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Bullfrogs Back in Business, but for How Long?

Roller hockey: After a year off, league tries to get back on track. Anaheim opens Saturday at Pond.

June 04, 1999|PAUL McLEOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yes, it appears the Bullfrogs will make their Roller Hockey International comeback Saturday night at the Arrowhead Pond.

But with the status of professional in-line hockey nearly as shaky as when it opened for business seven years ago, the only thing certain about the Bullfrogs' 7 p.m. game Saturday against the San Jose Rhinos is the Pond doors will be open. How much fan appeal the game still has after another tumultuous off-season is anyone's guess.

Last week at the Bullfrogs' training camp in Tustin, Brad McCaughey, the team's recently rehired coach, was busy making trades and reassuring former players that the Bullfrogs were still in business.

"In this league," McCaughey said, "[success] is just a matter of who shows up to play."

The Bullfrogs' seven-year record is 128-35-6. They won RHI titles in 1993 and '97, but when the league went broke after the '97 season, they jumped to Major League Roller Hockey, where they finished 20-0-1 and won the championship in 1998.

Early this spring, the Bullfrogs and the Buffalo Wings, another team that had defected to MLRH, rejoined RHI, which regrouped under a new president and CEO, Bernie Mullin, a former college administrator from Denver.

It proved to be a good move. Teetering under poor leadership and questionable financial practices, MLRH has dropped from 14 teams in North America last year to only two this year and may not play at all this season, its president, Bill Raue, said last week.

Getting RHI back on track after a year's hiatus, according to Mullin, has been troublesome. He planned to bring back 10 teams this season, 12 fewer than at the league's height in 1996. But in April, franchises in Florida and Detroit were suspended because they weren't ready to field teams.

Training camps for the remaining eight teams opened only a week ago, and reports around the league indicate key players have been slow to report. And basic things like practice gear supplied by the league did not arrive on time for many teams, including the Bullfrogs.

Further, RHI's much-ballyhooed national television deal, which was supposed to generate a large portion of its budget, has been scaled back from several live games each week to only a couple of regional broadcasts, if that, because of contractual difficulties, according to Bullfrog President Bob Elder. Elder added he has turned down a deal to broadcast 19 Bullfrog games on local radio because it would be too costly.

Still, the Bullfrog franchise, given up for dead only three months ago, appears to have bounced back under new management.

The team's previous owners, the Silver family, had financial difficulties and had to declare bankruptcy. The Bullfrogs' current owners, investors from Irvine, purchased the team out of bankruptcy court.

Many front-office staff and players who where around when the team was founded have returned.

McCaughey, an original Bullfrog who sat out last year in a salary dispute, has convinced crowd favorites such as goaltender Rob Laurie (14-0-1 in 1998), defensemen Darren Perkins (26 goals, 54 assists) and Tom Menicci (eight goals, 29 assists) and forward B.J. MacPherson (18 goals, 27 assists) to return. Wingers Hugo Belanger and Ralph Barahona are also in camp. Belanger led the MLRH in goals (79) and assists (79) during the 1998 regular season. Barahona, who played for the MLRH franchise in Tampa, had 16 goals and 31 assists last year.

Trades have brought Kevin Kerr (19 goals, 29 assists for MLRH's Virginia) and returned Kevin St. Jacques (eight goals, 38 assists) and defenseman Sean Whyte (three goals, 14 assists). St. Jacques and Whyte played for the Bullfrogs last season, but were lost in RHI's winter dispersal draft.

"The franchise has made great strides with the new owners," McCaughey said. "And I think the league has learned from its past mistakes. It has built eight solid teams. In the past, you would have had eight solid teams and a lot of poorly run teams. I think they're moving in the right direction."

Getting McCaughey back was a coup for Elder, a former county radio personality who served as Bullfrog general manager from 1993 to 1996. He left in midseason after a pay dispute with the Silvers.

McCaughey was originally assigned by RHI, which owns coaches' contracts, to run its Detroit franchise, and Jim Thomson, a former King and Mighty Duck, was named Bullfrog coach. But when the Detroit franchise was put on the shelf, McCaughey became available and Thomson became the Bullfrog general manager.

McCaughey's presence gives the team instant credibility among players.

"Seeing Brad as coach, I know everything will be OK here," MacPherson said. "Based on what has happened in the past, everything can just go up from here."

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