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Sticking Power : Stingers Junior Roller Hockey Team Has Found Success This Season, Earning a Trip to North American Championships

August 04, 1994|ROB FERNAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everywhere you look these days, young men are picking up sticks and taking to the streets.

Yes, the sport of roller hockey is gaining momentum.

Once commonly referred to as street hockey, the game has evolved to a more sophisticated status in recent years. Organized leagues have sprung up across the country, attracting young players who can emulate their ice hockey heroes without having to deal with the high costs and low availability of ice rinks, a situation especially true in warmer climates.

Last year, the buzz surrounding the sport helped spawn a professional league--Roller Hockey International, which includes former National Hockey League players and two Southland teams, the Los Angeles Blades and Anaheim Bullfrogs.

In the South Bay, serious roller hockey players can be found at Torrance's Wilson Park, home of the Torrance Skate Assn. and a lighted outdoor rink. The facility is also the home of two state champions.

The South Bay Stingers rank among the biggest, baddest and best junior teams in the nation, having won the California Cup gold division title in June. Last week, the Scorpions duplicated the feat in the adult division.

"The South Bay is a hotbed of roller hockey," said J.J. Van Niel, a member of the Stingers, a 19-and-under team that will compete in the North American Championships in St. Louis on Aug. 27-30.

The Stingers' success has helped make up for the disappointment of last season, when the team was disqualified from state competition because of an ineligible player added to the roster too late in the season.

The drive to the state title began in November, with the Stingers winning three of four qualifying tournaments to reach the semifinals in Chula Vista. Winning there, they moved on to the California Cup final at the Anaheim Arena, where they faced an old nemesis, the Anaheim Empire, before a Bullfrog game.

The Stingers avenged an earlier defeat to the Empire with a 5-2 victory, getting three goals--the proverbial hat trick--from Joe Ingersoll of Redondo Beach. Goalie Gus Sanchez of Redondo Beach also played an excellent game.

Van Niel, a Peninsula High graduate who lives in Rolling Hills Estates, said fighting is virtually nonexistent in roller hockey because of the stiff penalties involved. A player involved in a fight will be suspended for up to several games, he said.

"There's plenty of contact involved; that's the nature of the game," Van Niel said. "We try to keep it so it's not out of hand. There are fights, but our team is pretty good about that."

Of course, not many teams want to mess with the Stingers.

"We don't look like juniors," Van Niel said. "We have some pretty big guys."

Because of their size, defensemen Ronnie White and Max Gabellini are among the Stingers' most intimidating players. For goal scoring, the team has relied on forwards Ingersoll, Van Niel and San Pedro's Rick Cooper and Gimi Kanounji. The latter three each won high-scoring awards at tournaments this season.

The balanced squad is coached by Victor Zuniga of San Pedro, a city that has supported roller hockey for several years and boasts a team at San Pedro High, also coached by Zuniga.

Although slower than ice hockey, roller hockey has tried to speed up play with innovative rules. There is no offsides, which promotes offensive charges and more scoring.

"Ice skates get going faster, but we keep the puck moving faster," Van Niel said. "The game flows a little bit faster."

Players wear less gear than in ice hockey, except for the goalie, who is fully padded. Games are played on either wood or cement surfaces, sometimes with a roll-on coating to increase the slickness of the rink.

The Stingers, who have practiced twice a week since winning the California Cup, are seeking sponsors to help pay for the $10,000-plus cost of making the trip to the North American Championships. Those interested should contact Van Niel at (310) 378-7828 or (310) 534-3100.

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