NEXT L.A.: A look at issues, people and ideas helping to shape the emerging metropolis. : Sport on a Roll Seeks Permanent Rinks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They look like road warriors as they flash by, suited head to toe in face masks, helmets, wrist pads, shinguards, padded gloves, knee and elbow pads, with hockey sticks clattering on asphalt as they chase down a hard rubber puck.

If you haven't noticed them yet, you will. Parks and parking lots throughout Southern California are alive with the sound of one of the fastest-growing sports today--roller hockey.

A land-based cousin to the game played on ice, roller hockey is enjoyed by 2.5 million players nationwide, according to the experts at the Newport Beach office of the National In-Line Hockey Assn. And that number may triple in the next few years, they say.

Currently, 12 Los Angeles city recreation centers--from Cheviot Hills to Pacific Palisades and Northridge to Baldwin Hills--have hockey leagues or teams playing in makeshift rinks on basketball or tennis courts.

With demand so high, city parks commissioners are exploring the opening of concessionaire- run permanent rinks. Sites being studied include the Griffith Recreation Center, Jim Gilliam Recreation Center, Balboa Sports Center in Encino, parks in Westchester and Westwood and the Algin Sutton center south of the Sports Arena.

"For the safety of the skaters, it is better to have a dedicated space where they don't have to compete with curbs and cars," said Mary Braunwarth, spokeswoman for the Department of Recreation and Parks.

High-intensity pickup games between expert teams of bare-chested speedsters have become an afternoon ritual in the beach parking lot at the end of Ocean Park Boulevard in Santa Monica.

And from El Segundo to San Fernando to West Covina, cities are opening up rinks dedicated to this latest sports frenzy. This summer, youngsters from Lincoln Heights played against a team from Santa Monica in roller hockey in the Inner City Games.

Roller hockey's growth has been compared to the growth of soccer a decade ago.

"You see kids playing everywhere," said Nadine Brown, editor of the Orange County-based Global Skate magazine.

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