Bullfrogs Hope Growth Spurt Bodes Well for Team, RHI : Preview: Defending roller hockey champions prepare to open a new season with enthusiasm about the shape of the team and the league.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Could Orange County have its first professional sports dynasty?

This summer, the Bullfrogs are shooting for what no professional sports franchise in the county has accomplished: back-to-back championships.

The Bullfrogs won the Roller Hockey International championship last season and open defense of their title by hosting their Pacific Division rivals, the Los Angeles Blades, in the season opener at The Pond of Anaheim at 7 tonight.

OK, so it's just roller hockey.

The fledgling league heads into its second season amid snickers from some ice hockey officials but growing support from others.

And consider these facts:

--RHI expanded from 10 to 24 teams, and new owners include New York Rangers star Mark Messier, Pittsburgh Penguins owner Howard Baldwin, and former Montreal Canadiens great Yvan Cournoyer. The league now has franchises in most of the major markets including Montreal, Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia.

--According to American Sports Data, Inc., in-line skating is the fastest growing activity in the nation. There are more than 5,000 amateur roller hockey leagues in North America and 1.6 million people are playing some form of the game.

--ESPN agreed to a multiyear contract with the league. ESPN2 will broadcast a game of the week on Mondays and three playoff games and ESPN will carry three games, including the all-star game July 9 in Vancouver.

"The league will be playing in the Montreal Forum," Bullfrogs President Nelson Silver said. "I think that says something, since hockey is such a revered sport in Montreal."

The Bullfrogs hope to build a championship tradition and appear to have all the pieces in place.

Ten of 14 players return from last season, including leading scorer Victor Gervais, playoff MVP Bobby McKillop and team captain Kevin Kerr.

Brad McCaughey, the team's second-leading scorer, also returns. In addition to playing, McCaughey will be assistant coach and assistant general manager.

"I'm wearing a few different hats, but once the game starts I'm focused on just playing," McCaughey said. "There's no doubt that the team we have now is better than the team we finished with last season."

Coach Chris McSorley, older brother of Kings defenseman Marty McSorley, led the Bullfrogs to the title last season but left to become part-owner and coach of the expansion Buffalo Stampeders.

Grant Sonier, who served as McSorley's assistant last season, takes over as head coach this season.

"Last year I thought I would be in jail for getting paid to coach roller hockey in California for the summer," Sonier said. "This season, we know it will be a lot tougher because everyone will have a team of ice hockey players like us."

One newcomer Sonier believes will be effective is Darren Langdon, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound forward who played with the Binghamton Rangers of the American Hockey League this season.

"Darren will help create some team toughness and he'll make our physical presence entertaining as well," Sonier said.

The Bullfrogs' third-round draft pick, Yuri Krivokhija, and sixth-round pick Jim Brown also made the roster. Last season, the Bullfrogs retained no players from the free-agent draft.

Krivokhija is a talented, 6-3, 210-pound defenseman who played with the Milwaukee Admirals of the International Hockey League and Brown is a 20-year-old with great offensive skills, Sonier said.

"Word spreads among the players," Sonier said. "We've had about 80-90 players, the bulk who were ice hockey players, who expressed interest in trying out this season."

Said McCaughey: "We've been able to pick and choose guys who will fit in with our chemistry. We have 17 guys who hate to lose."

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