Spring has sprung and northern lakes are thawing. Wayne Gretzky has hung up his skates for the year. With the Stanley Cup playoffs nearly over, hockey will soon hibernate until fall. But on Los Angeles playgrounds and parking lots, the season is only beginning to heat up. Young men are lacing on roller skates, grabbing hockey sticks and chasing a plastic ball across the blacktop.
Street hockey, the Canadian version of sandlot baseball, was once as rare to Southern California as glacial ice. Now, weekly games have sprung up in sun-drenched locales such as Venice Beach and Santa Monica.
And in the San Fernando Valley, the sport has spread like a brush fire.
On weekdays, after school, teen-agers play in Porter Ranch Park and at Lockhurst Drive School in Woodland Hills. They go to Balboa Park on Wednesdays.
Older players--men in their 20s--start evening games in the parking lot at Humana Hospital West Hills, where they skate beneath lights until the security guard kicks them out. Each Sunday morning, as many as 30 players show up at Lindero Canyon Middle School or Agoura High School.
"All of a sudden, you go by any school and you see people playing," said Greg James, 21, of Woodland Hills. "Everybody grows up playing softball or football. This is something different."
Hockey on the streets of Los Angeles shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. The sport grew instantly popular in this city when Gretzky, hockey's best-known player, was traded to the Kings in 1988. Street hockey has also benefited from the development of roller skates that look and work like hockey skates.
There are no city leagues or organized games, so no one knows how many people are playing street hockey on local blacktops. Perhaps the best gauge comes from sporting goods stores.
"It started about six months ago. I started getting phone call after phone call asking for street hockey equipment," said Ric Collins, owner of Encore Sports in Woodland Hills. "I'm mainly a surf shop but I don't sell surf stuff any more; I just sell street hockey stuff. The sport has turned into a madhouse."
Players require only skates, sticks and a paved area. Lockhurst Drive School has a small, walled parking lot that is well-suited. Last week, 25 of the usual gang arrived: Sean Milder, an especially fast skater; Chris Mahoney, whose parents sometimes come out to watch; Greg James, wearing cut-off army pants and his hair sprayed so it stood straight up. A car stereo blared a John Lennon song as players chose sides.
But before the game could start, the police arrived.
"The principal does not want you to be here," an officer told the group. A month or so earlier, school officials said, a teacher was struck by a flying street hockey ball. "Leave the playground right now," the officer said.
"A wholesome activity interrupted," one player grumbled. "Let's go smoke some crack."
Half an hour later, the group had reassembled in a Builders Emporium parking lot. Play started quickly and moved at a furious pace, punctuated by clattering skates and the occasional thud of bodies. Cries of "Center!" and "Point!"--the hockey equivalent of "I'm open! Pass me the ball!"--sounded like a foreign language on this warm evening.
Street, or roller, hockey is similar to its colder sibling. Teams move continually back and forth on a makeshift rink, shooting at goalies who guard nets at either end. A bright orange ball, roughly the size of a tennis ball, is often used in place of a puck because it rolls smoothly over pavement.
Players don't call any penalties. They wear scant padding because there is little checking--the body-slamming common to ice hockey. Occasional collisions are unavoidable.
"About the only difference between street and ice hockey is that it's harder when you fall in street hockey," said Dan Winters, 27, who played locally on ice as a youth. "You fall on ice and you can slide. You fall on pavement and you can tear an elbow up."
The game at Builders Emporium was perhaps less savvy than one would find on a Toronto or New York City playground. While several players skated and stick-handled gracefully, others lurched about, leaning on their sticks for balance. Defensemen occasionally got caught out of position, scrambling to get back as the other team rushed their goal.
The game was hard-fought but friendly, as are most. Arguments were infrequent. Players often joked as they skated back and forth. When a player fell hard, his opponent paused to make sure he was all right.
Shoppers stopped to watch.
"What is this?" an older man asked.
Despite the rag-tag trappings--parking lots and schoolyards--street hockey can be expensive. Special sticks, with plastic blades to withstand pavement, cost $20. Knee and elbow pads run $50. Gloves are $35, and some players make due with gardening gloves. A goalie can spend up to $250 on a helmet, stick and body padding.
Skates are even more expensive. The footwear of choice is Rollerblades, a high-tech skate designed in 1980 by two Minnesota brothers who wanted to practice hockey during the summer. Because the four wheels are set in a line, Rollerblades stop and start more quickly than conventional skates. They also cost from $89 to $215, depending on the model. (Officials at Rollerblade Inc. estimate that during 1990 their sales in Southern California will double to 60,000 pairs, more than in any other part of the country.)
But no discussion of street hockey expenditures is complete without mention of the Damji family, who recently moved from Canada to Woodland Hills. They chose one house over another because, among other things, it had a level driveway.
"The other house they were considering had a sloped driveway," said Stuart Tain, their real estate agent. "The kids wouldn't have been able to play hockey on it."
Many players said their parents are supportive, both financially and emotionally, of their street hockey habit. "It gets rough," said Mary Mahoney, as she watched her sons Chris and Paul play. "But I don't mind it. I know where they are and it keeps them out of trouble."
Bloodied knees and elbows are common to the games; serious injuries are not. One Valley player recently broke a wrist, another broke some ribs. Both are playing again. Doctors at half a dozen local hospitals and sports injury clinics said they couldn't recall treating any street-hockey injuries.
None of that impresses Ilene Meyers, the principal who is seeking to banish street hockey from Lockhurst Drive School.
"It brings the older people out, smoking and drinking and that sort of thing," Meyers said. "That little hockey ball could certainly break a window. I just don't think that's what our elementary school campuses are meant for."
Meyers also distrusts street hockey for the same reason that others are drawn to it, because the games are haphazard and unsupervised. That aspect of the sport might be changing. In July, Rollerblade will host a national roller hockey tournament in San Diego. In Agoura, Collins is trying to organize a league with teams and rules, like they've had in Eastern cities for decades.
For now, the players travel from one schoolyard or parking lot to the next, going wherever there's a game. They are a mish-mash breed: whites play with blacks, Latinos and Asians. A long-haired college student skates beside a body shop manager. Ice hockey veterans--the only people who played street hockey in Los Angeles 10 years ago--are joined by players who have never touched a stick and players reliving the game they grew up on.
"I played in Brooklyn," said Jack Reiss, 34, who moved to Los Angeles 11 years ago. "There are so many transplanted Easterners and Midwesterners out here . . . I knew it would catch on."
And because street hockey is new to Los Angeles, the experienced players aren't that much better than newcomers. The games aren't snobbish like pickup basketball, where only the good players get picked on teams. Street hockey is open to anyone.
"We haven't been around long enough to be great at this game," James said. "We tolerate the slower players . . . even guys with hair like me."