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Roller Hockey Hopefuls Compete to Be Lord of the Rink

Bedford + Bowery, March 2018. Find the original article here, and the updated version below.

Photo: Courtesy of Mathew Silver


The tryouts for the New York City Roller Hockey League are about to start at Paul L. McDermott Rink, a patch of street hockey heaven on the corner of FDR Drive and East 96th Street. Nearly an hour before puck drop, there’s a relaxed Sunday atmosphere, as cars whoosh by on the freeway. Using push brooms and leaf blowers, league organizers clear the playing surface, which is made up of blue-grey plastic tiles. The boards aren’t scuffed like most public rinks, and there’s a burnished green scoreboard in the southeast corner.


“We feel we have the best outdoor rink around,” says Tom Smith, chairman of the NYCRHL. He’s on his knees with a screwdriver, prying up a broken piece of tile. “You’ll see today, the puck moves nicely, it stays down.”


In the NYCRHL, games are played with a roller hockey puck, a plastic orange disc that slides along pea-sized bumpers. Players stride and swerve on inline skates, using traditional hockey sticks, helmets, and gloves. The league has 32 teams across five divisions, including a “Legends” league for athletes 35 and older. Tier 1 is the highest, while tier 4 is the lowest. According to Smith, the league attracts a diverse group of people.


“We’ve got plumbers, brain surgeons, cinematographers, TV guys, and Wall Street guys,” says Smith. “It’s like a snapshot of New York City up here, and the one thing we have in common is hockey.” It costs $2000 per team for a 10-game season, and most of that money gets pumped back into the facilities: the scoreboard, expensive tiles, industrial-grade flood lights, and general maintenance.


Smith seems to play the role of janitor, as he putters around the rink with either a push broom or screwdriver. He’s dressed for comfort, with grey sweatpants and a dark hoodie. It turns out, however, that his understated outfit is a bit misleading. Off the ice, Smith is the director of operations for Nickelodeon. He won’t tell me his age, only revealing that he plays in the “Legends” league, but someone says he’s over 50, and the wispy mess of white hair tucked underneath his faded Yankee cap seem to support this. As Smith tells me about the tryout process, his eyes are hidden behind black Aviator sunglasses.


“It’s almost like a bazaar,” says Smith. “Essentially, whoever makes the best offer, you can jump on that team.” Players will showcase their talent for three 20-minute periods, in front of captains from existing teams in the league. If the captains see someone they like, they can hand-pick them for their squad.


This is Tom O’Connor’s first tryout. As players begin to swarm the rink, testing their edges and peppering the goaltenders with shots, he stands proudly along the boards. The 36-year-old recently moved to the Upper East Side, and after noticing a well-kept rink in the neighborhood, he decided to check it out. O’Connor played roller hockey years ago in Philadelphia, and (in a typical Philadelphian display of subtlety) has a Flyers logo on his jersey and helmet.


Despite his pro appearance, he’s just trying to ease back into the sport. “A lot of the guys will be shaking the rust off,” he says. “Everyone looks pretty quick and nimble out here, so I got my work cut out for me.”


The athletes, who wear long-sleeve jerseys and full-length nylon pants, are divided into two squads – black versus white. Though the rink is directly in the sunlight, the temperature hovers around 30 degrees, so most of the players wear an extra layer underneath their jersey. It’s strangely quiet for a hockey game. An American flag flutters in the wind above a Parks Department outhouse and the occasional horn from the nearby roadway cuts through the silence, but the players are reticent. This, I assume, is because most of them have never met, and nobody wants to be the overzealous newbie shouting at a bunch of strangers.


The gameplay is smooth and free-flowing. Unlike regular hockey, there’s no icing or offside in roller hockey, which means less stoppages and more end-t0-end action. Smith is mingling with players, captains, and other league reps, on the outside of the rink. I hear from a few people that he’s one of the most gifted players in the league.


Smith grew up in Jersey and played travel roller hockey for 20 years. Back in 2007, he won a national championship with a few current members of the NYCRHL. Though it’s unlikely that level of talent will be at these tryouts. “You don’t see a lot of first tier talent,” says Smith. “It has happened, but it’s very rare.”


One of the captains hoping to recruit players for his tier-four team, Alex Roeblen, is watching closely from the scorekeeper’s box, holding a pad of paper. Eric Ruoff, a scrappy, fresh-faced redhead in a Colorado Stallions jersey, has caught his attention. “He’s got a lot of hustle. He’s got good stickhandling skills and he passes a lot,” says Roeblen. “You can see, he plays both ends of the rink, forward and defense.”


Ruoff, who recently moved from Denver, has been playing inline hockey since the age of five. The 25-year-old competed on a travel team until high school, before quitting to try wrestling. A lot of his former teammates ended up playing in the Professional Inline Hockey Association, which features some of the nation’s top roller hockey talent. “I probably would’ve ended up there if I kept playing, instead of going into wrestling,” he says.


Another captain has noticed Ruoff’s ability. Hector Martinez, who represents Team USA in the third tier, says his team went undefeated last year and he’s looking to add some extra pieces. “Defense,” says Martinez. “This is a small rink right here. All you need is defense,” This philosophy seems to permeate the league. I hear from a couple coaches that a defensive mindset is crucial, ostensibly because a smaller playing surface means less room for offensive play. (I would argue that makes offensively gifted players more valuable, but what the hell do I know?)


Martinez tries recruiting Ruoff during the game, sweet-talking him from behind the bench. But ultimately it’s Roeblen that signs the fleet-footed skater to his unnamed squad. Ruoff tells me after the tryout: “My sister is good friends with [Roeblen] and I like the way he plays. I like teams that pass a lot. It looks like we might get a good group of guys together.”


When I catch up with Tom O’Connor after the tryout, he’s wearing street clothes and, of course, an Eagles hat. He’s a bit melancholy when reflecting on his performance. “Average, very average,” he says. “I realized that I probably wasn’t in game-day shape after such a long lay-off, but I started to shake the rust off in the second or third period.”


He says it was tough to get a feel for the rink, the puck, and the speed of play, especially since he wasn’t familiar with his teammates. Now, he’ll have to wait to see which team signs him. “It’s tough when guys don’t even know each other’s names and you’re trying to make a pass,” he says. “I thought that was a challenge, to say the least.”

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© 2018 by Mathew Silver

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