SACRAMENTO — Coach John Black, a former six-figure man, will take his place behind the bench for the Sacramento River Rats tonight, adjust his suit coat, straighten his stylish tie and prepare to squash the Anaheim Bullfrogs at the Arco Arena.
Three years ago the lawyer with boyish good looks and a smooth tongue went before the bench as a litigator for a large Southern California insurance firm.
"I'd go into court, and if somebody claimed they had been injured and wanted a big settlement, it was my job to see that they didn't get it," Black said. "I won a lot."
Not much has changed. In 1994, Black led the now-defunct Portland Rage, a heavy underdog, to the Roller Hockey International championship series. A year before he took the Blades to the league semifinals. This season the River Rats and their Russian-born front line are in a tight fight for first place with three other teams in the Northwest Division, and Black has been chosen to coach the Western Division team at the RHI all-star game Saturday in St. Louis.
Three teams in three years. About the only thing Black can't do is keep a job. But his decision--at less than half the salary--to kiss off an L.A. law lifestyle, learn Russian and teach a bunch of minor league ice hockey players how to turn on in-line skates was not surprising.
Confounding to some, yes, but not surprising.
"John has got all the virtues," said Paul Chapey, a leader in the growth of West Coast roller hockey and a longtime business associate of Black. "He's honest as hell, intelligent, educated and extremely dedicated. He's not doing this because he has no alternatives. He's doing this because he wants to be a roller hockey coach."
Mary, Black's wife, wasn't too thrilled the day John walked into their house in Orange, just a couple of blocks up the road from The Pond, with what he thought was grand news.
"I said, 'Hey, honey, I'm going to quit my job,' " Black said. Mary tensed. John winced.
"I've still got the dent from the frying pan on my head," he said.
Black is known as a savvy businessman; he sees investment opportunities as roller hockey grows in popularity. His skating roots run as deep as the grooves in the wooden floor at the roller rink his parents operated when he was growing up in Pomona. Young John ate, slept, worked and did his homework there. There was also plenty of time to skate.
"Since I can remember, I've been on skates," said Black, 38.
Back then the wheels were made of steel and the boots were the over-the-counter brand found at the local TG&Y. Nevertheless, Black became an accomplished skater, competing in artistic and speed competitions. The finesse and control he learned in competitions later became the centerpiece of his coaching style.
"John is better from the waist down. He's a smart skater," said Chapey, who played with and against Black in amateur leagues in their earlier years. "He believes in finesse. He is a puck-control freak."
Black graduated from Pomona High School in 1974 and enrolled at Orange Coast College. Southern California, with its balmy temperatures and sun-kissed beaches, wasn't the hotbed of roller hockey it is today. There were only a handful of ice rinks where hockey was played, and if you weren't transplanted from Canada or the East, you probably couldn't find them. European field hockey programs were nonexistent, except for high school girls. Only a handful of places were available for floor hockey.
"I don't think anyone really cared about roller hockey back then," Chapey said. "It was like surfing in the 1960s. Who knew what surfing was about or whether it was respected or not. Certainly the guys in it didn't care."
His memory blurs, but at Orange Coast, Black remembers meeting some guys from the East Coast one day. They told him how they played hockey on roller skates during the summer. Black was intrigued.
"I had the skating part down," he said. "I had to figure out what this hockey game was all about."
That led to a stellar amateur career. Black played and coached in numerous tournaments, many in Las Vegas, which was the battleground for roller hockey teams from all over the country. Players congregated for a good time, to swap trade secrets, gamble a little, and most importantly, test skills against each other on roller skates.
Black eventually earned a bachelor's degree from UC Santa Barbara and a law degree from Willamette University in Salem, Ore. In 1977, while in college, he competed in his first national amateur roller hockey championship and later, with partner Chapey, took controlling interest in the California Cup amateur youth tournament.
Most experts agree the introduction of in-line skates, consisting of a single chassis of four wheels in a row down the center of the skating boot, revolutionized roller hockey, giving it legitimacy among street skaters and hockey players.
It also propelled the KOHO Cup into a six-figure venture for the six-figure attorney and his partner. Black had become a prominent figure in the sport.