tougher than RHI. In 1993, they had tryouts for RHI, and I went there with my quad roller skates. I’m one of the few RHI players to play on the quad skates as opposed to the inline skates.
Doug Dadswell, Goaltender, Calgary Rad’z (1993): I was retired from ice hockey for about a year. I had just got back from a vacation in Jamaica when I heard about the tryouts. Morris Lukowich was the coach, and I knew him. I was the oldest guy on the team that year at 29. Most of the guys were in their early 20s.
Christian Skoryna, Forward, Toronto Planets (1993), Florida Hammerheads (1994), St. Louis Vipers (1995-97, 1999): My dad saw an advertisement in the back of The Hockey News about tryouts for the Toronto Planets. It looked like a decent summer job. I was playing junior in the OHL for the Belleville Bulls and asked our Bauer rep to get me a pair of rollerblades. I practised for a month before the tryouts. It was an open cattle call and, in retrospect, they probably had no intention of taking anyone from that particular tryout. But I was young and naive, and thought I’d go out and give it a whirl. There were a lot of great players, but everyone was new to rollerblades. I probably stood out because of the month of practice, and I made the Planets as a 19-year old.
Vivona: It was very difficult to make an RHI roster without any type of ice hockey background, because the coaches had ice hockey backgrounds and wanted to bring in ice hockey players. There were a ton of people at my tryout in New York. You had players from every roller hockey league in New York, and from other states. I’m sure these tryouts were a bit of a moneymaker for the league. After the second day, I found that I was taken by the Connecticut Coasters. But then I had to do their camp. In essence, it was trying out twice. To make the Coasters, now I had to compete against players getting shipped from all over the place.
Perry Turnbull, Forward/Assistant Coach (1993, 1994), Coach (1995-97, 1999), Part-Owner, St. Louis Vipers: Keith Blase was starting a team in St. Louis and approached me about playing. I had just retired from ice hockey and still had a passion to play a little bit. I was building a roller-hockey rink at the time, because it wasn’t affordable to build an ice rink in St. Louis. You could say that it was self-serving, but I thought joining the Vipers would be a good marketing tool for my roller rink.
RHI quickly becomes a place for minor-leaguers to work during the summer and for some ex-NHL players who weren’t ready to “hang ’em up” yet to play the pro game again, albeit on a different surface. In addition to Shank, Dadswell and Turnbull, other former NHLers to play in RHI include Bryan Trottier, Al Secord, Rik Wilson, Corrado Micalef, Matt DelGuidice, Walt Poddubny, Craig Coxe and Daniel Berthiaume. Future NHLers who play in RHI include Darren Langdon, Manny Legace, Steve Poapst, Mike Kennedy, Harry York and Glen Metropolit.
The league needs a puck that can withstand being shot at 100 miles per hour. A ball won’t cut it because it’s too bouncy – and because the founders want to use a puck. But a durable puck for inline hockey doesn’t yet exist. Just like Murphy’s ABA used a special red, white and blue basketball that became symbolic of the league, RHI needs its own iconic puck, one that can take a beating and generate revenue for the league. Bellehumeur is tasked with designing what will eventually be known as the Jofa SpeedPuck, a blaze-orange disk that becomes the pre-eminent puck for roller hockey.
Murphy: The ABA didn’t patent the red, white and blue basketball. Wilson Sporting Goods went ahead and sold millions of the red, white and blue basketballs at a good profit.
Steve Pona, RHI Director of Supplier Pool, Licensing and Merchandising and Director of Team Services (1992-95), Director of Communications, Anaheim Bullfrogs (1995): The revenue from the red, white and blue basketball could have saved the ABA. The RHI founders took that lesson and created their own puck for RHI. But who would have predicted that patenting the puck would have been the ultimate downfall of the league?
King: We went with a puck instead of a ball because we wanted our game to be more like ice hockey.
Bellehumeur: We spent a great deal of time trying to find a puck. There was no puck that worked well on a surface for professional roller hockey back then. So, I worked on developing a puck for months and did a number of different iterations. I had people with the fledgling league work with me to test the puck.
The league officially launches on July 1, 1993, with the Oakland Skates hosting the Los Angeles Blades. While Oakland scores first, L.A. wins 11-9, but not without incident.
Buss: Somebody scored a hat trick early on, and people threw their hats onto the court because there were a lot of fans that knew hockey. But the ushers started throwing people out because they didn’t know what a hat trick was. It was hilarious.
The next night, Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim (now the Honda Center) hosts its first sporting event, as 13,141 fans witness the Anaheim Bullfrogs defeat the Utah Rollerbees 12-4. However, a day later, the Rollerbees play a home game in front of a scant 1,917 fans, foreshadowing the attendance problems that would plague many teams.
Gervais: I remember the first game we played, we had over 13,000 fans. It was amazing. California was huge into roller hockey. They instantly fell in love with the sport.
Vivona: The turnouts on the west coast were fabulous. The problem was that they thought the turnouts would translate to other parts of the country and Canada. We had like 1,500 people at Coasters’ games. Toronto didn’t draw well either; if I had to guess, there were maybe 1,000 people when we played in Toronto.
Matches consist of four 12-minue quarters and feature a wide-open brand of hockey. Games use four skaters per side, and the bluelines, neutral zone and two-line pass are eliminated. The result is a faster game with more shots on net and more goals.
Bernie Federko, Coach (1993-94), President/GM (1993-97, 1999), Part-Owner, St. Louis Vipers: The first year was kind of just learning how the game was going to be played, it was played a lot differently than ice hockey.
Roy Sommer, Coach, San Jose Rhinos (1993-96): I didn’t have a clue how to coach roller hockey going in. It was a lot of puck possession and flowy kind of stuff. It felt like European hockey. Everything was a drop pass and attacking with speed.
Al MacIsaac, Coach/GM, Philadelphia Bulldogs (1996-97): Four-on-four was really exciting. It opened the game up. It made for crisper plays, because there was more floor space. The puck moved quickly. Power plays were exciting because there was a lot of room to make things happen.
Yvan Cournoyer, Coach, Montreal Roadrunners (1994-95): Four-on-four is a very different game. In 5-on-5 games, you can make a mistake and give the puck away, but with 4-on-4, you have to be in possession of the puck most of the time. The only way you should lose the puck is when you shoot it on net. If you make a few errors at the start of the game, you can fall behind very quickly. But you’re going to have more chances to score, that’s for sure.
Federko: It was like pond hockey, where you had all kinds of stretch passes. Guys had to be more in control of where they were. We had some guys that were really fast, but if they went too fast and wiped out, then he was out of the play and we’d be put in a bad position defensively. So, we almost had to hold them back a bit to make sure they were in control of what they were going to do.
MacIsaac: A lot of people thought roller hockey wasn’t physical. Roller hockey was extremely physical. Ninety-nine percent of the guys playing were ice-hockey players. It was a rough league.
Vivona: Some of the ice-hockey guys would try to be intimidating. But playing (roller hockey) at Fort Hamilton, I had people literally threatening to kill me after games. I remember one RHI player grabbed my stick and started to talk trash, and I said “Guy, they used to tell me they were going to shoot me back where I played. You’re not going to scare me.” He actually started laughing.
Unlike Vivona, who has ample roller-hockey experience, most RHI players have ice-hockey backgrounds and have to adapt to inline skates and a variety of playing surfaces – from concrete to wooden gymnasium floors to polymer Sport Court, depending on where teams play and practise.
Sommer: I took the players to San Francisco, and we skated up and down the hills. That was our introduction to inline skates. Three-quarters of them had never been on inline skates before. Rob MacInnis, Al MacInnis’ brother, went flying down a hill and made a turn onto a one-way street and I said, “I hope he doesn’t get killed.” Because we couldn’t stop.
Jon Gustafson, Goaltender (1994-95), President/GM (1996-97, 1999), San Jose Rhinos: We had a blast and nobody died. It was a lot of fun.
Gervais: Concrete floors were slippery, so before games, they’d put a light base of Coca-Cola on the floor to help our wheels grip. Sometimes, we’d play on gymnasium floors. Every rink was different. You always had to change your wheels depending on the floor type. Some games, you’d use hard wheels and some games you’d use soft wheels.
Hugo Belanger, Forward, Long Island Jawz (1996), Anaheim Bullfrogs (1997, 1999), Virginia Vultures (MLRH, 1998): It’s harder to stop on rollerblades, and it takes a little more time. Crossovers are more difficult, too, because your blades are longer than on-ice skates.
Harry York, Forward, Chicago Cheetahs (1995): We had this trunk full of wheels galore and different bearings. There was a little bit of thinking and getting comfortable with certain things. I always used really sticky wheels on the Sport Court. I had my skates rockered, so the front and back wheels were up. And then there were fast bearings and slow bearings. You had all these funky setups that you could do with your wheels. And if you blew a wheel or a bearing in a game, you’d have to change it on the bench.
Gustafson: I’ll never forget one game in Vancouver that was televised. Their game-night operations people had this wonderful idea to use a smoke machine before the Vancouver Voodoo came out. Well, the problem was, the smoke had an oil base to it. The building was dark, with spotlights, and when their cheerleaders, the Voodoo Dolls, came out, they all slipped and fell in a big pile. Then the Voodoo players come flying out, and they can’t see because of the smoke, and they run into all these girls lying on the floor. It’s this big dog pile. They had to delay the game for an hour to get the slippery residue off the floor so we could play.
Goalies have their own challenges to deal with.
Matt DelGuidice, Goaltender, San Diego Barracudas (1994), Ottawa Loggers (1995), New Jersey Rockin’ Rollers (1995-96): I sucked my first year. I had trouble adapting to the game itself. As a goalie, roller hockey is a completely different animal than ice hockey. It’s a wide-open game. It’s high-scoring. You can’t slide, like goalies can slide on the ice. Once you go down, you stop right there. So, it’s all about positioning and anticipating. It took me one full year to figure it out.
Erin Whitten Hamlen, Goaltender, Pittsburgh Phantoms (1994), Oakland Skates (1995): The movements were probably the hardest part. It was a real challenge to adapt your game to more like hopping instead of sliding.
Mark Bernard, Goaltender, Philadelphia Bulldogs (1994-95), Buffalo Wings (1997): When you’re on the ice, you’re able to glide back and go left to right, wherein roller hockey, you do little ‘C’ cuts and have to keep your legs moving. If a guy moves to the side, you have to step, but be quick to close up those holes. In a shootout, a player would come in really slow, to try and get you to almost stop, and you can’t move left or right without opening up.
Gustafson: After a while, we learned how to cheat the system a little bit. Having smaller wheels on your skates made you lower to the ground. You couldn’t skate very fast, but at least you were a little closer to the floor. We’d put plastic packing tape on the sides of our pads so they’d slide. You’d have a bunch of sets of equipment, because you’d sweat so much you’d have to change gear in between periods.
Whitten Hamlen: You had to adjust to the puck. The shot would sometimes curve or dip. It wasn’t as predictable as an ice-hockey puck. And it bounced a little more, so the rebounds were a little more of a challenge as well.
Bernard: In ice hockey, you always see the goalie cleaning the snow out of the crease, where in roller hockey, you’d have towel on your net, and you’d wipe the floor because if your sweat dripped on the floor, and you stepped on it with your wheels, you’d slip. You wanted to keep your crease as dry as possible.
Sommer: We were playing in San Diego, and it got so hot that our goalie in that game cramped up and fell forward. I think it was Joe Bonvie. We went out there and picked him up – he was as stiff as a board – and we just rolled him off the rink.
Claiming that shutouts in roller hockey were rare is an understatement, because there was exactly one shutout in a regulation-length game in RHI history. It happened July 13, 1993, when former Calgary Flames goalie Doug Dadswell, now playing for the Calgary Rad’z, stopped 38 shots to blank the Portland Rage 9-0.
Dadswell: We played in Portland on Sport Court, which made it a lot easier as a goalie, because you could slide your feet around. We dominated most of the game, but they had quite a few scoring opportunities. Games were usually like 10-9 or 13-12, so to get a shutout was pretty rare. Very rare, since I was the only one to do it.
Pona: I was responsible for making sure that statistical data was correct and reported accurately. I knew Doug had got a shutout, but it was something we took for granted. It was like “Oh, a shutout. That’s nice.” Holy cow! It stood as the only one ever. We never realized the significance of what had happened.
DelGuidice: There were a few times where I almost had a shutout, where I only let in one goal. I got close. And in RHI, that was a big deal.
RHI uses a two-game format for the playoffs, with each team hosting one game. If the series is tied 1-1, a 12-minute mini-game is played immediately after the second game. It’s not necessary for the Anaheim Bullfrogs, who easily win the first Murphy Cup championship (named after Dennis Murphy) in 1993 and go on to be RHI’s most successful franchise. The Bullfrogs are also the first team to win a championship at The Pond, a good 14 years before the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks win the Stanley Cup in 2007.
Gervais: Chris McSorley and (Assistant Coach) Grant Sonier put an amazing team together that had the best players and scorers from the ECHL and the Colonial League. We lost only one regular season game, in a shootout. We won every playoff game. It was pretty exciting.
During the 1993 off-season, the Utah Rollerbees relocate to become the Las Vegas Flash, while the Connecticut Coasters and Toronto Planets fold. But the league also adds 14 new teams, including the Montreal Roadrunners, New Jersey Rockin’ Rollers, Sacramento River Rats and Buffalo Stampede, who go on to win the 1994 Murphy Cup. The league doubles its size to raise its capital but also to block the World Roller Hockey League, a rival circuit, from growing.
Cournoyer: I was asked to be an owner of a team, but I found that they wanted to grow the league too big. I said no. There were too many teams and a lot of travelling. So, they asked me to be the coach, and I said OK.
Murphy: We made a mistake by going to 24 teams in the second year. We should have kept it smaller and then expanded. But we did it for the money. I had a lot of contacts through my other leagues. Everybody wanted to get in because of our success in the other leagues. So, they put pressure on me, and I fell for it. I should not have done it.
King: You can never have too many teams. A league is more likely to disappear from a lack of teams than an abundance of teams.
Pona: In our first season, it was $50,000 to purchase an RHI franchise. By the time we expanded in 1994, I recall it being $250,000. And by the time we were having more serious talks with the NHL about purchasing RHI, the asking price was $1 million per team.
Bellehumeur: Our business plan worked extremely well until we moved away from it. That was the beginning of the end. The league was supposed to grow very deliberately and methodically, so as to remain in control of our welfare. Then a couple of board members decided we needed to expand dramatically, for fear the WRHL would take arenas that we would otherwise want to play in. I argued against it.
Pona: We had to put down a footprint, essentially to block the WRHL from growing from a beach hockey league to an arena-based hockey league. The RHI doubling in size was a chess move to promote a merger with WRHL.
Bellehumeur: Dennis is a wonderful guy. But Larry convinced Dennis to sell him his interest. I argued against that, because Larry would not follow the business plan, and that would destroy the league. Dennis was beaten down and allowed this purchase to take place. At that point, I didn’t have the power to prevent it because I was outvoted. I just didn’t want to get into that kind of battle. So I sold my interest, and the prediction came to pass.
Buss: My feeling was, if this league can last 10 years, then those 12-year-olds who are playing inline hockey now would become the ticket buyers because it was the sport they grew up with. I wanted the league to grow slowly, so that we could sustain ourselves until the participants became the customer.
RHI and WRHL merge, giving RHI the TV contract that WRHL has with ESPN. From 1994 to 1996, RHI enjoys its golden age, with a televised game of the week called “RHI Hell on Wheels,” as well as the 30-minute recap show “RHI Rewind.” The games are mainly broadcast on ESPN2, but certain matches, including the final, appear on ESPN, putting RHI into millions of living rooms across the U.S.
Jim Fox, Color Commentator, ESPN/ESPN2 RHI broadcasts (1994-96), Assistant Coach, Los Angeles Blades (1997): ESPN2 was the perfect format for RHI. It was a bit younger, a little bit edgier. It wasn’t necessarily concerned with the old way things were done. RHI was not a well-known league, it was just a startup league, so they were trying new and different things.
Sommer: We were covered a lot on ESPN. Almost every weekend, either us or the Bullfrogs were on ESPN because we drew good crowds in NHL buildings.
Turnbull: ESPN had unique camera angles. They had Jimmy Fox on the bench, interviewing the coach. They did a pretty good production.
Fox: I think that RHI was the first league to do interviews from the bench. We see bench interviews all the time now. I was on the bench during the second and fourth quarter of RHI games. When the players would come back to the bench after scoring a goal, they would do replays with me. I think that turned a lot of people off in hockey departments. They thought that it was too gimmicky. I got a lot of pushback from coaches when I went down there.
MacIsaac: The fact that they were able to cut a deal with ESPN at that time was incredible. The rules allowed the game to be wide open, fast, exciting, high scoring, but also physical. No fights, but still a lot of big hits.
York: If you got into a fight, you got suspended. And you’d only get paid for the games you played. I remember playing a televised game against the Buffalo Stampede. One of their players, Mark Major, wanted to fight me. And I told him, “I can’t fight you, I’ve got to get paid.”
Getting paid to play hockey in the summer is a dream come true for many minor-league players who don’t want to work “real” jobs once their ice-hockey seasons end. Teams provide players with apartments and transportation, usually a van shared by several players, to get to and from home games and practices. Road games are travelled to by plane, which is a new experience for many players who are used to 12-hour bus rides. And players are paid per game, earning more money for a win than for a loss, motivating them to win.
Gustafson: If you won a game, you got paid more. You would think that every sport would do that, right? The playoff prize pool went up substantially the further your team made it.
York: I went to the Chicago Cheetahs tryouts in 1995 with $100 and a one-way plane ticket. I was trying out in these old rollerblades, and the wheels were falling apart. I’m skating around at the first practice, and coach Randy Boyd pulls me aside and said “Go get some skates from the equipment room; if you make the team, you don’t owe us anything. But if you don’t, you’ll owe us for those skates.” Thank God I made the team, because I didn’t have enough money to pay for the skates.
Glen Metropolit, Forward, Long Island Jawz (1996), New Jersey Rockin’ Rollers (1997), Anaheim Bullfrogs (1997): I was just a starving professional hockey player, trying to make it. After my first year in the ECHL, I went back to Toronto and had a job as a gardener, laying sod and cutting bushes. I was living with my uncle, sleeping in a closet by a water heater. I thought, “Man, I’ve got to get out of here.” Then I got an opportunity to play roller hockey with the Jawz. It was a great summer job.
Gervais: You play in all these rinks your heroes played in, right? It was like playing in the NHL because we flew to every game. It was amazing.
Bernard: Our nickname for the league was “Rotten Hotel International,” because the home team had to supply a hotel to the visitors.The quality of the hotel would vary from city to city. Most were pretty good, but a few would bring the standard down.
DelGuidice: Most of us guys were ECHL guys or lower AHL guys, and we’re not making a lot of money during the season anyway. This was a way to not to have to get a job during the summer, and you can stay in shape. You’re playing golf or going to the beach every day and having a good time.
MacIsaac: The most difficult part was keeping guys focused. We went to Detroit and arrived at our hotel the night before the game. I get a phone call. An ambulance had parked in front of the hotel, and two of my players had stolen the gurney from it and were racing through the hallways, one guy on the gurney and the other one pushing. They were kicked out of the hotel and had to sleep outside the rest of the night. It was 90-plus degrees that night in July.
Sommer: We played an exhibition game in El Paso, Texas. Right across the border was Juarez, Mexico. We walked across the border for a night, and it was just a gong show. Guys got in trouble for drinking and other stuff that you can’t put in the paper. It turned out to be a big nightmare.
Lack of stability also turns out to be a nightmare for RHI. Before the start of the 1995 season, three teams change cities, while five teams fold, reducing the league to 19 teams.
Pona: We always had a solid core of teams, the cornerstone markets like Anaheim and St. Louis. It was the fill-in teams that came and went that were problematic.
Bellehumeur: When we expanded to 24 teams in one year, the league lost control.
The 1995 Murphy Cup final is considered one of RHI’s finest moments, with the San Jose Rhinos and Montreal Roadrunners playing in front of sellout crowds and a television audience on ESPN in the U.S. The Rhinos win Game 1 in San Jose, while the Roadrunners win Game 2 in Montreal. A 12-minute mini-game is needed to crown a champion.
Gustafson: We hadn’t played Montreal before, since we only played Western Conference teams, so we didn’t know what to expect. In Game 2, they had 15,000 fans, lines out the door. It was pretty awesome.
Sommer: We were winning the mini-game, but Montreal tied it up, and it went into overtime. Ken Blum got the game-winner for us. It was intense. That was as high as you could go in the sport, playing in Montreal, Yvan Cournoyer was their coach. That was the last championship won at the Montreal Forum.
But all is not well. The Jofa SpeedPuck becomes the biggest cause of conflict between the league’s founders. Bellehumeur claims that the league will not pay for the patent or tooling necessary to make the puck, and so he does it at his own expense. Bellehumeur patents the puck and subsequently earns about 20 percent of the proceeds. King, on the other hand, claims that the league would have paid for all expenses for the patent and development of the Jofa SpeedPuck.
King: Alex didn’t invent the puck. He just put the patent in his name. Alex was out for himself, whereas Dennis and I tried to make the whole thing work.
Pona: A lot of people invested in that puck. I spent a lot of time testing and improving that puck. Many other people did, too. We weren’t invested personally. We weren’t doing it as a favor to Alex. We were invested because we were in the league. Alex is the only one who personalized that investment, and ultimately, that is what fractured and broke the league.
Bellehumeur: The league shared in over $2 million of gross income that came from the puck. I got my share along with everyone else. But that has been so misinterpreted. Proceeds from the sale of the puck went into a general league fund. It didn’t get split among the teams.
Pona: There wasn’t just infighting. There was real stress and real problems because of this disagreement. When partners can’t trust each other, and when team owners know there is a fracture at the league office, the team owners can exploit it in their own operations.
Buss: You’re never going to get the same story from everybody, everyone has their own view of it. What I can tell you is that this opportunity was unique to RHI. We were the only league that had something like that to generate funds. We were making money off every puck that was sold. That should have been enough to keep the league going (laughs). But it wasn’t. That’s all I can say about that.
In 1996, the league shrinks slightly from 19 to 18 teams but is nonetheless unstable. Four teams fold, one team relocates, one team changes its name, one former team rejoins the league, and two new teams join. Even worse, RHI is dealt a major blow when it loses its sponsorship deal with Pepsi, which brings in about $1 million in annual revenue. The problem starts when a team owner decides to put ads for PowerAde – a competing product made by Coca-Cola – on the court, so the team could earn an extra $10,000 over its normal share of the league-wide sponsorship deals. Other team owners also make side agreements with local sponsors, which undermines the national TV sponsorship deals that ESPN set up for RHI.
Federko: The league was cutting deals so they could put money in their pockets. And the teams, we were all trying to survive. We were trying to do things to make the league better. We treated our players here unreal. We made sure things were up to standards. We were able to make some deals with hotels and travel to save us money. All the teams were under control of the league. The league owned itself, but didn’t own the teams, so there was obviously competition. That created some problems.
Gustafson: When you lose a big sponsor like Pepsi, that hurt the league’s credibility. It hurt that the league office didn’t have their stuff together.
Meanwhile, on the court, Hugo Belanger becomes RHI’s first 100-point player when he tallies 48 goals and 53 assists for 101 points in just 25 games with the Long Island Jawz, and is named league MVP.
Belanger: RHI really fit my game perfectly. I’m not overly-fast, so roller hockey gave me an extra half a second to make a play. I never had an overly-powerful shot, but the lighter puck gave me the chance to rip it harder. All these little things added up together and fit my game to a 'T.'
Vivona: Hugo Belanger is the best roller hockey player that I played against. That goes for international tournaments, too. He is a tremendous player.
RHI switches to a best-of-three format for the 1996 Murphy Cup final. But home-court advantage doesn’t go to the team with the best record. Rather, it automatically goes to the Eastern Conference champion, while the Western Conference’s Anaheim Bullfrogs gets to host the All-Star Game. Underscoring how disorganized the league has become, RHI first reverses that decision near the start of the season, but then backpedals when Orlando Jackals owner Norton Herrick protests, pressuring the league to stick to the initial plan. Coincidentally, the Jackals end up as Eastern Conference champs and get home-court advantage in the final against the Bullfrogs, who have the best overall record. The Bullfrogs win their home game, but then the Jackals win the next two games in Orlando to capture the Murphy Cup.
Gervais: It was a heartbreaker. We had a pretty good team that year. It was crappy that we didn’t get home court advantage. But I missed the final game. I screwed up my back and could barely move. I told our coach that I wanted to play, but he wouldn’t let me.
Shank: When we won the Murphy Cup, Mr. Herrick bought us really nice championship rings. People cannot believe I got this ring from playing roller hockey.
Pona: Danny Shank was one of the best pure roller hockey players in the league’s history. He could impose his will and dominate the game just at the flip of a switch.
It wasn’t the beginning of the end for RHI in 1997 – it was the end in practically all respects. The league withers from 18 teams to 10. Even worse, ESPN does not exercise its option year with the league, leaving RHI without national TV exposure in the U.S. for the first time. It becomes obvious things are going in the wrong direction.
Buss: I didn’t mind shrinking the league if that meant we had 10 strong teams. It was a relief in a lot of ways, because there’d be more of a chance that we’d actually make it through a season without an owner abandoning their team halfway through a road trip, leaving us to figure out how to get funding so the team could finish its schedule. This is the kind of s--- that owners do to each other, just like the Pepsi-Coke example. That’s the kind of s--- that kills a league and kills a partnership. Even though you compete with them on the court, the teams in your league are your partners. You have to be good partners and respect the rules and live up to your obligations.
Pona: ESPN left RHI for a combination of reasons. Everything from the puck conflict to the other conflicts between the league founders. The conflicts between the league office and the teams. The turnover of teams. We also had a change of direction in management. If I was in ESPN’s shoes, I would have left, too.
Prior to the start of the 1997 playoffs, the Anaheim Bullfrogs sign Belanger and Metropolit after the IIHF Inline World Championships, which were held at The Pond. The Bullfrogs power their way to a second Murphy Cup championship in a two-game sweep of Metropolit’s former team, the New Jersey Rockin’ Rollers.
Gervais: I found out, probably halfway through the year, that the league would fold after the season. I think that’s why the Bullfrogs’ ownership went and signed Belanger and Metropolit, so that we could win in the last year and go out with a bang.
Metropolit: I started the season with New Jersey. Their coach, Doug Shedden, talked me into playing for them. But he was a hard coach, and I wasn’t feeling it there. Then I got the opportunity to play for Team Canada. After that, I got the chance to make some money with the Bullfrogs. It didn’t matter that we beat my old team. I won a championship, and that was cool.
Murphy cannot secure funding in time to keep RHI afloat for the 1998 season, so the league goes on hiatus for a year. The Anaheim Bullfrogs and Buffalo Wings join a competing circuit called Major League Roller Hockey that started the prior year. Anaheim wins the MLRH championship, giving the team its third major professional roller-hockey title in six seasons.
Belanger: That year was a little bit awkward, as far as that league, because there were four powerhouse teams, and most of the other 10 teams had trouble matching the skill level. Some of the cities just ran with RHI kids, and some of the other teams were made up from local players. That’s what made the big difference. A lot of games were totally lopsided, and only a handful of games actually were competitive. One game, we beat the Philadelphia Sting 39-6. I had 11 goals and 15 assists that game. I think I had three games with 10 goals that year. So, that shows you the disparity.
RHI limps back for one final season in 1999. Gone are cornerstone teams like the L.A. Blades and New Jersey Rockin’ Rollers in what will be RHI’s last gasp. The St. Louis Vipers, one of RHI’s founding members, win the final Murphy Cup.
Skoryna: The Vipers felt like a family environment, and a big part of that satisfaction was being able to win for that ownership group, and for Bernie and Perry.
Buss: If you were teaching a class in what not to do in professional sports, you would use RHI as your perfect example to illustrate what can go wrong and what did go wrong. We grew too quickly. We had underfunded owners. We didn’t have a strong league that could keep everybody on the same agenda. I thought involvement by the NHL would be the bridge that would keep us going.
Federko: The league was owned by individuals, and we (team owners) really had no control over what was going on at the league ownership level. Rich Shillington, who owned the San Jose Rhinos and I tried to get the NHL to become involved. From my understanding, it was Larry King who wanted to get paid out so he could get his investment back, and the NHL wasn’t interested. The NHL wasn’t going to buy the league.
King: Dennis had high hopes because he was friends with Howard Baldwin (who owned the Pittsburgh Penguins and RHI’s Pittsburgh Phantoms). But they could never get the NHL to buy in. That would have saved our league, and having that association could have made RHI a kind of a farm system for the NHL.
Pona: RHI’s chances of being bought by the NHL had passed by 1995. I think at that point, the NHL realized that they could start their own summer roller-hockey league instead of making the buy. There was also a lot of speculation that the NHL’s hardliners were still holding a grudge against Dennis Murphy for starting the WHA. You’ll never get anyone in the NHL to comment on that. There’s probably more legitimacy to that than anything. There’s a reason why Dennis Murphy isn’t in the Hockey Hall of Fame or the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. He should be in both of those places.
Gustafson: Unfortunately, the league wasn’t run by very good people. There were some really good owners, and there were some not-really-good owners. I think they had a really good product that just got away from them. They were so focused on getting that small ownership fee, as opposed to vetting and getting really solid team owners that had some longevity and business acumen.
Turnbull: Some of these team owners couldn’t put enough people in the stands to break even. They thought 10,000 people were going to show up every night, but it didn’t happen. I don’t know if the league leadership did its due diligence on some of the ownership groups. We drew pretty well in St. Louis, but we lost money every year.
King: We didn’t last because ice rinks started popping up all over the place. RHI only had a very short window of time to succeed. We had to do it quickly or fail. We were bound to fail anyway when ice hockey could be played all over the U.S. They didn’t need roller hockey. Ice hockey is the original, roller hockey was a spinoff.
Pona: It was greed over the royalties of the SpeedPuck that fractured and broke RHI. The league wasn’t collecting royalties from the puck, which would have given it the financial stability to not accept expansion fees from team owners that shouldn’t have been allowed in.
Buss: I honestly had visions that someday I would be a builder in the Roller Hockey Hall of Fame, that this was going to be something that would last a lifetime. And it broke my heart that the league was as mismanaged as it was.
RHI cannot get funding for the 2000 season and permanently disbands, becoming another name on a long list of dead sports leagues. But RHI changed the NHL in many ways for the better.
Pona: Think about the rule changes that the NHL has made since RHI. They eliminated touch-up offside. The NHL now uses shootouts. Where did shootouts come from? They came from RHI. (Note: the International League also used shootouts from 1985 to 2001.) We showed the NHL the beauty and grace and excitement of what hockey can be again. The NHL had lost sight of that for so long. They were mired in that defensive trap game and playing dump and chase. We showed them a way out, and they took it.
Gustafson: Ice hockey adapted a lot of the stuff roller hockey had, like 4-on-4 play (in overtime) and eliminating the two-line pass. It really opened up the game.
Pona: You know the NHL jersey cut, where the jersey is longer in the back? That’s the RHI design that the NHL picked up on. Look at some of the other design cues, such as the elimination of the striping around the base of the jerseys, or dye-sublimated designs, new shoulder treatments, striping patterns and color combinations. We gave the NHL the courage to be graphically adventurous, too.
In the past two decades, no other roller-hockey league has come close to what RHI accomplished in its six-season history, from its sheer size to its presence on TV, to becoming a training ground for future NHL players, coaches and executives.
York: Playing roller hockey opened the door for me. One of the assistant coaches on the Cheetahs got me a tryout in the ECHL. A year later, I was in the NHL. Not many people have taken that route, going from roller hockey to the NHL.
Sommer: I’ve been with the San Jose Sharks (who purchased the Rhinos) for 23 years now because of roller hockey. I wouldn’t have this job (coach of the AHL’s Barracuda) if it wasn’t for roller hockey. The league led to bigger things for a lot of guys. They got management and coaching jobs from it.
Turnbull: I’ve been involved in roller hockey for 27 years now. Kids who were only getting two or three hours of ice time per week (in St. Louis) would play roller hockey, too. (Future NHLers) Joe Vitale and Yan and Paul Stastny played at my rink growing up. So did Ben Bishop, who was our goalie for my rink’s travel team. Patrick Maroon was a roller rat, not at my rink, but at one nearby.
MacIsaac: People ask me, “You worked in roller hockey?” And I tell them that it was the best two summers of my life. It had incredible potential for growth. It happened way too fast, it grew too quickly and self-imploded. But it had all the potential.