Inline on Roll in Southeast
Scholastic Leagues Likely to Power Future Growth
By Jim Davis
 

Breylon Jones, a 13-year-old defenseman with the Greenville Storm, chases down
an errant shot in the corner, whirls and looks up. In front of him is an open lane to the opposition’s net. Without hesitation, he takes off, transitioning to offense in an instant, pushing the puck ahead of him.

It’s a decision the youngster makes hundreds of times in the course of an inline roller hockey season. That wasn’t the case two years ago when he played defense for a peewee travel ice hockey team. Skating on ice, he was much less likely to abandon his defensive zone responsibilities and go on the attack, even when open ice beckoned.

Breylon delights in the freewheeling, attacking style of hockey played on wheels. He’s not alone. Some 8,000 youngsters and adults are playing inline roller hockey in the South, according to USA Hockey InLine, the sanctioning body for most of the leagues and teams across the nation. That’s about one-third of all USA Hockey Inline players. (CenterIce Magazine defines the South as those states below the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi River plus Arkansas and Washington D.C.)

Not all 8,000 players play inline for the relative freedom it provides. Many like the speed and constant flow of hockey on wheels, or the less structured games and practices, or the chance to better develop their skating and puck handling skills that comes with more playing time. Still others are steered into the sport by parents unwilling, or unable, to tackle the more expensive ice hockey game.


2Hot4Ice is the leading youth inline tournament
series in the South.

Photo courtesy: 2Hot4Ice


Regardless of the reason, inline hockey in the South has blossomed during the first half of this decade, especially in larger markets such as Florida, the Atlanta area and central North Carolina. According to USA Hockey InLine, Florida, with 2,800 registered inline players, is second only to California (5,400). Metro Atlanta is believed to have as many in-liners as it does ice hockey players.

Multiple high-quality facilities, including The Cooler in Alpharetta and SGAA Dual Decks in Snellville, have helped the Atlanta area become the inline hockey capital of the South. Recreational leagues are popular in the Peach City, with youngsters also playing outdoors, on wood surfaces, at the YMCA and in church gyms.
 
2Hot4Ice, one of several organizations that conduct high-energy weekend
tournaments in the eastern U.S., remains wildly popular in the South,
drawing 112 teams to its 2005 National Games season-ending championships in Columbia, S.C.

But the icing on the cake is the Atlanta area’s scholastic inline leagues. The number of teams in the 11-year-old Georgia High School Roller Hockey League’s four skill-based divisions has tripled, to 56, in the last five years. Many of those teams draw their players from AARHO, the Atlanta Area Roller Hockey Organization, which operates four leagues for 35 middle-school teams.

In Hotlanta, as the city markets itself, inline doesn’t begin and end with the kids. The University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia State University all have at least one club team completing in the National Collegiate Roller Hockey Association’s Atlantic division, and there are recreation leagues for adults scattered throughout the metro area.

Rich Call, the GHRA’s referee in chief, says the expansion of inline hockey in Atlanta has been driven by the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers and the tens of thousands of transplants employed by the many international companies that have their headquarters in Georgia’s capital city.

“The Thrashers hit the streets and went to the rinks in the area, whether ice or inline or church gyms. That created interest in hockey,” say Call, who works inline events throughout the South in addition to his GHRA responsibilities. “Also, we’re a region of transplants. A lot of us are Northerners who don’t want to give up the sport we love. We want to play, whether it’s on ice or concrete.

“I’ve got to believe if the Thrashers make the playoffs, that will give hockey here another shot in the arm.”
 


The Greenville Storm celebrate after winning the 12U A division title at the 2Hot4Ice 2005 National Games last June in Columbia,
Bottom row, from left: Brennan Adams and Mark Adams. Middle row: Patrick Heaps, Robby Flair, Tyler Scherz, Breylon Jones, Joel Szabo and Eli Spear. Back row: coach John Heaps, Matt Hogue, Lane Smith, coach Greg Szabo and coach Paul Bailey.

Photo courtesy: 2Hot4Ice



 

Greg Szabo, one of Breylon Jones’s coaches with the Greenville Storm, says the inline game in his South Carolina city has been similarly impacted. The Greenville Grrrowl of the East Coast Hockey League is involved in growing hockey at the grassroots level, including inline, and employees who have transferred to the BMW and Michellin North America plants in town have become involved in the sport.

“The NHL has been a huge factor [in inline growth in the South] in their cities,” says 2Hot4Ice founder Clay Ladouceur. “Everybody is inspired by the NHL’s backing.”

2Hot4Ice, which conducts more than 20 weekend youth tournaments a season – almost all of them in the South -- has partnered with both the NHL Carolina Hurricanes and one of the four ECHL teams in the Carolinas.

“2Hot4Ice does a program with the Columbia (South Carolina) Inferno. The kids playing in our events in that city get a free ticket to an Inferno game. And they (Inferno players) come out to our events and meet the kids and sign autographs. They’re hometown heroes. That’s very cool.”

Still, it’s the game of inline hockey itself plus tournament series like 2Hot4Ice, Coastal Cup, the East Coast Hockey Organization (ECHO) and NARCh, and the school leagues that continue to draw youngsters and teen-agers to the sport, and in some cases away from ice hockey.
 
Inline leaders say the freedom players enjoy in the wheeled version of the sport remains a major lure. “When you compare ice and roller, the sport has less regimen,” says Ladouceur. “In roller hockey, there’s a light, fun atmosphere. The players have the puck on their stick more and they have a chance to develop confidence without the bodychecking in ice (in the upper youth age groups).”

Breylon Jones agrees. “You have a lot of space and can push the puck up, but still get back quick,” says the soft-spoken son of parents born and raised in the South but unfamiliar with hockey until Breylon began playing. “In ice there’s offsides, but not in roller. You can bring the puck back, collect yourself and take it back in [to the offensive zone].

“And in ice when you get the puck, you have to be ready to give it up. I think sometimes you’re afraid of getting hit. In inline, you keep the puck.”

Having played ice hockey for six years, Breylon had grown tired of the travel involved as a member of the Greenville Jr. Grrrowl. It seemed that every weekend he was in a car motoring to some distant city for games. As an inline player he still plays on weekends but most of the time it’s at the Greenville Pavillion. “I have more free time to be with my friends,” he says.

The amount of travel associated with ice hockey was a factor in the Szabo family’s decision to permit their two sons, 17 and 15 years old, to play inline rather than ice. In ice, more often than not, the boys’ travel teams would play on the same weekends in different cities, forcing the family to split up. “In 2Hot4Ice tournaments, all the teams (of a club such as the Greenville Storm) play at the same venue on the same weekend, and the entire family can make the trip,” says Szabo.

2Hot4Ice will host 22 events in 18 cities in 2005-06. Ladouceur takes great pains to ensure that teams are placed in divisions where they will be the most competitive and to schedule games to minimize the families’ time away from home.

Ladouceur says that with the proliferation of school leagues, especially in Atlanta, it’s become imperative that the tournament series work closely with them to minimize scheduling conflicts so more youngsters can participate in both. “In Cumming (Ga.), there were 52 scholastic games that weekend (March 10-12) in Atlanta and another 54 2Hot4Ice games. Without working with the GHRA, we couldn’t have done it,” he says.

The GHRA expects its growth to remain in the 5-10 percent range in the foreseeable future, as more communities in the Atlanta area organize middle-school leagues that eventually will feed players to the high school clubs. Still, Ronnie Williams, a member of the GHRA board, says he doesn’t see inline hockey ever becoming part of the athletic programs of Georgia high schools.

That’s not the case in North Carolina, where Central Carolina Hockey, the inline hockey organization in Raleigh, and the Carolina Hurricanes have provided seed money to the recently announced Central Carolina Hockey League to organize middle school and high school inline programs next fall. The CCHL’s vision calls for elevating inline to varsity status at area high schools in five years. A pilot league this spring attracted 10 middle school-age teams without any advertising by the CCHL.

Mark Howard, CCHL director, says the skill level of the new high school league will fall somewhere between recreational and travel. Both the middle school kids and high schoolers will play two seasons a year, in the fall and spring, which should eliminate conflicts with local ice hockey programs and other scholastic sports. One of the seasons will feature 3-on-3 games with seven-minute running time periods. Games will be played on weekday evenings so the players can still play travel hockey if they desire.

“Inline is huge down here, one of the fastest-growing sports in the area,” says Howard, who grew up playing ice hockey in upstate New York. “We have people, including the counties, looking at building facilities.”

Where there are good facilities, the inliners are sure to follow. Says Ladouceur, “The facilities in Gulfport (Miss.) and Lafayette (La.) are state-of-the-art. Atlanta has three or four good ones. Raleigh has two. All of those areas are hotbeds of inline hockey."
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