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Roller Derby : The Popularity of Roller Hockey Surges As Players Use Everything From Parking Lots to Tennis Courts for Rinks

August 25, 1994|JAMES BENNING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Seven-year-old Tommy Simpson flails his arms like a speed skater on bad ice as he whizzes around a portable roller hockey rink on in-line skates.

The Manhattan Beach resident and a dozen other pint-size players engulfed from head to toe in protective pads are skating around the rink in Hermosa Beach to learn the ropes of roller hockey, one of the South Bay's fastest-growing sports.

"Can you picture yourself at the Forum after scoring a goal?" coach John O'Rourke, 28, bellows as his cassette player blasts Van Halen's rollicking "Jump." "Can you hear the roar of the crowd?"

Simpson can. He leaps into the air and screams victoriously as he rushes over the asphalt, then trips violently over his skates.

"Sometimes it hurts," Simpson says as he sprays cool water over his face during a break in the class. "But football is stupid, and baseball is stupid, and I like this a lot."

Even the nastiest spills don't check the enthusiasm of Simpson and other fans.

From blacktop parking lots in Gardena to the beachside bicycle path in Manhattan Beach, scores of in-line skaters clutching aluminum and wooden hockey sticks are knocking the sport's colorful plastic pucks everywhere.

In Torrance, nearly 1,800 players converge every week on a $120,000 roller hockey rink to compete in games that sometime run until midnight. A league in Redondo Beach, which uses portable foam boards to construct a makeshift rink on school playgrounds, doubled in size in only four months.

"It's just exploding," said Heath Mazenauer, 27, manager of the Golden Bear Skate Shop in Lomita, where sales of roller hockey equipment have risen almost 40% in the last two years. The shop recently sold out of one style of in-line skates and is struggling to keep others in stock. Manufacturers say they can't keep up with orders.

Enthusiasts say they are drawn to the fast pace of the sport, a combination of ice hockey and roller skating that dates back to the 1930s, when skaters on the roads of New York fashioned street-worthy pucks from electrical tape.

Nationwide, the number of roller hockey players has doubled each year for the last five years, according to Shawn Jones, executive director of the Miami-based National In-Line Hockey Assn. Of the country's 12 million in-line skaters, Jones estimates that 1 million play roller hockey.

Many credit ice hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky with the sport's explosive growth in the South Bay. Ever since Gretzky signed with the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, increasing numbers of fans donning replicas of his black-and-silver jersey have taken to area playgrounds on skates. And not all are young males.

At the rink in Torrance, girls practice slap shots next to boys during youth-league games and helmet-clad men, some of them pushing 50, bounce off the rink's boards chasing the puck in adult games. Even Torrance police and Carson sheriff's deputies have roller hockey teams.** But while the number of roller hockey players has surged in the South Bay in recent years, the number of rinks has not. Except for the rink in Torrance and another in Redondo Beach, the South Bay has little to offer competitors.

Compounding the problems for area roller hockey devotees are laws in many South Bay cities banning skating in city parks. City officials say skaters pose safety problems in parks and raise liability concerns.

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But in the last year, officials in many communities have begun to recognize the need for rinks, and some South Bay cities are scrambling to provide residents with places to play.

El Segundo approved plans recently for a $10,000 portable rink that is due in the city by the end of August. Avalon plans to construct a rink over several old tennis courts later this year, and Carson and Gardena are studying whether to purchase rinks.

Meanwhile, inventive enthusiasts find ways to make do. In El Segundo, Jean-Louis Boudreau, 34, and a few friends transformed a couple of high school tennis courts into a roller hockey rink by constructing foot-high borders around one end of the courts to keep pucks in play.

The boards make tennis play nearly impossible, but school officials say they have agreed to keep the jerry-built rink because they recognize the sport's popularity in the city. Tennis players head for other courts on the school campus.

"We made some tennis people real upset, but there are better courts at (Recreation Park)," says Boudreau, who played ice hockey on frozen baseball fields while growing up in Montreal.

In Manhattan Beach, where skaters are banned from city parks, die-hards sometimes set up goals in the middle of city streets. When cars approach, players grab the goals and scramble to the sidewalks.

Officials say they are considering putting a portable rink in the city.

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