Gimme some hockey, but hold the ice, please Roller league founder attracts players 6 to 60

January 10, 1996|By Drake Witham | Drake Witham,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Growing up in Rhode Island, Rick Gravel had to go just to the frozen lake behind his family's home to play hockey.

Frozen lakes may be a rarity in Maryland, but the 31-year-old Greenbelt resident has found a reservoir of people interested in roller hockey.

"I was driving around and saw kids everywhere playing roller hockey in driveways and tennis courts," Gravel said.

Thus inspired, he started the Maryland Street and Roller Hockey Association in 1994. Last spring, 900 players ranging from age 6 to 60, a few hundred from the Baltimore area, participated in the six age divisions of the league.

"It's growing by leaps and bounds," Gravel said. "In California, the numbers are already outweighing those for Little League, and they're always a couple of years ahead of us."

On a recent gray and chilly Sunday afternoon, dozens of men gathered at an outdoor roller hockey rink and strapped on helmets and in-line skates. Profane language filled the air as they chased a plastic orange ball across a bumpy surface. No one ever said roller hockey wasn't rough. Some players even had to spend a little time in the penalty box, but there were no fights.

"Roller hockey is a lot more accessible than ice. A portable rink can be set up in any available parking lot," Gravel said.

The rinks are smaller than ice rinks, so teams play four skaters per side. There are no icing or offside rules, and checking is prohibited, but some players say those rule differences make the action move faster than ice hockey.

"I'd never go back to foot," said Scott Rives, a 22-year-old lumber worker from Wheaton. "It's not like ice, but it's closer than anything else. This league is a lot more organized than other leagues I've played in."

Organization was Gravel's top priority when he started the league. He played briefly in another league in Northern Virginia, but was frustrated that there weren't trained referees or scorekeepers.

Since the spring of 1994, he has spent entire weekends and five hours on weeknights working out playing schedules, finding trained referees and getting contracts with six rinks in southern Maryland. Gravel, who works full time as an engineer for Allied Signal in Greenbelt, said his work ethic comes from his father.

"My dad used to wake me up at 6:30 on Saturday mornings and say, 'Let's go to work,' " Gravel said. "At 6:30, I was lugging 50-pound shingles up a ladder."

Gravel also got his league certified with USA Hockey, the governing body of hockey in the United States, and had the league insured "in case anyone went sue crazy." He also plays in the league.

"As a player, I know what the players are interested in -- recognition, rewards and statistics," Gravel said.

Gravel, who played hockey at Old Dominion before getting a master's in engineering management from Maryland, makes sure accurate statistics are kept and award ceremonies follow the spring, summer and fall seasons. The number of participants is the highest in the spring, but there are enough players in the summer and fall to earn Gravel a little money.

"It's not a multimillion-dollar operation, but if I keep the players satisfied and it gets widespread enough, there is potential to make a living off the league," Gravel said.

The cost of the league is $85 per player in the spring and summer and $65 in the fall as the rent for rinks goes down. There is also the cost of in-line skates, which run from $60 to more than $200. The other equipment -- helmet, pads and stick -- can be purchased for a total of less than $100. Sticks are fairly cheap, but a trash can filled with broken ones at the end of a day of games shows that they often must be replaced.

"I go through two or three sticks a week," said Tom Pizzillo, a research physicist from Colesville. "I get called for a lot of penalties I wouldn't get called for in ice hockey, but it's a release."

Chuck Schwam, an office supplies manager in Landover, plays in one division and coaches his son's team in another.

"There's a stigma that your kid is going to come home with no teeth, but my son plays soccer nine months out of the year and can't wait to play hockey," Schwam said. "Because of the popularity of the NHL and the in-line skates, it's taking off. I had to turn kids away this year."

There are also street hockey teams in Gravel's league, but not even everyone in the roller hockey league needs to know how to skate.

"I play goalie because I can't skate," said Dave Preston, who works for a Bethesda advertising firm. After the game, Preston's face is bright red and sweaty from his goalie mask.

Most of the players from Baltimore play their games at a rink in Columbia, but Gravel said he hopes to expand to Baltimore in coming years. He plans to expand as far as South Carolina and Tennessee with state champions playing for the league title.

Gravel recently injured his hamstring making a save during an ice hockey game but still came out to see some of the teams play. The portable rink in a parking lot is a long way from the glass-like lake he played on as a youth, but so far things are every bit as smooth.

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