During the 1990s, in-line hockey — or roller hockey — was working its way into mainstream sports. In-line skates were all the rage and the sport was included at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (for demonstration only). Teams from Roller Hockey International - the first true professional roller league - played in some of the largest arenas in North America in games shown on national television.
Roller Hockey International found quick success. A crowd of 16,150 attended the 1993 All-Star Game in Vancouver, British Columbia. In 1994, RHI had 24 teams and drew14,475 fans to their league championship. The Anaheim Bullfrogs averaged 9,000 fans a game. But ESPN declined to renew its TV contract with the league in 1996, and things quickly deteriorated. The league canceled the 1998 season and came back in 1999 for its last season.
Richard Neil Graham was there for almost every minute of it. He was an editor at now-shuttered publications like Roller Hockey magazine, In-line Hockey News and currently runs the sport’s leading website, inlinehockeycentral.com. His book, Wheelers, Dealers, Pucks and Bucks: A Rocking History of Roller Hockey International, chronicles the life and death of a league that legitimized a unique sport that’s largely vanished from memory.
In this excerpt from Graham’s book, the scene is set for the first exhibition tour that served as a test run for the creation of RHI.
Dennis Murphy wrote to Dr. Jerry Buss, asking if he would be interested in hosting the tour’s first game at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. Buss forwarded the letter to his daughter, Jeanie, and said, “Dennis is such a good friend of mine; I want you to handle this.”
Jeanie Buss remembered thinking, “ ‘Oh, this is a disaster! How are they going to be able to play hockey on concrete?’ It made no sense to me, but I worked for Dr. Buss; I do what he tells me to do. I thought we were going to get those really good rollerbladers that you saw at Santa Monica Beach and teach them how to shoot a puck – as opposed to being [ice] hockey players that would learn how to rollerblade. So, there was a different concept that I hadn’t accepted.”
The first game of the Roller Hockey International Exhibition Tour was held at the Forum on August 13, 1992, and drew close to 6,200 fans. Team USA won, 7-3. Jeanie Buss was shocked “that we could draw that many people” with no advertising. Her instincts about the floor were correct. It was a problem.
“We played right on the sub floor of the Forum,” Buss said. “At that time, nobody really knew what the right surface was. I mean, you thought of parking lots in Venice or Santa Monica. That’s where people were playing roller hockey. So, we figured the concrete floor would be fine. It wasn’t fine. They tried to add different powders and stuff just to try to get some grip for the players’ wheels.”
According to Paul Chapey, a longtime roller hockey aficionado, Scott Accongio, John Black’s assistant coach, convinced the operations people at the Forum to spread Pepsi syrup on the concrete to make the floor stickier.
Jeanie Buss felt that the playing surface “was kind of a disaster, but the turnout of the crowd… Instantly, the light bulb went on: ‘This is what kids were playing, and this had a chance to really be something big.’ I was excited by the possibilities.”
Once Buss and her father saw the positive reception the game received from fans, they decided to buy a team. “It was important to my dad that I be named co-owner along with him,” Jeanie Buss said. “That’s how we got ownership [of the Los Angeles Blades.”
The first game of the tour was shown locally on tape-delay on CBS, with play-by-play by longtime sportscaster Red Rush and commentary by Bauer Hockey’s Director of Marketing Peter Davis and Los Angeles Kings’ forward Luc Robitaille. All the tour’s players used Bauer ZT7 skates with plastic frames and stock urethane wheels. Tim Conyard of Team Canada drew first blood, scoring six minutes and 59 seconds into the game.
“Solid hitting out there, Red; I wouldn’t want to be out there,” Robitaille said, after Rush described a player going “ankle over tea kettle” after an opponent’s check.
Team USA’s Daryn Goodwin got a kick out of Robitaille calling him, “a big farm boy from Visalia, California,” and he recalled sweat dripping through his Bauer ZT7 skate boots – so much so he had to blow dry them at halftime.
After the Laker Girls performed a halftime dance routine, local sportscaster Bob Elder (and eventual Anaheim Bullfrogs’ general manager) came onto the rink to interview Peter Davis, Dennis Murphy and Ralph Backstrom. Davis was enthusiastic about the demand Canstar Sports, Bauer’s parent company, was receiving for protective gear for inline hockey. Murphy noted the size of the crowd and said, “I hope from here on, it’s up, up and away.” Backstrom’s facial expression communicated relief and delight. “We knew it was a great sport all along, but to have it confirmed by the fans here in L.A. makes me feel awful good,” Backstrom said.
For game two, the two teams were bused to Phoenix, where they played at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Team Canada won, 8-7, in overtime, for its only win of the series, in front of 4,000 fans.
“After we won the first game, on the way to Phoenix, the Canadians sat in front of the bus and goalie Don Thompson was lipping off so much to them that it made us all sick,” said Team USA’s Daryn Goodwin. “He won the first game and got yanked in the second. Karma!”
The teams played games three and four at the P.N.E. Arena in Vancouver, produced by Mike King, the soon-to-be owner of the Vancouver VooDoo. The U.S. won both games in overtime by identical 6-5 scores, before a combined crowd of perhaps about 7,000. A severe thunderstorm that weekend may have kept the numbers down. Game five, originally scheduled for Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, and organized by Mike Talkington, was switched to the Santa Fe Casino, where Team USA won, 13-4, on August 29.
RHI’s founders contacted Sport Court in a panic when the Caesar’s Palace venue didn’t materialize. Ten days before the event, Sport Court provided the floor that covered the ice hockey rink at the Santa Fe Casino. That gave Sport Court – a company founded in 1976 by Dan Kotler to provide families with a multi-use backyard recreation court – a foot into the inline skating industry in general and RHI. Kotler would become the owner of the Utah RollerBees in RHI’s first season.
The tour finale was shown live on CBS in Los Angeles and Las Vegas on August 29 at 9 p.m. Stephane Desjardins scored two goals and two assists in the finale and was the tour’s leading scorer, with 10 goals and 10 assists in the five games. Of all the players on the tour, Desjardins would go on to play the most RHI games – 43 over the course of four seasons. Team Canada forward Mike Kennedy, from Vancouver, eventually played the most NHL games of any player who participated in the tour, at 145, mostly for the Dallas Stars. Team USA forward Jim Hau of St. Paul, went on to play two RHI seasons, for the 1994 Minnesota Arctic Blast and the 1995 Minnesota Blue Ox, and scored 83 points in 39 games. His teammate on the tour, forward Rob Hrytsak, of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (the rules on nationality were fairly loose; a player didn’t have to be from America to play for Team USA in that tour), played 30 RHI games for three teams – the Connecticut Coasters in 1993, and the Sacramento River Rats and Vancouver VooDoo in 1994. John Black, who coached Team USA, became a well-respected coach for the Los Angeles Blades, Portland Rage and Sacramento River Rats over the course of several RHI seasons.
In an article in the November/December 1992 issue of Street Hockey magazine, Editor Kurt Helin made what might have been the first mention in print about RHI’s new, and eventually, controversial puck: “(RHI) also developed a new puck for the tour. It is a hard plastic puck with a spoke design that slides on six metal braids. It is lighter than an ice hockey puck, but heavier than most street pucks. Most of the players felt it was a good puck, although no one has developed a puck that glides as smoothly as an ice hockey puck. However, RHI told us that they have made further improvements to the puck which will make it the ‘smoothest street hockey puck available.’ “ The Jofa SpeedPuck would cause much angst and anger to many people in the ensuing years.
The tour gained exposure and interest for the upcoming league, and perhaps even more importantly, it broke even. The players got free equipment and were paid – the winners took home $300 for each win, the losers, $200. Coca Cola, Frito Lay, Kellogg’s and Albertsons provided the financial backing for the television coverage for the tour opener at the Forum in Inglewood. The exposure from that and later televised games from the tour helped RHI to be seen as a legitimate sports league.
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