GLENDALE -- Fourteen years ago, inline hockey coach Nick Boyarsky said that there were nearly ten roller hockey surfaces throughout the greater Phoenix area.
Now, there are just two; one in Queen Creek and one in Peoria. Neither are exclusively used for inline hockey.
There are excellent facilities in places like Prescott and Yuma, who both house teams that are a part of the IHAAZ – the Inline Hockey Association of Arizona. Still, the number of rinks in the Southwest, particularly in Phoenix, has taken a sharp drop.
The decline of inline hockey came almost as suddenly as the growth of the sport, which exploded with the roller fad present in the 1990’s.
Almost every kid who grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s got their first pair of roller blades when they were still young, and it helped grow the sport of hockey out on the West Coast – where at the time, people may had never seen an NHL game, but quickly fell in love with the sport while playing on wheels.
|Nick Boyarski (far left). |
The concerted effort to bring ice hockey to nontraditional areas was supplemented by the prevalence of inline, as a result. The fans of NHL teams out west were still young, but they were everywhere; they had been playing inline hockey as long as they had owned roller blades, and they were ready for ice hockey to make its presence known.
Unfortunately, though, the two sports didn’t prove to be symbiotic.
Skaters who already played inline hockey flocked to newly built ice rinks in cities throughout California, then did the same in Phoenix with the arrival of the Coyotes in 1996. The Ice Den in Scottsdale was built shortly after the team’s arrival, then a pair of rinks in Peoria and Chandler came a year later. The company that owned both of those rinks – then known as the Polar Ice – added a third rink in Gilbert later, and the number of rinks had soon increased by a huge margin.
Players who had fallen in love with hockey through inline when the only rinks in Phoenix were Arcadia and Oceanside now had places to sign up for ice hockey teams. They went from having two rinks in an entire city – one downtown, one in Tempe, a good hour from the west side of the valley – to having first two more sheets of ice with the Ice Den, then with four more total between Peoria and Chandler. Finally, the rink was built in Gilbert, and the city went from two rinks to eleven.
The skaters left roller behind with the easy access to ice, and the numbers never really recovered.
Some kids were told by coaches that playing both inline and ice would create bad habits, and they were encouraged to leave roller blades behind for good. Others who would have started with inline in years past were able to start with ice, and never tried inline to start with. The rinks disappeared, and the programs with it.
According to Boyarsky, though, those who stuck with the sport have never forgotten how much fun inline is – and the community is smaller, but it’s still strong.
He first came to Phoenix from Northern California almost 20 years ago, when inline was still a big part of the desert hockey culture.
He started with a job at an inline rink while going to school at Arizona State University, and never really left the sport; now, he coaches one of the longest-running West Coast inline squads and oversees ASU’s inline hockey club program.
He’s helped get a new program running in Tucson in the last two years, helping revitalize the youth programs with dedicated volunteers who grew up playing the sport themselves – and he’s not finished yet.
His wish, of course, is that there were more surfaces to play on. Inline is an excellent way to get kids involved in hockey, he says, and the growth of fanbases can only be helped by the growth of inline in regions that are still developing.
“It’s easier to build a hockey player than a hockey fan,” he insisted. “If a kid plays basketball or another sport but has no real connection to hockey, they’ve got less interest in becoming invested in it.”
“Put a stick in their hands, though, and they’ll fall in love with the sport, and you’ve got a fan. I didn’t see my first hockey game until after I played inline for the first time; every kid who learns to play is another potential hockey fan.”
It’s easy to get kids involved in inline hockey, suggests Boyarsky, because gear is affordable and it’s less intimidating for a kid who’s already been on roller blades. It’s a laid back sport, built on puck possession and movement.
There aren’t offside rules and there is contact, but no checking. Every player gets more touches on the puck, and longer shifts compensate for shorter game time. Players are drawn to this kind of environment, as long as they have the exposure.
That’s how he’s gotten the Arizona Outcasts – the club program established in 2002 that offers AAA Platinum inline team ages 12 and up – to stay intact; it starts with the young players, who fall in love with the way the game is played. The retention rate with a nurturing environment, for those who get the chance to start playing, is impressive.
The biggest obstacles with keeping kids interested in inline are certainly worth noting, of course. Boyarsky was quick to point out that the kids who are hesitant to jump into inline over ice are worried about their opportunities – and for now, that’s a concern they still have to consider.
There aren’t as many opportunities to play at higher levels; there aren’t college scholarships to play inline hockey, the national teams aren’t as well known, and the competitive circuit in North America is nowhere near that of ice hockey.
There are still plenty of chances for success, though.
Boyarsky coaches the ASU inline team in addition to the Outcasts, which provides both a AAA club option for kids 14-18 and a chance to play a club sport in college at a competitive level. There’s opportunity to travel, and one of Boyarsky’s old skaters – Alex MacDonald – played at the North American Roller Hockey Championships and now plays in a pro circuit overseas.
The sport isn’t even just one that is played exclusively by inline skaters, either.
Team USA silver medalist Lyndsey Fry played for the ASU inline team during the 2015-16 season with her younger brother Wes, and she’s headed for the Women’s Inline World Championships in Italy this summer.
Boyarsky has also coached against Pittsburgh Penguins forward Beau Bennett in an inline league and had the pleasure of coaching teams with players such as Florida Panthers prospect Rocco Grimaldi, as well as both Dylan Strome and Kyle Capobianco – whom the Coyotes selected at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
Strome and Capobianco helped a team of Arizona inline skaters win their tournament in Ontario, and they still keep in touch with their teammates from that tournament – many of whom they may see when they come to Arizona for training camps with the Coyotes over the next few years.
“Tons of guys at the elite level still play the sport,” said Boyarsky. “It’s not just Strome and Capobianco, or Bennett, or Grimaldi. It’s guys like Bobby Ryan, too… even NHL talent still looks for ways to play.”
The sport of inline still has a ways to go to catch back up to ice hockey, even on the West Coast where it was once king. It’s an easy sport to fall in love with though, so coaches like Boyarsky are confident; it’s not a matter of if the world falls back in love with inline, it’s when.