Inline hockey maneuvers speed bumps, continues to roll forward in California
The potential for the growth of inline hockey appeared limitless at the dawn of the 1990s.
Roller Hockey International (RHI), a big-splash professional league, rolled into prime time in 1993.
The North American Roller Hockey Championship tournament series (NARCh) was founded in 1994 and quickly became recognized as the pinnacle of the sport played at the amateur level.
However, by the end of the decade, RHI had folded amid a sea of massive depth, leaving the amateur game to roll on and evolve.
The sport received a double whammy at the end of the next decade when the economy took a nose dive and roller skating rinks began closing throughout the state.
Statistics suggest the sport is making a comeback, with a 41 percent increase in participation numbers nationwide from 2011-15, according to information published by Statista. Surprisingly, numbers for scholastic inline hockey leagues in California have dropped.
John Paerels, who serves as the league coordinator for the Anaheim Ducks Inline Scholastic League (ADISL), the largest organized scholastic inline league in Southern California, noted that all of the high school inline leagues statewide have lost teams in recent years.
“I think the biggest factor in the declining numbers for high school inline is not a lack of interest or lower birth rate,” explained Paerels, who has been involved in inline hockey since 2010 and on the management side since 2013. “It’s the growth of high school ice hockey – kind of a ‘good news, bad news’ scenario. The good news is that high school hockey is growing; it’s just mostly on the ice side of things.
“When high school inline was at its peak, there weren’t any opportunities for high school students to play ice hockey for their own school, hence 50-plus teams in the IHF (Interscholastic Hockey Federation) at that time. Now there are 32 high school ice teams (and more than 500 players) in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League from schools/areas that were (and in some cases, still are) part of the IHF.
“We’re still at 21 teams this season in the ADISL, but that’s down from 25 teams each of the past two years for the fall/winter season, which used to be the big season for high school inline. Now the spring season, which used to be ‘developmental,’ is the big season.
“The good news for high school inline – at least in the ADISL — is that our numbers do go up significantly for the spring season. Last year, we went from 25 teams in fall-winter to 37 teams in the spring. The high school ice players – and coaches — who come in for the spring season seem to enjoy the wide-open format of inline as it offers them the opportunity to stay in shape and work on their skills in a more relaxed environment.”
Brennan Edwards, who serves as the director of both the Western Collegiate Roller Hockey League (WCRHL) and National Collegiate Roller Hockey Association (NCRHA), acknowledged a similar downward trend in participation numbers. WCRHL membership has dropped from 40 affiliated teams in 2010-11 to 28 teams participating this season.
“It’s less about the numbers, but how we can, as league directors, help deal with the dwindling numbers of players,” Edwards explained. “It’s all about offering excitement to those one or two individuals per team and getting them jazzed. They, in turn, get their teammates jazzed.”
There’s no doubt the inline hockey market remains huge in the Golden State. There is no shortage of tournaments in which to play. In fact, some might suggest there are an overabundance of tournaments.
NARCh president Daryn Goodwin believes the sport is not necessarily shrinking in California as a whole. He suggested there are other factors involved.
“The largest two rinks in Southern California – The Rinks-Irvine Inline and The Rinks-Huntington Beach Inline – have consistent numbers from what I’ve heard,” he said. “At the end of the day, all these rinks are a business and, like any business, if you don’t do a good job, people won’t come back.”
Goodwin said that, like any youth sport, inline hockey is highly driven by the parents involved.
“When there are highly motivated parents who are leaders, they usually rally others and develop teams and programs,” he noted. “When their kids get older, there’s no longer a reason for them to do it, so they fade away and new parents emerge with younger kids.”
NARCh, now in its third decade, continues to draw impressive numbers. A total of 214 teams competed in last summer’s NARCh West Coast Finals in Huntington Beach. Combined with the NARCh East Coast Finals in Florida, the total field last year numbered a whopping 413 teams.
Goodwin pointed out this year’s 21st annual NARCh Winternationals, held Jan. 13-16 in Huntington Beach, attracted 140 teams, including eight 8U teams. He termed that “a great sign.”
“Many of these kids play both roller and ice and it’s also in the middle of the ice hockey season, so it shows their dedication to inline hockey as well,” he said.
An even larger inline invasion will occur later this summer when the 2017 NARCh West Coast Finals roll into San Jose from June 16-25.
The best teams still come to play in California because the best teams play here.
Inline hockey continues to make strides in the Northern California region. The quality of play took a major step forward with the introduction of the NARCh Nor Cal Cup in 2010. Its creation was driven by new facilities and an expanding talent base.
What’s impressive? Seven players on the 2016 Team USA junior men’s national team hailed from the northern end of the state.
“There’s still a lot of travel teams; our numbers are heading in a good direction,” explained Silicon Valley Quakes youth program director Dave Inouye, who coached the Team USA junior men’s team the last two years at the FIRS Inline Hockey World Championships.
The Pacific Inline Hockey League, a Nor Cal-based tournament series, will hold its finals in early June at the Antioch Indoor Sports Center.
Inline hockey also continues to attract a strong coed participation base, with gender-specific divisions for girls and women at tournaments such as those sponsored by NARCh, the Amateur Athletic Union, State Wars and other regional events. USA Roller Sports, the governing body for inline hockey in the United States, sponsors junior and senior women’s teams for international competition.
Californians traditionally comprise a large segment of those rosters.
But not everything is rosy.
Tyler Svoboda, brand manager for Revision Hockey, pointed out that recent bankruptcies by major sporting goods companies have shaken the manufacturing industry as a whole.
“If the biggest guy on the block – Bauer – was forced into Chapter 11, it says a lot about how unhealthy the industry is from a manufacture perspective,” he said. “With that being said, Revision continues to grow and we once again sold more wheels last year than ever before. Other companies are popping up and existing companies are trying to get into new categories. However, it is starting rough for them and only time will tell if they can survive.”
— Phillip Brents