That professional sports had entered uncharted territory was clear the moment members of the Bikers Against Drugs motorcycle club drove their Harley-Davidsons into the Oakland Coliseum Arena on July 1. The bikers were there to give each of the 12 players on the Oakland Skates roller hockey team a tow onto the concrete for the inaugural Roller Hockey International (RHI) game against the Los Angeles Blades and, presumably, to establish the Skates as the biggest badasses on little inline wheels. They did all that to the accompaniment of roving spotlights and George Thorogood's Bad to the Bone. But what may have been more significant was what the bikers and their bikes didn't do. They didn't mess up the playing surface.
Concrete, that most common and infrangible of surfaces, is accessible to everyone. Yet it is virtually virgin terrain for professional sports. The founders of RHI have recognized this and are taking full advantage of it. They say they are capitalizing on the popularity of in-line skates, but why are the skates so popular? For one thing, they can be worn anywhere—on asphalt, on linoleum, down theater aisles, through shopping malls and, yes, even on the concrete that lies under every major ice rink in North America.
This was part of the brainstorm that hit chronic league-starter Dennis Murphy (see American Basketball Association, World Hockey Association and World Team Tennis) as he was driving through his L.A. neighborhood a few years ago. "I saw kids all over the streets, playing hockey on Rollerblades," says Murphy, 66. "In-line skates were clearly a hot business in a slumping economy. And you didn't have to have ponds or rinks. I thought, Maybe this is the thing we're looking for."
Murphy's latest vision has been realized in a 12-team North American league that is playing a seven-week schedule in July and August. The teams are made up of players and coaches drawn mostly from the ranks of minor league ice hockey and amateur roller hockey, with a scattering of former NHL players—Dave (Tiger) Williams, Lyndon Byers, Perry Turnbull, to mention a few—thrown in for their marquee value. Salaries are $314 a week, with $672,000 in bonus money to be distributed among the players and coaches, depending on their teams' records at the end of the season. "In this league coaches need more skill than owners need money," says league cofounder Larry King, 48, formerly of World Team Tennis. "It totally changes dynamics."
The dynamics out on the concrete are a little different too. In roller hockey there are five players to a side and four 12-minute quarters to a game. Because there aren't any blue lines and no fighting is allowed, the game is generally faster than ice hockey, and scores are higher. "The game plays more like basketball, which might make it more enjoyable for a non-hockey person," says King. Palatable to the general sports fan, yes, but what about the hockey devotee? "We'll be back," said San Jose Shark season-ticket holder Duane Gardner after the Blades had outlasted the Skates 11-9. "I think this is going to catch on like a son of a gun."
Gardner and his wife, Stacy, were impressed by the skaters' deft play, by the crowd of more than 3,000, by the Harleys' entrance and by the Skates' motto: Don't Wait Until the Bay Freezes Over. Their only disappointment was the Oakland mascot, a bottom-feeding fish that looks, if the logo is an accurate representation, like a malevolent vacuum-cleaner attachment. "We've got the boringest name," says Gardner, who did not realize that the skate is the only fish native to San Francisco Bay that sharks don't eat. "At least they didn't call us the Oakland Tuna."
No, Tuna is still available for future expansion teams. Other names that are already taken: the Vancouver VooDoo, the St. Louis Vipers, the Portland Rage, the Utah RollerBees; the Calgary Rad'z, the Toronto Planets, the Connecticut Coasters; the San Diego Barracudas, the Florida Hammerheads and the Anaheim Bullfrogs. All the teams are grouped, more or less by region, into the Murphy, King and Buss (as in Jerry, owner of the L.A. Lakers and Blades) divisions.
The Bullfrogs were named for their home concrete, the brand-new Anaheim Arena, which Disney, the owner of the NHL's fledgling Mighty Ducks, hopes will be known as the Pond. The Pond was host to a recent showdown between the Frogs and the RollerBees—whose home rink in Salt Lake City was built by members of the team and is called, naturally, the Hive. Manned mostly by minor league ice hockey players whom coach Chris McSorley recruited after the league's 664-player draft in April, the Frogs zapped the Bees 12-4 in front of 13,141 fans who had braved Southern California traffic on the Friday of Independence Day weekend to see Anaheim's latest attraction. That few Frogs had ever played on in-line skates indicated that in this game, finesse on in-lines isn't as important as hard-wired hockey sense. "You can't teach touch, you can't teach thought, you can't teach grip," says McSorley, whose brother, Marty, plays for the L.A. Kings. "I collected 15 guys who do that for a living."
How about instinct? When Utah goalie Paul Skidmore lost a black front wheel in the first quarter of the game, one Bullfrog took a swipe at it, momentarily forgetting that the RHI puck is red. Another thing that's easy for ice hockey players to forget is that hockey stops don't work on in-line skates. Says Blade Ralph Barahona, who was a Boston Bruin for six games during the 1990-91 and '91-92 seasons, "Sometimes you just run into things."
Shoving matches abounded at the Frog-Bee game, but none was deemed a "fight," which carries a penalty of a one-game suspension for the instigator. Yet even with legal contact limited to checking and collisions, the players seem to be having a good time. "I can't believe I'm getting paid to do this!" exclaimed Oakland goalie Troy Seibel after the loss to the Blades. "Is that neat, or what?"
"It is fun," says Barahona. "There's a lot of back and forth, and with only eight people skating, the play is wide open. It's exciting. You know, this might actually turn into something."
That, of course, is the hope of the founders and the owners and everyone else who has sunk time and money into this enterprise. But whether professional roller hockey goes down in sporting history as a brilliant idea or lands on the dump heap of defunct leagues—a slope of which is already owned by Murphy and King—remains to be seen. "Nobody will make money the first year," says King. "Nothing is an instant success. Of course, I'd love to be proved wrong."