This is an experiment. I don't have as much time to devote to Inline Hockey Central as I'd like to right now because I have to focus on making a living. I've been working off and on an article about high school inline hockey for a while now, and I have come to the realization that if I don't post the information I've gathered soon, I might never get to it. And this topic is too important for that to happen.
So I'd like to have some help from IHC's readers. If you know of any of these programs that I'm writing about below, please post your CONSTRUCTIVE comments in this thread, or add information about other programs that I didn't mention. (If you're just going to bitch, please complain somewhere else. Here, we're trying to grow the sport, not tear it apart.)
That said, ALL corrections to this story are welcome. As I've said, it's not been as finalized and polished as I'd like. Thank you.
Can the growth of high school inline hockey save our sport?
by Richard Graham
March 4, 2005
Back in the late 1990s, inline hockey was booming. Millions of young people in North America dropped baseball and basketball and other traditional youth sports to join the growing craze. Since that time, however, inline hockey has seen a significant drop in the number of its participants.
Some attribute the shrinkage to the attraction of video games; the demise of Roller Hockey International, a professional league that gave players something to aspire to; and the increasing focus of many tournament series' on the elite players and teams, which caused the less-skilled recreational player to drop out of the sport when his better teammates were plucked away by tournament travel teams. Others say the problem is that there is no clearly accepted organization to administer the sport internationally, or that a glut of product by inline hockey manufacturers during the boom caused the market to drop out after the faddish adherents of the sport moved on to other things. Whatever the reasons, no one can deny that inline hockey has seen better days.
However, some inline hockey administrators believe that high school hockey might just be the key to an inline hockey renaissance.
According to Eddie Delgado of the Colorado High School Inline Hockey Association <A HREF="http://www.chsiha.org" target="_new">http://www.chsiha.org</A>, some high school inline hockey programs are going strong.
"Our high school division is going very well; as well as it's ever been. We had 65 teams last year, we're on an 80-plus pace right now. I believe the reason for the growth in our program is the enthusiasm of the kids who can now walk through their schools wearing their inline hockey jerseys, representing something that's meaningful to them. They no longer have to be envious of basketball and football players."
Delgado, who also manages the Bladium Sports Club in Denver, said that the league began discussions with the Colorado High School Activities Association but received very little to no response.
"One parent heard the CHSAA commissioner say on a sports talk show that he didn't want to jump into inline hockey because he was not confident the sport was going to last. Well, we feel that it's been there all along," Delgado said.
Delgado added that the CHSAA is simply not enthusiastic about hockey in general, as it currently sanctions an ice hockey program that's had just 18 teams for the last 50 years.
"We have to build our credibility until it reaches the level of CHSAA and all of its sports," Delgado said. "This year, we formed a middle-school division with almost 20 teams. At the end of last season, word of mouth spread, and that division grew. When you consider the number of middle schools that surround high schools, we're very confident that it's going to be a hugely successful program."
Don Cerone, a league administrator for San Diego's Metro Conference, has helped make inline hockey a varsity sport in San Diego. The Metro Conference is the athletics conference for the Sweetwater School District, and the CIF league was sanctioned by the Southern California Interscholastic Federation four years ago.
"It's the most important program in the state," says Joe Noris, who runs the Skate San Diego rink in National City, California.
And according to Cerone, it is the only true high school league that he is aware of.
"It's not private -- it's an actual high school league," said Cerone. "We started out our first league with eight teams 10 years ago. We've since grown into three leagues, comprised of 18 teams, many of which are sanctioned as club teams by their schools. Some teams have moved from club status to CIF. My son had been playing roller hockey; travel and rec. Coming into high school, he gave up baseball and other sports to focus on roller hockey. All the boys on his team were asking, 'Why can't we have a high school roller hockey team?'
"Being a good dad, I got all the information and found that you need a sponsor -- a teacher on campus . I found a counselor who was willing to be an advisor. We had the first club team in San Diego County. A lady whose son played on my son's travel team then started a team at San Pasqual. Our high school is Scripps Ranch.
Cerone had been trying to encourage others in the California to lead the charge and get CIF inline hockey started in their area, but was told, no chance, it won't happen. Cerone says he was told, " 'Not only won't you get CIF status, you won't get club status.'
Cerone felt that unlike some sports that are produced for kids, inline hockey was really different.
"I've coached Little League, and I coach high school baseball now," Cerone said. "I've coached baseball for years, the skill level is so high; some kids like it, some kids don't. Everybody who played roller hockey just loved it -- they got a good workout, and that passion got me excited and I wanted to see if we could make this happen.
Cerone says that inline hockey is not a "conventional sport," and that he could see it from the establishment's eye -- "What is that? Skateboarding? It's not really hockey."
But according to Cerone, "We've come a long way; it has been accepted. It has come so far in the last 10 years, it's really amazing. Funding is short for athletics; it doesn't excite a lot of people. This is a different group of kids that you get to meet; it's one of the most compelling arguments -- you get to reach the hockey players of Southern California. They're not playing the traditional high school sports.
"We've been so successful at Scripps -- we had an undefeated season. It's really neat. The kids see it as cool. In North County San Diego the following schools have roller hockey progams -- Scripps, Rancho Bernardo, Poway, Westview, Vista, La Jolla, La Jolla Country Day, and the San Diego Jewish Academy.
"Scripps plays at the city of Escondido facility; it's an excellent facility," Cerone added. "City rec departments and high schools are building rinks -- that stuff's happening. This is the best way... it's great for the sport, it helps local rinks, and it creates more desirability from the younger kids.
"Getting it into the schools was so important," Cerone said. "This sport can never be what we want it to be unless it's in the high schools and college or it will never be seen as legitimate as it can be. What major sport isn't in the schools? Rink owners know hockey, but they don't always understand business. If we organized statewide, we could get this in schools statewide. But I can't get rink owners involved; they ask, 'What's it going to do for me?' They don't tend to get it.
"Tournament series' laughed us off," Cerone said. "They said, 'It will never happen.' Lo and behold, they're having high school leagues. Our players want to play in tthose leagues, but when we ask them to move their seasons, because we can't move ours, they won't budge. The kids are torn -- if you play on a CIF team, you cannot play on any non-CIF teams. Every other sport is like that; soccer, softball, baseball, basketball -- they shut down during the high school season. They can make it up in the other nine months of the year," Cerone said.
"I'm a businessman, I know about the need to make money," Cerone said. "But no one outside of the sport knows what some of these tournaments are. We won the CIF title for our school, that's fantastic! If we want to get past our own little world, we have to get accepted by the larger world."
Leon Carlock is Michigan's state director for the Amateur Athletic Union.
"We run the high school program differently; there area three different programs under the state umbrella," Carlock said. "The state's program is the Michigan AAU Inline Hockey Club; underneath that are clubs that hold their own sanctioned activities -- Kensington Valley, the Great Lakes, and the Michigan Inline Hockey Association. All are separate clubs under the state banner. Sanctioned for two years, our first championship game was in June 2004. In 2005, the championship will be the weekend before Memorial Day."
Carlock's organization also sanctions other leagues; high school is a separate entity. "We're trying to bring the rinks in under this structure so we can cover all the rinks with one insurance policy and one set of rules," Carlock said.
"Jon Roux (of Pennsylvania) and I have two of the largest programs in the country," Carlock said. "We sent two teams from Michigan to last year's Junior Olympics andhave produced a number of high school All-American players; perhaps eight or nine. One of my teams finished fourth. We lost two rinks during the season; if we hadn't lost these rinks, our program would have doubled in size. The rinks went out of business a week before our season began. This spring, we should have around 250 to 300 kids playing. For teams to qualify, they have to play in a sanctioned league; and they have to all come from the same school.
"Most of our teams are club teams," Carlock said. "To get MHSAA sanctioning, you have to have 32 teams for two years. We may not be able to hit that number this year; the clock on that is still ticking. We do anticipate being able to do that in the next three or four years, however. On another point, high school athletic directors do have the ability to award varsity letters to their club teams, and about a third of them do. It's not mandated by the state; it's up to each individual athletic director. I have 3,000 members in Michigan.
According to Carlock, one of the problems that faces his program are the '10 percenters.'
"These are the elite travel teams that take the best players from rec league teams, which then collapse," Carlock said. "We purposely go for a different type of kid. I founded the Firebirds Hockey Club. We've had four AAU national champs, and put six to eight kids on Team USA, but we get no recognition because our central focus is the sport. Most of the kids we put on the floor are not what we call the "10 percenters" -- the elite players that play on traveling teams at major for-profit tournaments. We use those programs to leverage the house players to stay in hockey. That's why I have such a large program. We go all the way down to the league players and try to keep them in our program. This year, we're instituting a Team Michigan program. The AAU is allowing me to compete outside the state as Team Michigan. I will form teams at all different levels, beginners; girls, little kids; attempting through this inducement program to keep the kids in the sport."
Carlock says there is a price to pay for the elite tournaments' success.
"You wouldn't believe how many shattered kids I have to pick up each year," Carlock said. "They have nowhere to go. We attempt to survive in this environment. I use my club completely within the AAU. The clubs don't play in the major elite tournaments; the kids do, but the clubs don't. The only way we can survive is to offer more. Right now, we're in this flat zone and the sport's not growing. I'm very worried... What happens is that we go to a tournament and there are three or four elite teams and my team. My teams get very tired of playing them; a lot of animosity builds up. We leave the area and go to Joe Dumars and play over there. It's a problem if you only cater to one level; you can't keep enough bodies in that level to grow the sport. I'm pushing for house leagues statewide so that you can drive all across the state and play another team in a league game. That's exciting to a 12-year-old. He gets to travel, wear his team's jersey, and not get killed by all-star teams.
"Michigan has the largest AAU membership in the country," Carlock said. "What I'm setting up at the state level here will be set up in the other states. "
Missouri on the Move
Ron Beilsten of the Missouri Inline Hockey Association says his program is growing.
"Our program is doing fine; high school inline hockey is one of the areas in our sport that has shown some growth over the past two or three years. We're anxious to see what happens with it in 2005. In the high school division, we've had 90-95 teams consistently. Two seasons ago, we added a junior high and middle school program and ended up with 10 teams in our first go at it. Last year, we increased that number to 16. This year we're looking to grow to perhaps 30 teams."
Beilsten owns a multipurpose rink like Joe Noris' rink in San Diego, which has been converted to house hockey. Part of the Missouri Inline Hockey Association, Beilsten's teams play at Perry Turnbull's rink and Greg Gawrys All-American rink, among others.
"Basically, Greg Gawrys and myself have hired a league commissioner, we stay behind the scenes, steer it, try to make sure the rules are right, and put someone in charge who has time to dedicate to it," Beilsten said.
"Tom Will has done an awesome job for us," Beilsten said. "We have a lot of help with our referees through Tom Mix and Mark Leesi. They help us out a ton on the referees. At the high school level we had a schedule of 750 games in a short time frame; from second week of March to the third week of May."
Beilsen acknowledges that inline hockey faces big challenges.
"We're at the exact polar opposite of where we were when the sport was booming," Beilsten said. "Ice was hot, inline was hot. Now we're at the other end of the spectrum. It's a piece of this puzzle that we need; there's no recognizable pro league. Hockey couldn't be in worse shape with the NHL lockout."
Beilsten also coaches the Lindenwood College inline hockey team, and hopes to make his youth league a stepping stone.
"We try to make players aware of college activities, to tie our high school program and let them know about the college options. But I don't have a brochure that explains to a kid's parents -- here's all that you can do with this, from pickup hockey to getting your college education. The industry needs to produce something like this -- a nonpartisan brochure about the game. One piece of paper that tells everybody everything -- whether the player is a beginner or an elite level national player. We're fighting to get more players interested, we're fighting ice hockey. Let's get back to the basics; let's work with what we've got."
Jon Roux runs the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Roller Hockey League in McMurray, Pennsylvania, <A HREF="http://www.pirhl.net/" target="_new">http://www.pirhl.net/</A>.
"It's our first year," Roux said. "In 2003/04, the rink ran it and had 72 teams. The league started in 1999 and has grown from six to 72 club teams, a few of which are not regulated by the schools. Some schools actually letter the teams, and all are sanctioned by the AAU. We just keep growing. We have three tiers, based on skill ability for each level; it's possible for each school to have 10 teams in a league. A couple schools have as many as nine or ten teams, in order to accommodate them, we have several different tiers. We have 1,000 members, refs, coaches and players."
Florida Fires Up
Mike Miller runs the Palm Beach Hockey Organization, based in Lakewood, <A HREF="http://www.pbho.com" target="_new">http://www.pbho.com</A>, Florida.
"I've been involved in roller hockey since 1993 or 1994 as a referee with the National Inline Hockey Association and then USA Hockey InLine," Miller said. "I ran the Palm Beach SkateZone for four or five years in Lakewood. They had started a scholastic league, but it became a glorified travel league, so we started cracking down on the rules. We have six middle-school teams, six JV teams, and six varsity teams. They're not club teams yet, but some schools will announce upcoming games and scores. The high schools are not liable, and as a result, they became more helpful. Not many teams are recognized as club teams."
The league has plans to raise the minimum grade point average to 2.5 from 2.0.
"If we'd done that two years ago, we wouldn't have had a league!" Miller said. "The parents shell out the dough, but they're here to watch the games -- help from them is few and far between. Some teams have team moms, but it's tough to find volunteers to coach. It's tougher now, the economy is definitely a big part of the reason for that. There are lots of airline employees in this area, and lots of people are losing jobs. We play at an indoor rink and that's not cheap. Outdoor rinks charge next to nothing. But top teams come from those rinks for our stronger competition."
Frank Harned administers the Douglas County High School inline hockey team in Colorado.
"The process really started back in 1996 with the Rock Roller Hockey League, in which I was the president," Harned said.
"This was a grassroots organization in the city of Castle Rock. The program started with 60 participants, and in the three years following, it had grown to more than 300 players, ranging from the ages of five to 17. We knew then that we needed to take it to the next level -- high school. In 2001, I was approached by previous RRHL Board members to help establish a team at Douglas County High School, within the newly formed Colorado High School Inline Hockey Association (CHSIHA). We were one of the founding schools in that league and we remain one of the league's flagship programs."
Harned says that the league started with about 20 teams representing schools all over Colorado.
"The league requires you to attend the school for which you playing," Harned said. "This eliminates teams being stacked with the best players from various schools. You can find out more information on CHSIHA at their web site <A HREF="http://CHSIHA.org" target="_new">http://CHSIHA.org</A>. The league expects more than 80 teams this season, competting in the Varsity and JV Levels."
"Even though we are not a CHSAA-sanctioned sport, DCHS has embraced the program and is allowing our varsity players to 'letter' if they meet the strict lettering criteria," Harned said.
"In our second year, we entered two teams because we lacked enough goaltenders," Harned added. "Both varsity and JV won their divisions. Varsity went on to finish third in the State Championship Series, and JV lost in the second round. Our varsity coach, Jim Maccalous, was named coach of the year. In our third season we entered three teams. All three teams won their divisions and the JV "A" team won the JV State championship, posting a 17-1 record. We had numerous players make the all-star teams, and our Varsity goalie was named goaltender of the year."
Harned hopes to surpass last season's accomplishments this year.
"This year we are entering four teams; one Varsity and three JV teams," Harned said. "We have 52 players, seven coaches, and seven administrators in the DCHS program. We credit this growth and success to the devotion of the administrative and coaching staff. All of the coaches have a minimun of seven years coaching experience in both ice and/or inline. Three of the coaching staff have prior high school and college hockey playing experience. I alone have over 30 years experience as a player, coach, referee and adminsitrator. All of our current staff have participated in RRHL in one capacity or another."
Harned says that his staff feels that the RRHL's feeder program has contributed to the success of its players.
"I have coached some of these players since they were seven and eight years old," Harned said. "Recognizing that a feeder program is a key reason for success, I helped two Castle Rock Middle Schools get their programs established for the currently running middle-school league through CHSIHA. Again, these clubs, which total five teams, will help establish DCHS players of the future. This league keeps growing every year, and I do not see it stopping. As more facilities come online, the talent pool gets bigger, which is good to see. I want to thank all the people associated with each school -- not only DCHS --because without their support and efforts, we would not be at the point we are at now."
Harned sais the some graduating seniors have moved on and are now playing at the college level at Colorado University and Colorado State University.
"The collegiate level needs to be improved," Harned said. "It needs more schools to participate. But in the next few years, I am sure that with the efforts of the high school and middle schools, that program will excel, too. I'm hoping that in the near future we can see the reestablishment of a professional league."
Flying in Florida
Jackie Blake and Tony Dutton are the driving forces behind the Central Florida High School Roller Hockey Club, which has been operating in Orlando for the past six years.
"We started with five teams at an indoor rink, and the next year, the county built a state-of-the-art outdoor rink," Blake said. "We're working with the county to fulfill our dream of getting a roof. The county plans to pay for it to be covered soon, so that's a good sign. We had up to 120 teams one year; this year we'll have more kids per team and fewer teams; close to 100."
Inline hockey is a club sport in Orlando, and Blake says she has been told by the powers that be that it is 'not sanctioned and never will be.' To raise funds, the players have worked with a booster club and parked cars.
Blake got into the sport because her sons play inline hockey, and she says that a nearby indoor rink competes with her program for players.
"They have been trying to get our teams; and they get some," Blake admits. "But there's a big price difference; we charge $350 per team, they charge $600. We have two eight-game seasons; October to December and mid-January to late February or early March. Our games are three 15-minute periods each, and we have a championship each season."
Blake says that there are other high school club programs in nearby Kissimmee and Mary, Florida.
"I do not think it will become an officially sanctioned high school sport in Florida," Blake said. "We have tried in the past. The schools in Florida are hurting for money so much so that they will not sanction another sport. The last one they sanctioned was lacrosse a few years ago."
Blake says that she and Dutton were so passionate about getting inline hockey going in Orlando that they raised money and got the county to build a rink.
"We stuck with it through the years -- starting off with five teams, and building to 12 at one point," Blake said. "It fluctuates. We have held it together -- never drawing salaries -- but just for the love of the sport. We still work at it, but we are back down to six teams. We hope that more teams will join in the second half of the season."
Bob Cooney runs the Southwest Ohio School Inline Hockey Association <A HREF="http://www.sohainlinehockey.com" target="_new">http://www.sohainlinehockey.com</A> in the Kings Mill School District in Mainfield, north of Cincinnati, and has been involved in inline hockey for about ten years, since his son Bobby was about eight or nine.
"I got involved with high school hockey the year before Bobby graduated from junior high school," Cooney said. "There are six schools in our club organization, which is the Ohio Association of High School Sports. We brought in our own liability insurance so that the schools are not liable.
"All high schools are skating under their high school's names, most with high school logos," Cooney said. "At HockeyDome, our high school bused kids to the facility. It is a parent-sponsored organization. The schools don't pay for anything. In the past, we looked at the costs. Each school team independently decided how to fund their program -- skatathons, sponsorship by local businesses, etc. One player, Brant Fisher, did our Web site, and won second place in a Web-site creator contest.
"There are 225 kids, parents and coaches in the program and we have one to two new teams coming in," Cooney said.
"The focus on the elite player by independent tournament series' is a problem. Tournaments tell us we're taking kids away from their high school divisions, but my son and his teammates wouldn't be playing if it wasn't for the ability to wear their high school jerseys. The University of Cincinnati has an inline hockey team coming; we're trying to work with the National Collegiate Roller Hockey Asociation."
To close on a positive note, Colorado's Eddie Delgado is bullish on inline hockey's future.
"The high school kids and their parents are enthusiastically merchandising their teams; they sell baseball caps, T-shirts, sweatshirts, etc.," Delgado said. "Teams are outfitted down to their pants and helmets. That type of enthusiasm and support from the commununity is just overwhelming. Sponsors are coming out of the woodwork; small local community business people picking up the ball and supporting their local high schools. This helps offset the costs for the players. We try to encourage that through our Web site, through meetings with owners of car dealerships on down to owners of pizza shops and bakeries. We also go to Chamber of Commerce expos. We go to the school district election meetings and speak to board members. They love it; they like to see the community step up and fill the gaps caused by budget cuts. The Colorado Board of Education supports us wholeheartedly."
According to Delgado, local rinks have formed a coalition.
"We have talked more in last few years than we ever did in the past," Delgado said. "We have to start working at the grassroots level. It's a challenge, but we know that we have to get the new and the younger kids playing."
Let us all hope that the passion and hard work by these high school inline hockey administrators rubs off on the rest of us, and that our sport achieves the renaissance that it deserves -- and sorely needs.
Inline Hockey Central