You've heard of rollerblades, those new space-age roller skates with one set of wheels on each shoe that make them look like ice skates. How about rollerblade hockey? It's the newest sport around for kids.
It looks like ice hockey, except that it's played on a paved surface with a ball instead of a puck. The rules and equipment are pretty much the same.
As a sport, rollerblade hockey is just taking off. The Conejo Recreation and Park District began offering it as a program seven months ago. The next eight-week session begins Monday at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center.
Last summer, Walt Collins, owner of Encore Sports in Thousand Oaks, and employee Scott Womack organized a rollerblade hockey league for youths and adults. The Tri-Valley Rollerblade Hockey League has grown to 125 participants in six months.
"It just keeps getting bigger and bigger," Womack said. "It's absolutely amazing."
The league is one of only three organized so far in Southern California, he said. It's all so new because rollerblades themselves are fairly new. Encore Sports has sold them for three years. They cost $89 to $239 a pair.
Womack and others contend rollerblade hockey took a leap in popularity because ice hockey star Wayne Gretzky of the Los Angeles Kings has breathed new life into the team and boosted its following, especially among the young.
"These kids do their homework and then they're on their blades until dark--that's all they do," Womack said.
For newcomers to the sport, Womack claims that skating on rollerblades is no more difficult than on traditional roller skates--which he calls "dinosaurs." The skates provide more foot support than ice skates, he said.
It's not a sport for the faint-hearted. Kids in the league must wear helmets, mouth and shin guards, and knee and elbow pads. "If a kid forgets his mouthpiece, he doesn't play," Womack said.
Yet, kids are less likely to get hurt in rollerblade hockey than ice hockey, he maintained. During league play, referees forbid full-body contact and checking.
"Ice hockey is a lot more physical," he said. "When these kids fall, the way they are padded, they don't get hurt."
For kids, it costs $75 for 10 weeks of play with the league. Games are on Saturday at the Agoura High School basketball courts. The players, virtually all boys, are divided into two divisions: 11- to 12-year-olds are the Squirts, and the 13- to 15-year-olds are the Peewees. Older teen-agers play on the adult teams.
The league's spring series of games will begin in March. Players must try out, but only so that they can be placed according to ability.
At the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, the skaters also divide up and play each other in the center's parking lot under the direction of Collins.
"The class has grown so much, we now use both sides of the parking lot," said Jay Dodwell, teen services coordinator for the district. "This is a fad that is taking off."
The group meets Mondays from 4:30 to 6 p.m., and Saturdays from 2 to 3:30 p.m. The cost for the 12- to 15-year-olds is $23. For the 16- to 17-year-olds, it's $35. The fee includes medical insurance and all equipment except skates.
The group is limited to 30 youths, and the last series of classes sold out, Dodwell said. The center began offering the hockey class, he said, because so many kids had rollerblades but there was no place for them to play a game.
"They would go to a tennis court to play, but the blades aren't that good for that surface," he said. Now the program is getting more popular with every session, he said.
* WHERE AND WHEN
The Conejo Recreation and Park District rollerblade street hockey class runs eight weeks beginning Monday. The class meets at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, 1375 E. Janss Road. For more information, call 494-5156. For more information on the Tri-Valley Rollerblade Hockey League, call 379-0020.