Roller hockey a big hit

Sport: Throughout the nation and the state, children and adults are donning in-line skates and playing on ice rinks, basketball courts and parking lots.

May 21, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Her long hair framing her face, a determined Jennifer Cash worked at moving a brightly colored, liquid-filled ball past an opposing squad of players at Alpha Ridge Park's makeshift roller hockey rink.

A veteran player at 11, the heavily padded, helmeted Howard County girl who raced around a converted tennis court last week is helping catapult a sport that didn't exist when she was born into one of the fastest growing pastimes in the United States.

From Sun Belt states to tiny towns like North East in Cecil County, Laurel in Prince George's County and suburbs such as Owings Mills and White Marsh in Baltimore County, kids and adults are playing roller hockey on everything from converted ice rinks to the far end of the East Columbia Library parking lot.

"It has just exploded, the whole sport of in-line [skating] has," said Mike Heller, teen sports coordinator at the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center, which sponsors a league. Heller said the center is expanding next year and will include an indoor court for roller hockey.

USA Hockey In-Line, the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based roller hockey division of USA Hockey, is the national governing body for the sport. Established in 1994, the group claims more than 82,000 players nationally, spokeswoman Patty Hughes said.

"In terms of organized, it's very small. In terms of kids [and adults] playing, it's very large," said Chris A. Rallo, who operates Freestate Indoor Sports, a commercial rink in White Marsh that attracts up to 500 players from Baltimore,

Harford and Cecil counties. "Out in California, it's absolutely huge," he said.

In North East, the Lions Club is helping 200 kids in Cecil County improve the rink they've built on former basketball courts at the edge of town. "There's people that don't play baseball anymore that play roller hockey," said Douglas K. Drummond, league president.

Rick Gravel of Ellicott City, who runs a roller hockey league called the Southeastern Roller Hockey Association at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel and in Wheaton, Montgomery County, said his league has 900 players, half of them adults.

"It's a sport that anybody can play as long as they have Rollerblades," said Darin J. Segal, 26, a mortgage company owner from Randallstown who operates the Howard County recreational league for about 240 players.

"My neighborhood has kids constantly rolling all over the place," he said, adding that the sport is limited only by the dearth of places to play. "This one little facility isn't cutting it. People are going other places," he said.

Howard County is planning to build a larger roller hockey rink at Alpha Ridge off Frederick Road in the western part of the county, though opposition from local residents has blocked plans to add a roof and lights for night use.

County recreation director Gary Arthur said the roof and lights would increase park use by up to 55 percent.

Some parents are taking their children as far as Shrewsbury, Pa., to play, one testified at a recent public hearing.

Arthur wants the facility in the otherwise rural area, he said, because parking, roads and other infrastructure exist there, making the project much cheaper. But nearby residents strongly objected, fearing that lights might disturb their homes and draw crime to the park.

Driven by the popularity of in-line skates and their similarity to ice skates, players say they like the speed, excitement and simplicity of the game, though some, like Jennifer, favor the ice version -- which allows physical contact.

"I'm getting into hitting now," the Waverly Elementary fifth-grader said. "It's fun."

Some of her peers like the roller version better, though.

"I like to skate, the dribbling, the excitement," said Matthew Norris, 12, of Ellicott City, who is on Jennifer's gray-shirted team, the Lightning. "I guess I'm pretty good," the dimple-cheeked, crew-cut boy said modestly.

His mother, Judy, team coach for the night, said she loves the game, too.

"I like the fact that it's a pretty fast-paced game," and she doesn't worry about injuries. "They take a few spills, but they're so padded," she said.

"It's awesome," said Robert Warner III, 13, of Burleigh Manor. "I like playing defense. It's really cool."

Tina Dean of North Laurel, mother of Kevin Dean, another Lightning player, said she likes the game because it's pure fun -- without the pressure often palpable in travel team soccer or ice hockey leagues.

Bradley Pryor, 11, a Rockburn Elementary pupil on the red-shirted Hurricanes team, said in-line skating "is a lot faster than ice hockey. I also hate the puck, 'cause it's harder to shoot," preferring the low-bounce, liquid-filled balls.

Outside the Alpha Ridge rink one recent evening, 5-year-old Zack Sams skated about, imitating the older kids, including his brother Andrew, 10, a fifth-grader at Waterloo Elementary who plays for the green-shirted Predators team.

"It's all about them having fun," said their father, Randy Sams. "Ice hockey is pretty intense. There's a lot of pressure to win, especially from the parents."

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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