Roller Hockey Hits the Streets And the Whole Neighborhood Scores

Now just about everyone participates in the popular new sport

Before roller hockey, Ed Kabbash lived on a quiet, uneventful, sleepy, suburban street.

"We knew who our neighbors were," says Mr. Kabbash, "But we didn't really know them. Then when the kids began playing roller hockey, everybody on our street heard all the hooting and hollering and came out to see what was going on."

"Nice play, son!" Kabbash yells, watching his 11-year-old son, Erin, play in a roller hockey tournament.

"Pretty soon, one by one, almost everyone on the street began to play," he continues. "My wife plays goalie, I play, even three-and four-year-olds play. It's a riot. We get 15 to 18 people out every Sunday afternoon. Roller hockey turned our street into a neighborhood, where everybody knows everybody else."

Ice hockey began in Canada more than 140 years ago and might be the most common cultural link Canadians share with Americans. The game spread like an ice storm in the last several decades to Scandinavia, eastern Europe, Russia, and to the upper Midwest and Northeast of the United States.

But kids usually have to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning to practice hockey when ice time is available at local rinks. And with equipment and summer hockey camps, parents can easily invest thousands of dollars in a child's hockey career.

Roller hockey has put the game on wheels, and on the streets. And wheeling around empty parking lots is much less expensive than skating in rinks.

For years roller hockey has been played on traditional quad roller skates with field-hockey-like sticks, but the development of in-line skates in 1980 by the founders of Rollerblade Inc., gave the sport new momentum.

The National Sporting Goods Association calls it the fastest growing sport in the US with a 43 percent increase in participation during 1995, to 3.2 million.

Those who play both ice and roller hockey say the former is faster and the heavier puck bounces truer, allowing better stickhandling and passing.

Roller hockey aficionados don't expect their sport to supplant ice hockey, but do acknowledge that it makes hockey accessible.

Now roller hockey gives anyone with a few square yards of pavement opportunity on wheels instead of blades. Throughout the US, roller hockey is being played in driveways, cul-de-sacs, empty parking lots, and tennis courts.

Larry Pascale's entire family of six plays roller hockey (well, the youngest, a one-year-old, is a combination spectator, obstacle, and kind of a goalie).

The parks and recreation department in their Denver suburb went so far as to take down the tennis net in a local court and replaced it with hockey boards; now the new roller-hockey rinks are seldom vacant.

Mr. Pascale's two oldest boys also play in tournaments, and practice as close to home as their basement, "where they've broken every window down there," Pascale says with an indulgent smile.

As with soccer, an entire generation of children is teaching their parents about a new sport and creating families bonded by a common passion.

Karl Ceader began playing roller hockey when his two sons, Nathan and Jared, were two- and three-years-old. They learned the sport together, and now Mr. Ceader coaches in a roller hockey league.

While the National Hockey League and minor- league ice hockey are often justifiably criticized for allowing or condoning fighting, roller hockey is evolving in a different direction. Fighting in roller hockey is just as rare as it is in most junior, collegiate, and international ice hockey games.

Eight-year-old Jared wants to play in the NHL (the brothers have just begun to play ice hockey as well as roller hockey); nine-year-old Nathan's goal is to play in the Roller Hockey International. The league began in 1993. The DareDevils and other new teams have boosted the RHI to 18 teams, which play from June through mid-August, with play-offs lasting into September.

All the current RHI players have ice hockey backgrounds. All played some form of junior hockey. Many played collegiate hockey, some played in the NHL, and almost all of them are playing minor-league ice hockey with dreams of playing in the NHL.

RHI players makes a flat fee minimum of $5,040 for the season if they play every regular season game, and the sliding scale increases to $14,286 for those on the championship team. Right now the league is more or less a summer job for ice hockey players, but over the years it could become much more.

"Someday kids who've grown up playing roller hockey all the time could have a much better feel for the sport than ice hockey players have," says DareDevils defenseman Gino Santerre.

If players show the same kind of dedication and love for the sport ice hockey players have, there's no reason the calibre of roller hockey play can't climb toward NHL standards.

"If roller hockey can turn a sterile street into an ongoing block party, anything's possible," Kabbash says.

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