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Warming Up to Alternatives : * Southern Californians are getting into variations of the game that let them play in sneakers or on roller-skates.


After decades of resistance, Southern California is finally experiencing its own version of hockey fever.

But hold the ice.

The Los Angeles arrival of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, coupled with the booming interest in in-line skates, has helped spark a proliferation of warm weather variations on ice hockey--on roller-skates and on tennies, indoors and outdoors, with pucks and with rubber balls.

Orange County has seen a range of these new games. Some 100 adult teams take part in "street hockey," played in tennis shoes, at two outdoor rinks in Garden Grove. UC Irvine was recently host to a tournament of "gym hockey," a sport spreading through college campuses that is played indoors, also without skates.

Holiday Skating Center of Orange, meanwhile, has been at the national forefront in promoting a form of roller hockey that has already gained enough international recognition to be included as an exhibition sport in the upcoming Olympic Games in Barcelona.

Jim Blee, who was one of those who helped launch the U.S. version of the sport in Lincoln, Neb., five years ago, came to Orange 3 1/2 years ago and started a junior team at Holiday, only the second team in the state (the first was in Porterville, in Central California). Today, the skating center has more than 20 teams, including adult men's and women's teams. More than 150 people participate in the sport at the center, 85 of them competitively.

When the 1991 national tournament was held in Lincoln, Holiday sent 52 players. The next biggest contingent from a single skating center was nine players. Last Sunday, the skating center was the site of a tournament that drew teams from as far north as Morro Bay and as far south as La Mesa, near San Diego.

Holiday remains the only center in Orange County with Olympic-style roller hockey, although Anaheim's Family Fun Center recently launched an outdoor adult roller hockey league that uses different rules and equipment. The sport has spread to rinks in neighboring Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties.

The teams have five players on the floor at a time--four skaters and a goalie. The players use a ball instead of a puck, and a stick that is different than the one used by National Hockey League players. Players can use either conventional or in-line skates. There is decidedly less contact than in professional hockey--no body checking, for example--and the small rink makes for fast action.

"It's hard on this old body, but I'm loving it," Fred Mayrhofer of Stanton said after a game Sunday at Holiday.

Mayrhofer learned of the league when he brought his young daughter in for a skating birthday party. "I've always been a hockey fan," he said, but he had not skated since he was a kid. He signed up last July and took part in his second tournament Sunday.

Stephanie Wilson of Anaheim said she likes the adrenaline rush of the sport. "I like rough sports," she said. "You don't have time to think about who's watching you, or who's around you. It's just, 'Go get the ball.' "

Like most of the players on the women's team, Wilson has a child on one of the junior teams. In fact, Blee recalled, the women's team was born at a parents booster meeting. "The moms said, 'We want to play,' " Blee said.

Now, Blee is exploring the establishment of a national women's division; Sunday's games between women's teams from Orange and Morro Bay was officially the first women's tournament.

The family affair doesn't only extend to the moms. In fact, there are two families in the Orange program where the mother, father and at least one child all play. Anaheim's Danny Helm, junior and senior, play side by side on the adult men's team.

Olympic-style hockey is a major spectator sport in South America and in Western Europe. Tom Gonye, owner of Anaheim's Easy Street Hockey Co. (a distributor of street and roller hockey equipment), said the popularity of non-ice hockey games is finally growing in the United States.

In addition to the growing number of organized leagues, Gonye said that pickup roller hockey games are happening in cul-de-sacs across the county. Southern California's interest in hockey started to spread with the U.S. hockey team's victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics and got a big boost with Gretzky's move to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988.

The sport finally took to the streets with the introduction about five years ago of in-line skates, and their incredible surge in popularity. The kids bought the skates, Gonye said, but "instead of riding up and down on the bike paths, want something to do on them."

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