Bullfrogs Back in Business, but for How Long?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yes, it appears the Bullfrogs will make their Roller Hockey International comeback Saturday night at the Arrowhead Pond.

But with the status of professional in-line hockey nearly as shaky as when it opened for business seven years ago, the only thing certain about the Bullfrogs' 7 p.m. game Saturday against the San Jose Rhinos is the Pond doors will be open. How much fan appeal the game still has after another tumultuous off-season is anyone's guess.

Last week at the Bullfrogs' training camp in Tustin, Brad McCaughey, the team's recently rehired coach, was busy making trades and reassuring former players that the Bullfrogs were still in business.

"In this league," McCaughey said, "[success] is just a matter of who shows up to play."

The Bullfrogs' seven-year record is 128-35-6. They won RHI titles in 1993 and '97, but when the league went broke after the '97 season, they jumped to Major League Roller Hockey, where they finished 20-0-1 and won the championship in 1998.

Early this spring, the Bullfrogs and the Buffalo Wings, another team that had defected to MLRH, rejoined RHI, which regrouped under a new president and CEO, Bernie Mullin, a former college administrator from Denver.

It proved to be a good move. Teetering under poor leadership and questionable financial practices, MLRH has dropped from 14 teams in North America last year to only two this year and may not play at all this season, its president, Bill Raue, said last week.

Getting RHI back on track after a year's hiatus, according to Mullin, has been troublesome. He planned to bring back 10 teams this season, 12 fewer than at the league's height in 1996. But in April, franchises in Florida and Detroit were suspended because they weren't ready to field teams.

Training camps for the remaining eight teams opened only a week ago, and reports around the league indicate key players have been slow to report. And basic things like practice gear supplied by the league did not arrive on time for many teams, including the Bullfrogs.

Further, RHI's much-ballyhooed national television deal, which was supposed to generate a large portion of its budget, has been scaled back from several live games each week to only a couple of regional broadcasts, if that, because of contractual difficulties, according to Bullfrog President Bob Elder. Elder added he has turned down a deal to broadcast 19 Bullfrog games on local radio because it would be too costly.

Still, the Bullfrog franchise, given up for dead only three months ago, appears to have bounced back under new management.

The team's previous owners, the Silver family, had financial difficulties and had to declare bankruptcy. The Bullfrogs' current owners, investors from Irvine, purchased the team out of bankruptcy court.

Many front-office staff and players who where around when the team was founded have returned.

McCaughey, an original Bullfrog who sat out last year in a salary dispute, has convinced crowd favorites such as goaltender Rob Laurie (14-0-1 in 1998), defensemen Darren Perkins (26 goals, 54 assists) and Tom Menicci (eight goals, 29 assists) and forward B.J. MacPherson (18 goals, 27 assists) to return. Wingers Hugo Belanger and Ralph Barahona are also in camp. Belanger led the MLRH in goals (79) and assists (79) during the 1998 regular season. Barahona, who played for the MLRH franchise in Tampa, had 16 goals and 31 assists last year.

Trades have brought Kevin Kerr (19 goals, 29 assists for MLRH's Virginia) and returned Kevin St. Jacques (eight goals, 38 assists) and defenseman Sean Whyte (three goals, 14 assists). St. Jacques and Whyte played for the Bullfrogs last season, but were lost in RHI's winter dispersal draft.

"The franchise has made great strides with the new owners," McCaughey said. "And I think the league has learned from its past mistakes. It has built eight solid teams. In the past, you would have had eight solid teams and a lot of poorly run teams. I think they're moving in the right direction."

Getting McCaughey back was a coup for Elder, a former county radio personality who served as Bullfrog general manager from 1993 to 1996. He left in midseason after a pay dispute with the Silvers.

McCaughey was originally assigned by RHI, which owns coaches' contracts, to run its Detroit franchise, and Jim Thomson, a former King and Mighty Duck, was named Bullfrog coach. But when the Detroit franchise was put on the shelf, McCaughey became available and Thomson became the Bullfrog general manager.

McCaughey's presence gives the team instant credibility among players.

"Seeing Brad as coach, I know everything will be OK here," MacPherson said. "Based on what has happened in the past, everything can just go up from here."

But it may take some time for the Bullfrogs to gel. Laurie is in Finland this weekend with the U.S. National In-Line Team. Menicci has participated in preseason drills but will miss the opener to attend his sister's wedding. Perkins, the team's captain, broke the orbital bone of his eye socket in April when struck by a puck while playing ice hockey for San Diego of the WCHL. He's listed as day to day.

Tickets have been priced at a low of $10 this season, $2 more than previous seasons.

As for the team's financial status, its new three-year contract with the Pond cuts its rent in half to about $10,000 a game. The restructured league now pays all player salaries, which means that it will take only 4,000 to 5,000 spectators a game for Pacific Sports Hockey Group, the team's parent company, to make a profit, Victor said.

RHI intends to pay each player $300 per victory and $200 for a loss, as opposed to a guaranteed weekly salary. The regular season will consist of 26 games, with single-elimination playoffs tentatively scheduled to be in Las Vegas, Aug. 19-22, which is two weeks earlier than in past years.

The Bullfrogs will compete in RHI's Western Conference with the Las Vegas Coyotes, headed by former Bullfrog Coach Chris McSorley, Dallas Stallions, and the Rhinos, who are said to be returning the majority of the players and coaching staff that led the team to the 1995 RHI title. The St. Louis Vipers will compete in the Eastern Conference, along with the Chicago Bluesmen, Minnesota Blue Ox and Buffalo, which returns most of its players from the team that finished 12-9-1 in MLRH last year.

"Things with this team have been looking up," Laurie said of the Bullfrogs. "Now, it's time for the league to come through. If it does it right, RHI and the sport will continue to go."

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Bullfrog Facts and Figures

ROSTER

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Name Pos Hgt Wgt Ralph Barahona C 5-10 185 Rob Laurie G 5-10 180 Roman Hubalek LW 5-7 160 B.J. MacPherson LW 6-2 210 Darren Perkins D 5-11 190 Mark Stitt C 6-0 190 Mario Therrien LW 6-3 225 Rick Plester G 5-11 175 Chad Seibol D 6-0 200 Kevin St. Jacques LW 5-11 190 Kevin Kerr RW 6-0 190 Bob Raposa D 6-2 225 Sean Whyte RW 6-0 198 Hugo Belanger LW 6-0 190 Jason MacIntyre D 5-11 190 Tom Menicci D 5-10 190 Ryan Shmyr LW 6-4 220

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SCHEDULE

June 5--San Jose; June 9--Dallas; June 11--at San Jose (7:30 p.m.); June 13--St. Louis; June 16--Dallas; June 18--Minnesota; June 23--at Dallas (5:30); June 25--at Chicago (6); June 26--at Buffalo (4:30).

July 4--at Minnesota (5); July 8--at Las Vegas (7:30); July 10--at San Jose (7:30); July 11--Las Vegas; July 15--San Jose; July 18--at Dallas (5:30); July 22--at St. Louis (5); July 23--Chicago; July 24--Buffalo; July 30--Las Vegas.

Aug. 1--at San Jose (2); Aug. 5--Las Vegas; Aug. 7--at Las Vegas (7:30); Aug. 8--San Jose (6 p.m.); Aug. 11--Dallas; Aug. 13--at Dallas (5:30); Aug. 14--Las Vegas.

Aug. 19-22--League finals, Las Vegas, TBA.

All home games begin at 7 p.m. unless noted.

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