RHI’s Too-Short Run Chronicled in New Book
Penned by California resident Richard Graham, ‘Wheelers, Dealers’ hits its mark
By Phillip Brents
California Rubber Magazine
If anyone is qualified to write a history of Roller Hockey International (RHI), it’s Toluca Lake resident Richard Graham, who was there for the professional inline hockey league’s birth in 1993 and, six years later, its death.
His inline hockey opus, “Wheelers, Dealers, Pucks and Bucks - A Rocking History of Roller Hockey International,” is now available through Amazon.com - and it’s been worth the wait.
A decade has passed since fan-favorites such as Savo Mitrovic and Victor Gervais skated for the Anaheim Bullfrogs, the league’s flagship franchise, and players like Doug Ast (LA Blades) and C.J. Yoder (St. Louis Vipers) began to make a name for themselves in the world of professional hockey.
But after reading Graham’s book, it seems only like yesterday.
As a member of the press corps covering the San Diego Barracudas of RHI, I had the opportunity to cover the league for four years. Though the ’Cudas and their RHI brethren are long dead, they left an indelible impression on a legion of youngsters who saw the league’s star-power; it’s no coincidence that the increasing number of NHL draft picks from Southern California owe their beginnings in hockey to its inline version.
As the editor of InLine Hockey News (for which I contributed articles on amateur roller hockey), Graham had access to the league’s personalities, its head honchos and rank-and-file playing talent. Thus, when the review copy of “Wheelers, Dealers, Pucks & Bucks” arrived in my mailbox, I couldn’t put it down.
The book is a fascinating read, especially the small details noted in behind-the-scenes tidbits and anecdotes sprinkled throughout its pages. For instance, many ice hockey players had absolutely no idea how to stop on wheels and were horrified to skate out to their first pregame introductions in front of thousands of cheering fans, afraid to trip or crash into boards.
RHI’s founders - Larry King, Dennis Murphy, Alex Bellehumeur and Ralph Backstrom - dreamed big. Their child was born from the inline skating craze in the 1990s - a trend that began its decline toward the decade’s end.
While the league’s all-too-short run may have left a dark cloud on the game, RHI’s presence did open up many doors of opportunity - no one can deny that. For many ice hockey players whose careers would never advance beyond the AA level, the opportunity to play in NHL arenas was a godsend.
But the grand dream of playing in huge areas with dwindling crowds eventually undid the league. When ESPN declined to renew its TV contract and a proposed deal with FOX never materialized, RHI faced its doom.
The 1998 season was cancelled, and a 1999 revival season barely rolled to a finish. The 2000 season was cancelled and the league officially ceased to exist in 2001.
Would RHI roll today? With the advances in wheel and skate technology, roller hockey players are faster and more mobile than ever before. And with a generation of roller-hockey-specific players now comprising the pinnacle of the sport at the “pro” level in such circuits as the American Inline Hockey League (AIHL) and the North American Roller Hockey Championships (NARCh), inline hockey is as fine-tuned as it’s ever been.
But the sport continues to languish at the second-tier level without a “Division I” showcase circuit that RHI obviously served. Many of the individuals Graham interviewed for the book suggest it will never happen again, that RHI was a special moment in time.
With Graham’s pain-staking thoroughness - we are privy to events not only in Los Angeles and Orange County, but also in places like Vancouver and Amherst, N.Y. - the book stands as a shining historical document.