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Ice Hockey, the New Sport of Would-Be Kings

July 20, 1989|JIM MACAK | Macak is a Studio City free-lance writer. and

David Robinson and another hockey player were perched on the edge of the Burbank ice rink, ready to replace members on their team's offense. The other player turned to Robinson and said, "You know, you're always falling down on the ice."

It was a friendly jab and Robinson, laughing it off as the two jumped down and skated toward their positions, shouted, "Hey, if I can't get to the puck by skating to it, I'll dive at it!"

Actually, Robinson, 35, of Studio City, had a pretty good game. His team lost 12-0, but he didn't fall very often.

'Backward, Head First'

"The game before, I really hurt myself. I went right off my heels and landed backward, head first," he said. "When you're 18 and that happens, you want to know if you hurt anything. But when you're 35, you want to know if you're still alive." Robinson said he staggered up as quickly as he could and continued playing. "You don't want anyone to know it hurts."

Amateur ice hockey for beginners such as Robinson is booming in the San Fernando Valley. Despite the bumps and bruises, the odd hours of the games and the sport's high cost, enthusiasm for it is running high, and Robinson is one its boosters. "I lost 35 pounds in the first three months," he said. "The weight just fell off. Ice hockey will get you in better shape than anything but basketball."

Last season, the Los Angeles County Hockey Assn. created a beginner division for those who have never skated before. At the end of the season, it had 12 beginner teams with about 190 players, boosting the association's membership to more than 500.

Brad Berman, president of the association, says amateur ice hockey is booming in Los Angeles because professional hockey is booming here. He attributes much of this to Wayne Gretzky's highly publicized first season with the Los Angeles Kings. "Ice hockey has become the thing to watch and do," Berman said.

The association's major competitor for players and ice time is the National Novice Hockey Assn. The NNHA, which has focused on beginners since it came to the Valley in 1981, has also felt the boom. Last season, the number of NNHA beginner and intermediate teams jumped from 25 to 31. The rosters for both the Los Angeles County Hockey Assn. and the NNHA has swelled to the point that the leagues had to limit membership in their summer programs. They report waiting lists of from 50 to 80 men and women.

At the other end of the Valley area, the boom is also evident. Five independent teams at the Conejo Valley Ice Skating Rink in Newbury Park were organized into the Conejo Valley Adult Hockey Assn. in 1987. Last season, the association fielded 19 teams in four divisions, from beginner to advanced.

Sport Can Be Costly

This growth in amateur ice hockey is happening despite increasing costs of playing and decreasing amounts of available ice time.

In addition to equipment, which costs a new player several hundred dollars, rates for insurance and ice rinks are going up. Gino Vella, president of the California Amateur Hockey Assn., said hockey leagues were charged $83 a team last season for liability insurance and CAHA dues. This year, the amount will be $250. This, Vella said, will probably be passed on in league fees to players. League fees averaged $300 last season.

Another hurdle is the dwindling number of ice rinks in the Los Angeles area. Rinks were closed at Topanga Plaza in Canoga Park in 1984 and Brea Mall in 1987 as the malls were remodeled and expanded. Hockey players fear that a similar fate for the Ice Capades Chalet at Laurel Plaza in North Hollywood when the lease expires in two years. May Centers in St. Louis, Mo., is planning to expand the mall with Forest City Inc. Joan Kradin, a spokeswoman for Forest City, said the future of the rink is still under study.

Practice After Midnight

Los Angeles' four leagues compete for ice time at seven remaining rinks. Because of the growing number of teams, games are often scheduled to run past midnight on weekdays. League officials say that may be the norm in a few years, with practice sessions running even later.

Alan Thicke, star of the sitcom "Growing Pains" and a Toluca Lake resident, has been playing hockey in the Valley since 1971. He's pleased that the sport has caught on but laments that there's less ice time. "You go for a pickup game and instead of 12 guys playing each other for an hour, there are 30 guys, and maybe eight won't get to play," he said.

And more keep signing up. Berman said the Los Angeles County Hockey Assn. could have as many as 20 beginner teams this fall if he can come up with additional ice time.

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