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The Wheel Deal : Roller Hockey International Officials Say Sport Is Here to Stay

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After every Roller Hockey International game, hundreds of kids are allowed to lug hockey sticks, roller pucks and caps into the locker room in search of their favorite players’ autographs.

No one can say RHI, Ltd., doesn’t know its fan base.

Those little-known signatures may not be worth a lot at a sports memorabilia show, but they mean something to the youngsters who seek them. And their value is even more apparent to RHI, which stages its third annual all-star game at the Pond at 7 tonight.

The world’s only professional roller hockey league has been betting the last four years that the 3.2 million people, mostly children, who are fueling the in-line street skating craze, also will do the same for RHI.

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Attendance is up about 20% over last year, the league has quickly reached a state of parity and, with some nifty rule changes, the sport is viewed by some as more entertaining and higher scoring than ice hockey.

Things are moving along so well, say league operators, that RHI expects to expand from 18 to 24 teams next year, with another six to 10 teams planned for Europe.

Nevertheless, as owners descend into the league’s marquee town tonight, Roller Hockey International faces challenges that go beyond catering to autograph-seeking kids.

Consider:

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* RHI has no star players who can be marketed beyond the tight-knit community of roller hockey rinks in Canada and the United States. The players are minor league ice hockey players working the summer for spare cash.

* In many cities, particularly in Los Angeles and New York, the league is largely ignored by the media. There are no live national television broadcasts. For tonight’s all-star game, only six daily newspapers, all from Southern California, have requested credentials.

* RHI headquarters, split between San Francisco and Denver, has struggled with its communication systems. Its Internet site is as much as two weeks behind on scores and it has yet to publish a 1996 version of its annual record book.

* Announced attendance is up about 5,000 spectators a game, but throw out the Bullfrogs with announced crowds of 9,800, and the average takes a huge drop. Seven teams average fewer than 4,000. Ticket prices range from $8 to $25. In addition, ticket prices for tonight’s game were lowered as a result of poor marketing.

* Since 1993, when the league began with 12 teams, about a quarter of all the franchises have folded, while others have been added. By the end of the 1996 season, several of the charter members, including the Bullfrogs, will consider whether it is profitable to continue playing in the current high-priced venues.

League founders, who are hoping for a sellout tonight, believe these are manageable problems.

“RHI is here to stay,” said league Commissioner Ralph Backstrom, a former player in the NHL and a founder of RHI. “Roller hockey is a part of society now. It may well become an Olympic sport someday.”

The League

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Dennis Murphy, the idea man behind the World Hockey League and the World Football League, saw children dodging cars to play street hockey in a parking lot five years ago and got another idea.

“Timing counts,” he said. “For roller hockey, the timing was perfect. We were in the right place at the right time.”

He called in old friends Alex Bellehumeur and Larry King as chairman and executive officer and Backstrom as commissioner. They hired Jerry Diamond, executive director of the former Women’s Tennis Assn., as president, and the first RHI puck was dropped in 1993 with 12 teams playing a 14-game schedule. A year later, the league doubled in size. Today it has 18 teams playing a 28-game schedule, plus playoffs.

Franchise failures have been a problem. Midway through last season, for example, the defending league champion Buffalo Stampede went bankrupt.

“We have stronger ownership this season,” said Deputy Commissioner Ron Byrne. “We’re working out the bugs.”

But the high cost of operating in high-profile arenas is a concern. The Bullfrogs, for example, make most of their income from ticket sales at the high-priced Pond, where attendance is below 1995 levels. The Bullfrogs make $400,000 a year from dasher board advertising, but the boards belong to Disney, which loans their use on a yearly basis. If Disney pulls the boards, a concern of Bullfrog owners, the team would have serious cash flow problems.

Still, there are plans to expand in 1997, although a series of European exhibition games this spring were poorly attended and brought mixed reviews from coaches and players.

“I don’t believe we should go past 24 teams in this hemisphere in the next five to 10 years,” said Murphy, head of oversees operations. “In Europe, Asia, Australia, I see teams there soon.”

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Travel costs prohibit play between Eastern and Western Conference clubs, except in the Murphy Cup. Some owners want to increase the number of games to 34, which would allow for interconference play.

The Game

Some say it’s an exciting product, even if hockey purists detest it.

“We wanted an entertaining, high-scoring game for the kids and fans,” said Backstrom. “We wanted lots of offensive opportunities and goals.”

RHI uses four players and a goaltender. Ice hockey has five players and a goalie. There are no blue lines in roller hockey, eliminating most offsides calls. Games consist of four, 12-minute quarters and go to a shootout after regulation to settle ties.

The average number of goals scored in a game is 16.7. Penalties are 1 1/2 minutes, not two. But don’t think the league is soft. Referees have been encouraged to mete out roughing penalties. Fighting is prohibited: Throw a punch and miss the next game.

The Players

Grant Sonier remembers the day that revolutionized RHI. Now in his third year as coach of the Bullfrogs, he was an assistant in 1993 when he and then coach Chris McSorley cut 300 players, considered among the best in roller hockey in the nation, in the first few hours of open tryouts.

“It was nuts,” Sonier said.

Then Sonier signed Savo Mitrovic, a young ice hockey player from Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia; Victor Gervais, the league’s third-leading scorer; Darren Perkins, one of the league’s best defensemen and goaltender Rob Laurie, a three-time all-star.

And the Bullfrogs won the first Murphy Cup.

A year later, the rest of the teams followed suit. John Black, an attorney from Orange who has coached the Blades, the defunct Portland Rage and is now at Sacramento, favors Russian-born skaters. But most of the players are Canadians from the American, East Coast and West Coast hockey leagues. A smattering, like Orlando defenseman Daniel Shank, come from the International Hockey League.

“You can’t coach the game,” said Bullfrog assistant coach Brad McCaughey, who retired as a player last year. “The guy either knows the game or he doesn’t, and playing on ice all your life makes you better.”

Player contracts are nonexistent and there is no union. The average salary is $400 a week, plus a car and an apartment. Bonus money for a finish within the division and the playoffs totaled more than $2 million in 1995, an incentive that league officials tout as one of their best ideas.

“The level of performance of the team determines the pay of each player,” said King.

Still, some say ice hockey players act like they are on holiday.

“It’s a bunch of minor leaguers passing the summer,” said Sean Patrick Finn, president and captain of the University of Kansas roller hockey club and the organizer of an Internet site about the sport. “I’ve heard suggestions made that RHI should open up the league to [a percentage of] roller hockey players, rather than ice hockey moonlighters.

“Such a move might dilute the RHI talent level, but at least you would have some players out there who aren’t just killing time and picking up a little cash.”

The league hierarchy believes it’s just a matter of time before in-line skating produces its own Wayne Gretzky.

To promote the professional version of the sport, they’ve started RHI Amateur, an association of youth leagues similar to the Santa Ana-based National Junior Basketball, which was founded by Murphy’s son, Dennis, Jr.

“With the roller hockey rinks now developing, the kids are getting better and better,” said Murphy, Sr. “When we first formed this league, we were foolish to think at this level that [roller hockey players] were good enough to play our type of roller hockey.

“But as we develop programs in college and high school, there are kids out there right now who are 14 and 15 years old who are getting better and better and more of these will become players in our league in the future.”

Who Are You?

“I’m tired of seeing Jorge Campos all over the front page,” said Sonier in a rare moment of anger recently. “The league has got to do a better job of promoting its players.”

Sonier and others forget it took Major League Soccer star Campos and his sport many years and a World Cup on U.S. soil to gain some credibility with the U.S. media.

But Sonier has a point, others say. RHI has done little to promote or market its product nationwide.

“The league could do a better job seeking out sponsors on a national level,” said second-year Coach Shaun Clouston of the Oakland Skates. “The National Basketball Assn. has made stars for its league, look at Michael Jordan. This league has no major national sponsors and I don’t see why. There’s definitely more work to be done in that area.”

Teams generally do a poor job of communicating and the league does little to help them. Owners see marketing and public relations expenses as necessary evils, but also areas where they can scrimp. Employee turnover is high.

“It’s an area of concern,” said Diamond. “We tell the owners that they have to put some money into this area, but they don’t. They hire young, inexperienced people, work them hard, and don’t pay them much.”

The league has struggled to get the word out. It pays thousands of dollars to a statistical service to publish RHI leaders, but many media outlets don’t subscribe to the service because it charges a fee.

Prime Ticket is televising a few Blade games live and ESPN is carrying four delayed RHI broadcasts, including the all-star game. Another 12 are being delayed on ESPN2. Radio broadcasts, where they exist, are handled by the franchises. A national network of radio stations had planned to broadcast the all-star game, but the deal fell through when league officials reneged on helping the Bullfrogs organize it.

“We’re going to get there, but it’s going to take time,” said Backstrom. “We have to identify who the superstars in roller hockey are, but that’s coming gradually.”

Finally, those crowd figures. Are they real? It’s a big topic. Until the league can satisfy the second-guessers, those bloated numbers are one more obstacle to credibility.

The Future

Referees from ice hockey associations stayed away in 1993, but, according to Backstrom, more are working RHI games, thereby increasing consistency of calls. In response to criticism about officiating from coaches, RHI recently hired NHL veteran Don Adam as director of officials.

The franchise turnover problem, while slowing, will continue. San Diego, which averages announced crowds of 3,700 in the Sports Arena, is teetering, officials there say. So is Empire State, last in the league in attendance at 1,300.

Even the marquee franchises are troubled. Bullfrog owners Maury, Nelson and Stuart Silver have secured the rights to a new club in the West Coast Hockey League, are negotiating to build a 10,000-seat ice/roller hockey arena in Ontario and say they aren’t sure what their future with the Bullfrogs at the Pond will be beyond this season.

Equipment manufacturers also have been mentioned as taking a greater interest in owning RHI teams.

Expanding to Europe is a question mark, particularly after this spring’s roller hockey tour there. League officials hail the tour as successful, but players who participated complained about small crowds, poor pay and bad organization.

Three teams--Vancouver, Philadelphia and St. Louis--are partly owned by NHL franchises. Backstrom and Diamond would like to see more of that. Some say the NHL could own the league and run it as a summer farm system, if it wanted to, but that would surely end any hopes kids playing roller hockey have of making an RHI club.

Finally, talk persists that another pro roller hockey league, one backed by the NHL, perhaps, will emerge.

“Well, there’s always that possibility,” Backstrom said. “It’s maybe inevitable. In some ways it’s a compliment to this league. We’ll just have to take it one season at a time.”


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