A Brief History of Professional Roller Hockey in North America

A Brief History of Professional Roller Hockey in North America

November 01, 2021

When was the last time you laced up your skates? You know those inline skates from the 90s that have been collecting dust for the last couple of decades? Well, it’s time to break them back out because today we’re talking professional roller hockey.

The niche sport has a long history. For over a hundred years, teams across the globe have gathered on skates in exhibition matches and nail-biter championships. You may remember the heyday of professional roller hockey in the 90s with Roller Hockey International, but there have been many leagues over the years.

Keep reading to get the unofficial story on professional roller hockey and remember some of the best teams of the past.

The Difference Between Ice Hockey and Roller Hockey 

First things first, let’s talk about what makes roller hockey different from its better-known chilly cousin.

Playing Area 

Let’s start with the obvious. Ice hockey is played on a cool, frozen surface. In the good old days, this meant playing on a frozen pond. These days, hockey rinks are made with a thin layer of water cooled by pipes.

Roller hockey is played off the ice, but that doesn’t mean the players can’t slide around some. When possible, roller hockey is played on a sport court. Sport court is made out of interlocking plastic tiles. Its slightly slick surface allows the puck to glide and players to slide when stopping, similar to an ice hockey stop.

In an ideal world, roller hockey is played in hockey rinks with interchangeable floors. Space-wise, the rinks should be the same size. That said, many roller hockey games have to be played in non-regulation rinks due to logistical issues. 

Team Size 

From the stands, one of the easiest differences to notice is the number of players. Ice hockey allows a maximum of five players from each team, plus their respective goalies. Roller hockey caps at four per team, plus goalies.

Rule Changes

Probably the biggest difference between ice hockey and roller hockey is the offsides rule. 

If you ever watch a roller hockey game, you may notice the lack of blue penalty lines. In ice hockey, refs can call offsides when an offensive player who does not control the puck is in the offensive zone when another attacking player hits the puck into the offensive zone. The puck can’t enter the offensive zone after attacking players. When an offsides violation is called, game play is stopped, and a face-off occurs. 

In roller hockey, this rule and this penalty don’t exist. Roller hockey heads say this makes for a more enjoyable game, with less stopping and more strategic possession plays.

Perhaps one of the reasons roller hockey would be alessentertaining game to watch is that the game prohibits body checking. Whereas ice hockey makes violence (and subsequent brawling) a part of the sport, roller hockey allows for no physical defense.

Finally, there is a difference in the playing time. Roller hockey is often played in halves or quarters, whereas ice hockey is always played in three periods.

While these discrepancies do make for a different game, roller hockey and ice hockey have plenty in common. Both are fast-paced, skill-based games that can inspire a whole lot of energy both in the rink and in the stands.

A Myriad of Organizations 

Who’s up for a little history lesson? It may surprise you to know that roller hockey pre-dates the television, the refrigerator, and even the toaster. Yes, its early days started all the way back in the 1880s. In both the United States and England, roller hockey flourished, with players on quad skates attempting to shoot balls or pucks (whatever was available) into their opponents’ nets.

The term roller hockey encompasses several major variations in the sport. Rink hockey is closest to the original game played all those years ago. Players glide on quad skates and use a ball rather than a puck and a cane rather than a stick. 

Inline hockey is a more modern adaptation of the original game, with influences from ice hockey. Inline skates were invented in 1910 and became popular because of their speed and agility. Inline hockey is played with a puck and a stick, while inline skater hockey, a European variation, is played with a ball and a stick.

Roller Skating Rink Operators Association 

One of the earliest organized, professional leagues for roller hockey was called the Roller Skating Rink Operators Association. 

Established in 1937, the group was founded to help support rinks and promote the sport. In 1940 the organization drafted a list of rules and partnered with the NHL to publish and release it. Unfortunately, the RSROA lost some momentum in the 1940s, with World War II disrupting sports at both a casual and professional level.

Later in the decade, skating clubs started to pop up in the northern United States, along the Canadian border. As pucks started to replace balls and more and more Americans had televisions installed in their homes, roller hockey reached more of the country and gained popularity.

The RSROA still exists today and still makes its mission to promote the sport.

The American Roller Hockey Association 

The ARHA was the first professional roller hockey league, established in 1960. Under the guidance of Joe Spillman, a roller rink operator from San Antonio, Texas, the league kicked off game play in an exhibition match in Little Rock, Arkansas. 

From there, a full competitive season kicked off, with a North American championship held at the end. The Arcadia Wildcats of Detroit, Michigan, won the first roller hockey championship on quad skates, as inline skates were not yet commercially available.

From there, both ball and puck hockey grew, with the RSROA defining a set of rules to support each. Budd Van Roekel, president of the organization, told Skate Magazine that it was time for the United States to build a support system for the puck game, as it had a quick-growing fanbase in North America. This didn’t necessarily mean that the organization was abandoning ball and cane hockey. “We see no reason why the two versions of the sport cannot grow side by side,” he said. 

And grow they did. By 1977, the ARHA held its puck roller hockey championship in front of large crowds and press. Women held their own version of the game for the first time. Over the next two decades, roller hockey’s growth coincided with the rising popularity of inline skates. This all led up to the 90s, by far the biggest decade for roller hockey — so far. We’re always holding out hope that roller hockey comes back in a big way.

USA Roller Sports 

USA Roller Sports is the major American governing body for roller hockey to this day. It was established in 1972 when the Roller Skating Rink Operators Association and the U. S. Amateur Roller Skating Association merged. 

In 1993, the league hosted its first national championship for inline skating in partnership with the International Federation of Inline Roller Sports. Held in San Diego, the hometown team, the San Diego Hosers, won the championship. For a team that had only recently converted to inline skates (the Hosers won the 1992 championship on quad-skates), the win was a major event in roller hockey history.

USA Hockey Inline 

Inspired by the success of the 1993 inline championship, USA Roller sports created its own division for the sport called USA Hockey Inline in December of 1994. It organized its own world championship held in 1996 in Minneapolis.

Roller hockey had its best shot at being included in the Olympics in 1992 when it was featured as a demonstration sport in the Barcelona games. Argentina, Spain, and Italy earned medals, while the United States ranked seventh out of twelve competing teams.

Roller Hockey International 

USA Roller Sports was not the only league in the game. In 1991, a group of investors gathered together to create the Roller Hockey International, a league focused on inline skating. Ice hockey was surging in popularity, and roller hockey was riding its coattails. Co-founders Dennis Murphy, Alex Bellehumeur, and Larry King (notthat Larry King) were inspired to create the league after watching a group of kids, including Murphy’s son, play the game in the street.

In 1993, Roller Hockey International hosted its first season with twelve teams competing. Players were recruited from existing roller hockey clubs, and the league hosted open tryouts across the nation. Some players were old-school roller hockey skaters, and some were retired ice hockey players.

Seasons were held in the summer, and the RHI designed their own version of the puck. Teams competed for the Murphy Cup, the league’s version of the Stanley. Initially, the league was a huge success, with upwards of 13,000 fans in the stands watching. By 1996, financial woes came knocking. The league was having trouble securing the patent for its unique puck and lost its sponsorship deal with Pepsi. A year later, it shrunk from eighteen teams to ten, with franchises folding left and right. ESPN opted out from showing the games, and by 2000, the league officially disbanded.

That said, Roller Hockey International’s impact is still felt on hockey today. The co-founders credit themselves with many of the recent rule changes in the NHL, as well as the design of modern uniforms. Speaking to Sports Illustrated, goaltender Jon Gustafson said, “​​Ice hockey adapted a lot of the stuff roller hockey had, like 4-on-4 play (in overtime) and eliminating the two-line pass. It really opened up the game.” It even opened the door for players and coaches to join the NHL.

The National Roller Hockey League 

The NRHL is the newest addition to the list of roller hockey leagues. Established in 2014, the league debuted with four teams, representing three cities in Michigan and one in Missouri. The Coronavirus pandemic has put the league on hiatus, but we’re sure there are more games to come for the NRHL.

Remembering Teams of the Past

Roller Hockey International is likely the best-remembered roller hockey league. The sport looked ready to take on the world for a moment there, with roller hockey’s key rule changes inspiring a passionate and engaged fan base.

On that note, let’s take a look back at some of the most beloved teams in RHI’s past, whether they went on winning streaks or lost their way towards everyone’s hearts. 

The Sacramento River Rats 

Speaking of losing enough to win people over, we’ll start with the Sacramento River Rats, who finished the season in last place three out of their four active years. The team was owned by Larry King, league founder, and generally drew about 3,000 fans to the ARCO Arena.

In their last season, the Rats had to move outside to the Cal Expo Arena. While the venue could host more people, the team faced a number of logistical issues, including having no court to play on.

The River Rats had a number of famous players, including a brief stint from Sharks cult-legend Link Gaetz. Manon Rheaume was the first woman to play in the NHL in an exhibition game with the Tampa Bay Lightning. She was also a River Rat, skating for the team every once in a while in 1996 and 1997. 

Check out our vintage t-shirt for the River Rats here.

The Atlanta Fire Ants 

In 1994, Roller Hockey International announced that an expansion team was coming for Atlanta. They were good enough to make the playoffs in the first season but got swept by the Minnesota Arctic Blast. After just one season in Atlanta, the Fire Ants moved west to Oklahoma City, then north to Las Vegas.

Is there anything cooler than a blazing ant logo? We don’t think so. Check out the Atlanta Fire Ants vintage t-shirt here.

Buffalo Stampede 

The Buffalo Stampede took their name seriously, dominating the game right from the get-go. The team won the Murphy Cup in their first year of active gameplay, led by Italian ice hockey player John Vecchiarelli, who had never laced up inline skates before joining the team.

Things went south a year later when drama between the league and team ownership, money woes, and suffering attendance numbers led to the end of the Stampede. They went from first place to last in their final season in 1995.

Do you remember the Buffalo Stampede? We have the shirt for you.

Dallas Stallions

The Dallas Stallions were a last-ditch effort from Roller Hockey International. The team debuted in 1999, with a shoestring budget. They reportedly were able to recruit CHL hockey player Doug Lawrence by giving him some extra payment under the table. The team struggled both in performance and attendance. Home games regularly saw less than 1,000 fans in attendance. 

Ever watch a Dallas Stallions game in the Reunion Arena? Check out our vintage t-shirt.

Long Island Jawz 

Another team that only lasted one year was the Long Island Jawz. Debuting in 1996, the team played at the Nassau Coliseum but folded by the end of its first season, which it actually did pretty well in. Ultimately, ownership had beef with the Nassau Coliseum over advertisement placement, and the team was doomed from the start.

Still, they managed to make history in one short season. Winger Hugo Belanger became the first and only RHI player to record a 100-point season. Jawz player Glen Metropolit later joined the NHL and had a nine-year professional career.

The Long Island Jawz may just be our winner for the coolest logo. The shark in skates is featured on our vintage t-shirt.

Anaheim Bullfrogs 

We’d be remiss not to mention the Anaheim Bullfrogs, the team with the most Murphy Cup wins. The Bullfrogs regularly drew in major crowds, with 92,000 coming to see a game in their first season (which they won).

The Bullfrogs actually joined multiple leagues after the collapse of Roller Hockey International. They clung on, hopping from one dying organization to the next, but in the end, the Bullfrogs went the way of all inline skating.

Did you see the Bullfrogs win a Murphy Cup? Then you need to pick up an Anaheim Bullfrogs t-shirt.

Roller Hockey Rolls On 

It’s been over two decades since roller hockey was last featured on ESPN, and not a day goes by that we don’t wish it caught on. Roller hockey, both on inline skates and quad skates, is an exciting, entertaining, and above all, fun sport to watch and play.

With the big uptick in roller skating over the last few years, we’re hopeful that roller hockey isn’t far along. Will it ever reach NHL caliber and status? Probably not, but we’d do anything to see the Bullfrogs back in uniform and on the court. Until then, we’ll be watching the highlight reels.

 

Sources:

Ice Hockey vs Roller Hockey – What’s The Difference? | Going Bar Down

Roller Hockey International: An oral history | Sports Illustrated

MAG: There’s a new professional roller hockey league coming to town | MI Hockey

A brief and unofficial history of the Atlanta Fire Ants | Express Telegraph


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