The state rolls into yet another professional-sports era this weekend as the Utah RollerBees play their first games in the new 12-team Roller Hockey International league. They open tonight at Anaheim Arena against the Anaheim Bull Frogs and debut at home Saturday at 7 p.m. in "The Hive," their 4,000-seat outdoor arena at South Towne Center in Sandy, against the Portland Rage.
Roller hockey combines elements of ice hockey on dry land with in-line skating to produce a high-scoring, offense-minded hybrid game with five players to a side rather than six. Game rosters include 10 skaters and two goalies.Skaters can't stop and cut like they can on ice, and goalies can't slide across the crease to block shots because the surface isn't as slippery as ice, but the puck moves faster because it's lighter, and offsides rules are more lenient. In this first season, playing surfaces, which are bounded by traditional ice-hockey boards, may be plastic, wood, Sport Court or hard cement - which could be the case in Anaheim tonight because the Frogs ordered their floor too late. Utah, owned by Sport Court owner Dan Kotler, uses Sport Court.
Utah goalie Paul Skidmore, the former Golden Eagle, says the light puck dips like a knuckleball when wind hits it on the RollerBees' home rink. Utah's is the only outdoor arena in the league, giving the Bees a big home advantage because of wind, heat and glare as well as altitude.
Utah coach Brent Meeke, a former Golden Eagle, says his team is a good mix of ice- and roller-hockey players. The icemen are more versed in teamwork and generally have been coached better than the roller-hockey men, who tend to be faster in-line skaters who've played more of a freelance street game. "Some guys are physical; some are scooters," Meeke says.
Anaheim, coached by former IHL bad boy Chris McSorley, brother of the L.A. Kings' Marty McSorley, has some NHL players and a number from the Toledo minor-league ice-hockey team. The Rage borrowed heavily from Portland's junior-league ice-hockey Winter Hawks franchise.
Eagle Rich Chernomaz and ex-Eagles Todd Harkins and Skidmore have spent the past few weeks schooling new teammates in ice-hockey's positional game. Skidmore says that because goalies can't slide to block shots, teamwork on offense results in many goals. "If they don't shoot, if they pass across instead, the goalie's dead," he says.
To goalies, the game seems faster because, "The puck takes off like a rocket," Skidmore says.
To Harkins, a forward whose brother Brett is also on the team, "Everything happens a bit slower," because skating is more labored than on ice.
"You're not as quick or as agile on the floor," agrees Chernomaz, but to him the biggest difference in his summer and winter jobs is, "The pay." RHI players earn $314-$880 a week, depending upon their teams' overall finish.
The Utah roster also includes goalie Roger Rougelot, defenders Rick Lessard, Ken Downey and Mike Aust and forwards John Grizovich, Trent Bakken, Steve Pospiech, Pat McPartland, Reggie Takkington, Andy Gannon and Joe Schaffer. Eagle forward Kerry Clark may join the team in time to play this weekend.
Other RHI teams are the Vancouver VooDoo, Calgary Rad'z, Los Angeles Blades, Oakland Skates, San Diego Barracudas, South Florida Hammerheads, Orlando Otters, St. Louis Vipers and Toronto Planets. The season lasts eight weeks; teams have seven home and seven road games followed by mid-August playoffs.