Hockey Gets On a Roll in San Diego : Championships Come West As Sport’s Popularity Grows


Sunny, serene San Diego, summer address for Everywhere Else, U.S.A., has thrown the sports world a roundhouse curve.

There will be no major league baseball here this weekend, no surfing contest, no pro beach volleyball tournament, no skateboard jamboree, no Frisbee fest, no speedboat races, no sailing regatta.

It is the middle of July, and San Diego is host to a national hockey tournament. The 27th U.S. National Roller Hockey Championships, to be exact.


Hockey tradition in Southern California is about as thin as the swimwear at Mission Beach. So why have best club hockey teams from Philadelphia, Detroit, Minnesota, St. Louis, Virginia and Baltimore come to San Diego for a national tournament?

Although San Diego has had various pro and college hockey teams, none relied on local talent.

The city didn’t even have enough roller hockey teams this year to form a league. And in the county there is only one roller rink that allows the sport: Skate San Diego, site of the national championships that started July 7 and conclude Saturday.

San Diego, however, has the Hosers, two-time national champions. And the sanctioning body of roller hockey--the United States Amateur Confederation of Roller Skating--believes San Diego is a prime marketing target.

There is evidence that the sport is beginning to take off here as it has in Los Angeles. Youngsters and adults alike are popping up in parking lots and tennis courts at schools and parks carrying sticks, plastic pucks and in-line roller skates.

With the marketing of the relatively new in-line skates--commonly referred to as Rollerblades, a brand name--many kids have decided to shelve their skateboards, Hosers Coach Paul Chapey said.

Because the four wheels are set in a line and held in place by two blade-like brackets, in-lines both look and feel like ice skates. Suddenly, in a climate where a concrete slab is the closest thing to a frozen pond, youngsters are playing a strange new game. And in semi-arid San Diego, they’re getting the best of both worlds.

“For the kids, it’s becoming cool to be a hockey player,” Chapey said. “Skateboarding is a lifestyle, surfing is a lifestyle. If kids can slip that into their lifestyle--that they play hockey--that’ll get it going.

“It’s a neat sport. It’s pure fun. You’ve got speed and finesse. It’s a mental game, and you get to carry a stick.”

The players say roller hockey is lighter on physical violence and injuries than ice hockey. With the exception of the goalie, less equipment is required, significantly reducing costs. And it is great exercise.

But until now, mostly transplanted Easterners and Canadians--people who grew up spending their winters on ice skates--have played the game. That the game not only requires athletic coordination but superior skating ability has left many hockey-loving locals playing in tennis shoes.

And while the county has become littered with closed rinks, San Diegans have but one place to hit slap shots on a maple-wood floor: Skate San Diego in National City.

The tournament is composed of three divisions: bronze (novice), silver (intermediate) and gold (advanced). A total of 20 teams, all regional champions, were invited this year.

In 1989, the Hosers swept the bronze division and advanced to the silver draw as a wild card the next day. They came within a goal (a 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Scorpions) of capturing both divisions, compiling a 14-1 record in the process. In 1990, they went 8-0 and won the silver.

This year, the Hosers entered the tournament 13-1 in the San Diego-Los Angeles Rollerblade Hockey League and seeded fifth in the gold division. According to some rink-side chatter this week, the Hosers are the best team in the nation.

Chapey only shrugged at the suggestion and said, “There would be a little bit of irony in that.”

Chapey, 47, was an original member of the team that formed in 1983. He still plays recreationally, but his organized involvement is as a coach and member of the USAC/RS national committee. Chapey is a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., where, he said, roller hockey was created on the streets.

Chapey moved to Southern California in 1968 and quickly adopted the lifestyle. He helped launch the magazine Surfing as its editor. He now serves as a marketing director for Ipanema Wear, a manufacturer of women’s swimsuits. His East Coast-West Coast influence was a key factor in bringing the national tournament to San Diego.

The Hosers, as one might guess, aren’t just a bunch of skating-crazed California dudes.

The team’s red and black jerseys carry the head of a moose as its emblem. The name “Hoser” is a Canadian slang term. They are the only club team sponsored and outfitted by Bauer, Canada’s leading manufacturer of hockey equipment.

The Hosers’ roster includes former ice-hockey players Mark Cline from Minnesota and Jim Hatch from Boston. Mike Leviten is a Harvard graduate from Nova Scotia. There’s also Fran Weidinger, a reformed surfer from Point Loma, and Dennis Amyot, a Quebec native who didn’t play organized hockey until he was a teen-ager living in San Diego.

“A roll of plastic electrician’s tape was the first puck I ever used,” said Weidinger, 31, who still uses conventional roller skates. “They were great pucks. My two brothers and me would slap it around in the garage. Then we got steel-wheel skates and moved out to the driveway.”

And while Weidinger might have been considered the oddball kid in the neighborhood, Amyot was doing the normal Canadian thing, skating at age 2 and hosing down his back lawn to form an outdoor ice rink in his hometown of Hull.

But Hull had neither a rink nor an organized league, and it was only after he moved to San Diego and began to miss Canada, that Amyot, 31, joined a team. He was a good enough skater to play for the traveling L.A. Junior Kings and play two years at U.S. International University. Now he wants to see roller hockey grow.

“If it was up to me, I think the city, instead of building new tennis courts, should build a concrete roller rink outside,” he said. “Then, like Little League, kids would go out with their roller skates and start playing. I think it would catch on.”

Roller hockey is catching on, at such crude venues at the Moonlight Beach parking lot in Encinitas, the Cabrillo Recreation Center in Point Loma, the Rancho Penasquitos Recreation Center, Madison High School’s tennis courts, University City’s Standley Park and Cadman Park in Clairemont, where Bill Morrow, 40, plays regularly.

“I’ve never seen a sport pick up as fast as kids playing roller hockey,” said Morrow, the national tournament’s official scorekeeper. “Two and a half years ago, when my son and I were learning how to skate, we were the only ones out there. Suddenly, all the other kids had to have Rollerblades and sticks.”

It may be just a fad, a craze, triggered by two things: the NHL Los Angeles Kings acquiring Wayne Gretzky in 1988 and the merchandising of in-line skates soon after. Gretzky has helped make the Kings a winner and a media attraction. Rollerblades, which were designed by two Minnesota brothers in 1980, sold 55,000 pair in 1990, tripling the volume of the previous year.

“Gretzky’s a media figure with major marketability,” Chapey said. “He’s probably the best hockey player in history. The kids are learning the sport and they have a hero.

“Kids are into stuff . And California kids have got the time, they’ve got the money, they’ve got the weather. Since you can play roller hockey outside in an outdoor rink or even on a converted tennis court, California kids will get fanatical about it. They’ll be playing all the time.”

Jerry Horner, 34, who played professionally in the International Hockey League, staked his life savings on it when he and his wife, Michelle (Ford), a former U.S. Olympic figure skater, purchased the old Sweetwater Roller Rink in November.

“Driving around, I see it all over the place,” Horner said. “You go to almost any playground, you’ll see a bunch of kids hacking an orange ball around.”

Skate San Diego looks like an old brick warehouse on the outside. The environment on the inside is dark and cave-like. The building, with its wood dome roof supported by steel beams, is nearly 40 years old and lacks air conditioning. The acoustic tile walls are brown with dirt. The rink floor is stained, the clear varnish dulled and thinning.

But the snack bar dishes out sub sandwiches and the pro shop is stocked with all the state-of-the-art hockey equipment.

To the Hosers, who have bounced from rink to rink over the years, Skate San Diego is another Montreal Forum. The feeling is the same as if it were the Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum.

It is a place to play. The old rink in Solana Beach has become an antique warehouse, the one in El Cajon is now Jerome’s Furniture. Others have shut down in Spring Valley, Hillcrest and downtown.

But three nights a week you can play pick-up roller hockey at Skate San Diego. It is the only rink that recognizes the sport. One night a week Horner teaches it. His students have formed two competitive teams: the Sharks and the Mission Bay Bombers. He has visions of forming leagues for children to adults five nights a week.

“I can see it happening,” he said. “I can see a lot of ice hockey kids crossing over for off-season training. The price of the floor (more than $200 an hour) is just killing the ice people.

“It’s almost the same game. The only thing the kids can’t do on their Rollerblades is a hockey stop, where they spray the snow.”

In roller hockey, players are ejected for fighting and unnecessary contact is penalized. With the game de-thugged, Chapey says roller hockey is streamlined for speed and finesse. Strategy is more similar to basketball than it is ice hockey. Roller hockey uses four skaters instead of five. And with a good pair of skates, a stick, gloves and pads obtainable at about $225, the cost of gear is comparable to that of other sports.

Easton Sports, manufacturer of aluminum baseball bats and hockey sticks, is one of the sponsors of the national tournament and is simultaneously launching its line of roller hockey equipment, Street Domination, here.

And for guys like Chapey, who plays the game because it reminds him of his icy Brooklyn afternoons nearly four decades ago, it’s about time.

“It’s still really obscure,” he said. “But it’s changing. You see the kids in the schoolyards now. It’s just a neat game.”