Ice Hockey, the New Sport of Would-Be Kings

David Robinson and another hockey player were perched on the edge of the Burbank ice rink, ready to replace members on their team's offense. The other player turned to Robinson and said, "You know, you're always falling down on the ice."

It was a friendly jab and Robinson, laughing it off as the two jumped down and skated toward their positions, shouted, "Hey, if I can't get to the puck by skating to it, I'll dive at it!"

Actually, Robinson, 35, of Studio City, had a pretty good game. His team lost 12-0, but he didn't fall very often.

'Backward, Head First'

"The game before, I really hurt myself. I went right off my heels and landed backward, head first," he said. "When you're 18 and that happens, you want to know if you hurt anything. But when you're 35, you want to know if you're still alive." Robinson said he staggered up as quickly as he could and continued playing. "You don't want anyone to know it hurts."

Amateur ice hockey for beginners such as Robinson is booming in the San Fernando Valley. Despite the bumps and bruises, the odd hours of the games and the sport's high cost, enthusiasm for it is running high, and Robinson is one its boosters. "I lost 35 pounds in the first three months," he said. "The weight just fell off. Ice hockey will get you in better shape than anything but basketball."

Last season, the Los Angeles County Hockey Assn. created a beginner division for those who have never skated before. At the end of the season, it had 12 beginner teams with about 190 players, boosting the association's membership to more than 500.

Brad Berman, president of the association, says amateur ice hockey is booming in Los Angeles because professional hockey is booming here. He attributes much of this to Wayne Gretzky's highly publicized first season with the Los Angeles Kings. "Ice hockey has become the thing to watch and do," Berman said.

The association's major competitor for players and ice time is the National Novice Hockey Assn. The NNHA, which has focused on beginners since it came to the Valley in 1981, has also felt the boom. Last season, the number of NNHA beginner and intermediate teams jumped from 25 to 31. The rosters for both the Los Angeles County Hockey Assn. and the NNHA has swelled to the point that the leagues had to limit membership in their summer programs. They report waiting lists of from 50 to 80 men and women.

At the other end of the Valley area, the boom is also evident. Five independent teams at the Conejo Valley Ice Skating Rink in Newbury Park were organized into the Conejo Valley Adult Hockey Assn. in 1987. Last season, the association fielded 19 teams in four divisions, from beginner to advanced.

Sport Can Be Costly

This growth in amateur ice hockey is happening despite increasing costs of playing and decreasing amounts of available ice time.

In addition to equipment, which costs a new player several hundred dollars, rates for insurance and ice rinks are going up. Gino Vella, president of the California Amateur Hockey Assn., said hockey leagues were charged $83 a team last season for liability insurance and CAHA dues. This year, the amount will be $250. This, Vella said, will probably be passed on in league fees to players. League fees averaged $300 last season.

Another hurdle is the dwindling number of ice rinks in the Los Angeles area. Rinks were closed at Topanga Plaza in Canoga Park in 1984 and Brea Mall in 1987 as the malls were remodeled and expanded. Hockey players fear that a similar fate for the Ice Capades Chalet at Laurel Plaza in North Hollywood when the lease expires in two years. May Centers in St. Louis, Mo., is planning to expand the mall with Forest City Inc. Joan Kradin, a spokeswoman for Forest City, said the future of the rink is still under study.

Practice After Midnight

Los Angeles' four leagues compete for ice time at seven remaining rinks. Because of the growing number of teams, games are often scheduled to run past midnight on weekdays. League officials say that may be the norm in a few years, with practice sessions running even later.

Alan Thicke, star of the sitcom "Growing Pains" and a Toluca Lake resident, has been playing hockey in the Valley since 1971. He's pleased that the sport has caught on but laments that there's less ice time. "You go for a pickup game and instead of 12 guys playing each other for an hour, there are 30 guys, and maybe eight won't get to play," he said.

And more keep signing up. Berman said the Los Angeles County Hockey Assn. could have as many as 20 beginner teams this fall if he can come up with additional ice time.

Berman, a 30-year-old Los Angeles police officer and a Simi Valley resident, founded the association in 1983, with one team organized among Police Department members and another team associated with Phillips Hockey Shop in Glendale. In addition to police, those playing league games include white-collar professionals, factory workers, gays, women and well-known performers such as Thicke, Michael J. Fox and Michael Keaton. Berman said blacks and Latinos have yet to embrace the sport. The association had only one black player and three Latinos last season.

Berman and NNHA officials report that new recruits for both leagues are mostly white-collar professionals. David Robinson's NNHA summer team is a good example. Although Robinson, a nightclub performer, stand-up comic, actor and host for female mud-wrestling bouts, may not qualify as a yuppie, he said most of his 15 teammates do. They include a purchasing director, a law student, a real estate developer and a woman who manages a data processing center.

Bob Goodman at NNHA's Washington office said the median age for the league's 12,000 members nationwide is 31 and the median income $35,000. "So, yes, it's a fair assessment to say that we're attracting yuppies," he said.

This is because of the cost, said Larry Bruyere, manager of Phillips Hockey Shop and vice president of the Los Angeles County Hockey Assn. "With most sports, all you need is a mitt or a pair of shoes. For ice hockey, you need $300 to $400 worth of equipment." He said that on top of this are league fees, rink fees for practice sessions and the cost of team jerseys.

"It's not cheap to play," agreed Neil Kantor, 30, a real estate developer and captain of Robinson's team, who estimates that he spent $1,500 on the sport since he began skating only a year ago.

Women Members Increase

Goodman said women are showing a growing interest in ice hockey, although they accounted for only 5% of his league's membership last year. Locally, the NNHA and the Los Angeles County Hockey Assn. each reported half a dozen women members. The Valley Hockey Assn., the smallest of Los Angeles' four leagues, had two women, and the Conejo Valley Hockey Assn. had three. Coordinator Nancy Chenchick said the Conejo Valley group is trying to organize an all-woman team for the upcoming season, however.

Women who play amateur hockey are among the sport's most ardent proponents, but they admit that they often have to prove themselves.

Christine Marsden, 23, of Chatsworth is captain of the NNHA's Green Hornets, a team organized two seasons ago. Marsden talks at length about the support she receives from her own team members, but said she still takes "a few bad shots" from opponents. "Some of the guys are very defensive, like you're not supposed to be playing their sport."

Marsden, who weighs 120 pounds and is 5 feet, 2 inches tall, said one tournament opponent pinned her in a corner and kept punching her. She retaliated by swinging her stick like a bat, giving the surprised player a wallop. "I wasn't penalized; the ref didn't see it," she said. Despite these skirmishes, Marsden insists that the sport is fun. "And the more I play, the more fun it gets."

Last season there was also a gay team. The Blades was one of the first teams to organize with L.A. Novice, the beginner league associated with the Los Angeles County Hockey Assn. The team includes gay men, lesbians "and a few token straights," according to Blades member David Knepprath, 32, a self-employed screen printer.

"Yes, it's still a macho sport, and I thought we'd be testing the waters a bit," Knepprath said. "But the reception has been quite good. The other teams understand we're here to play hockey, and we play competitively."

Berman said one member of the league was expelled for abusive language against the gay team. Other than that, he said, he knows of no trouble involving women and gays in amateur hockey.

Image Has Changed

Thicke believes that the changed public image of ice hockey has a lot to do with its growth as an amateur sport.

"Ten years ago, the perception was, this was roller derby on ice," Thicke said, adding that there was justification for that view. "Early enthusiasts were playing the mayhem-goon style of hockey. A fight would start out, and I'd say, 'What's the matter with you guys, are you crazy?' And they'd say, 'This is what it's all about.' "

Thicke, who grew up playing the game in northern Ontario, said players have developed an appreciation for the finer points of the game. "They're no longer there to get their male hormonal aggression out," he said.

Goodman and Berman said their leagues have very strict rules for conduct. "You fight, you're out of the league," Goodman said.

Checking, when a player uses his body to bump an opponent away from the puck and, on occasion, slam the opponent into the boards, is an integral part of professional ice hockey. But it's not permitted in amateur teams except for the Los Angeles County Hockey Assn.'s most advanced division. Still, a fair amount of tripping, elbowing and shoving was evident at recent games among non-checking teams at the Pickwick Ice Center in Burbank.

"There is contact in this sport," said Jeff Mills, captain and coach for the Rebels, one of the non-checking teams. "But these guys have to go to work the next day, so they're not here to get themselves injured."

The Rebels recently played and lost to the Culver City Stars. Two of Mills' players ended up in the penalty box during the game. "It was for minor offenses, tripping and hooking," Mills said. "The guys get tired on their shifts near the end of the game, and they start to reach a little more and trip up the other players."

Mills, 32, of Granada Hills, operations manager for a beverage company in Burbank, was 10 years old when he played his first hockey game at the ice rink in Burbank. He continued with the sport through boarding school in Connecticut and college in northern Illinois and had several tryouts with pro and Olympic teams before hanging up his skates. "About a year ago, some guys talked me into playing again. So I'm just out here for fun now. This is a good bunch of guys," he said.

The Los Angeles County Hockey Assn. was initially organized for those like Mills, who played hockey for years, and for others like Thicke, who grew up with the sport in the East, Midwest or Canada. But growth in the sport is with beginners, league officials report, not veterans.

In the Los Angeles County Hockey Assn., the number of checking and senior non-checking teams has not increased. The membership in Hockey America, the advanced-league association with the NNHA, actually decreased last season, from 204 in 1987-88 to 136 in 1988-89.

Tony Echeverrie, Hockey America's Los Angeles administrator, blamed the drop on personnel changes in the local office and a bid by other leagues to woo members away. He predicted that the number of members will increase again at the start of the new season.

For now, the boom involves beginners such as Sue Allen, 28, a computer programmer, who grew up in Woodland Hills with no experience at hockey or any other contact sport. Two years ago, a friend coaxed her to give hockey a try. "I was afraid of doing things that could get me hurt. So this was more of a challenge, like conquering an old fear," she said.

Last year, while playing in the summer league, Allen met and began to date teammate Boni Bigornia, a 28-year-old engineer from Canada. They played on separate teams in the winter season, and the two teams met for a final match April 4--as did Allen and Bigornia.

During the pregame warm-up, Bigornia skated to the center of the rink, called Allen over and offered her a ring and a wedding proposal. "Of course, we were hugging and kissing at that point. My teammates were skating up to us, laughing and calling out: 'What are you doing? He's on the other side!' " Bigornia's proposal won her over, but Allen reported that her team won the match, 6-4.

The boom also involves players like Robinson, the nightclub comic, who played a few games while growing up in Boston but never considered playing in Los Angeles until friends on an NNHA team urged him to join. "They needed a goalie," he said. "Since I'd be joining a beginner team, I thought I should at least be able to compete. But even though must of these guys had only been skating seven or eight weeks, everyone could out-skate me. When the season started, I was by far the worst goalie in the league."

Robinson said he worked at the sport and takes pride in his growth as a player. This summer, Robinson, needing a change of pace, is serving as a left wing, but looks forward to returning as goalie for the winter season. "I like the idea of being the last stop before the puck goes into the net."

In the meantime, Robinson's team met for its sixth summer game after losing 12-0 the previous week. They lost again, 7-0.

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