Where ice is available, the passion of American youth for hockey is understandable, but that same ardor is surprisingly strong where ice is scarce, as Photographer Walter Iooss Jr. reveals on these pages. New York kids simply clamp on roller skates instead and contrive to find their own veins of Orr on streets and iceless rinks.
Street scenes like the one at right in Brooklyn—the players operating on the assumption that they will not be maimed by approaching motor vehicles, but alert as deer nonetheless—are becoming rarer as the game proliferates on rink and playground. The action is its own reward; no roller hockeyist will ever make it to the NHL.
It is played against the graffiti of a Manhattan alley and in a Brooklyn park by the waters of the Verrazano Narrows—anywhere, everywhere. Individualists all, the players wear a little of this and a little of that. They are street wise and proud of it, and they make the most of what they have.
Feminine fans eye the action at a Brooklyn rink as a would-be Beliveau goes over the boards, and a ref demonstrates child care, roller division.
Here a guy can wheel for Real
In the beginning it was played as a challenge: the Fourth St. Eagles against the Fifth St. Dukes. The kids wore clamp-on roller skates, shin guards made of The Saturday Evening Post and 49¢ workman's gloves. They bounced each other off parked cars, chasing a rubber ball or a piece of wood. A fat kid always played goalie. He stood in his sneakers between two parked cars, a first baseman's glove on his hand and a cushion he had stolen out of a moving van tucked under his belt. There were no offsides, but every time the little rascal who stayed in front of the other guys' goal put one in, kids would shout, "Hey, man, you hangin', you hangin'. That don't count." Everyone would turn to the biggest kid, whose name was Mickey or Maxie or Mario, and he would decide. The name of the game was street hockey.
Then the Parks Department and Police Athletic League built chicken-wire cages and moved the games into playgrounds. Pro hockey expanded in 1967 and the city game followed. Rinks were built, leagues formed, rules and equipment standardized. Now people play in the street only when they have to. The name of the game is roller hockey.
They say it started in Canada the day a kid took a branch and swatted a hunk of frozen horse manure, but its character is urban U.S.A.; in Canada they have ice skates—and ice. From out of the Depression it came, a game for kids with more ingenuity than money. It is iceless ice hockey and it is replacing stickball in urban folklore.
In New York City there are only seven ice-skating rinks but there are hundreds of playgrounds for roller skating. Roller-hockey equipment costs at least $50 per kid, nearly as much as an ice-hockey outfit, but there are no charges for ice time, and league registration fees are minimal.
"There's action and hitting," says Ray-Ray Recco, 12, of Brooklyn. "It takes coordination and talent," says his 16-year-old friend Steve Cibelli. "I like the contact," offers Tim Spillane, 12, of Manhattan. A 25-year-old telephone repairman who still plays on weekends says, "It's the greatest game there is. It has competition, contact, movement. Baseball? You going to watch strikes go by for nine innings?"
The three New York rinks built especially for roller hockey are located in Brooklyn, the showcase a $50,000 layout in Sheepshead Bay, where some 240 youngsters from 10 to 18 play for the Kings Bay Boys Club. There are stands, lights, an enclosed scorer's booth and an electronic scoreboard. Play had been moved there a couple of years ago from Geritsen Beach, which had become known for "partyin' up," a New York euphemism for drinking, fighting and turning on.
Recently the Black Aces were playing the Gold Bruins at Kings Bay for the last playoff spot in the Senior Division (15-18). Chasing the "puck," a donut-shaped roll of black tape that bounced as much as it slid, players showed commendable finesse. And true grit. They banged one another off the boards and onto the hard pavement. "There's more contact than in hockey," said Frank (Paco) Witkowski, 18, a local hero. "It's harder to play because it takes more out of you." Joe Volpe, the league president who also was serving as the P.A. announcer, said, "You're not going to stop on a dime, either. You're going to stop on a quarter. And because of the fiber-glass wheels, if you stop wrong, you're going to box them." He paused to speak into a mike: "Penalty for Volpe." He went on, "That's my brother Steve. My other brother coaches."
With three seconds left and the Blacks leading 2-1, Steve Volpe bloodied a Black Ace kid's nose. Gloves flew off. Golds and Blacks held each other while the officials tried to separate Volpe and victim. Vintage NHL. After time ran out, the goalies went at it, and Steve decided to join in. Brother Joe grabbed him from behind. "I'm going to take you home in a straitjacket," he said.
"This doesn't happen often," Joe said later. "It happened because they were going for that last playoff spot." Despite some postgame threats, eventually there were soul handshakes all around.
On a given playground you can see them all: Irish, Jews, Poles, Germans, Swedes and especially Italians. Blacks and Latins, hitherto nonparticipants because they lacked money, facilities, localized programs and NHL heroes, are starting to trickle in. "It reflects the community," says Bill Sansone, president of Manhattan's Midtown-North Precinct Community Council, as he watches some melting-pot marvels play on West 49th Street.
Organized play has tripled in a year, and there now are 1,000 teams and 18,000 kids playing in the New York park leagues. Roller hockey is played in at least a dozen Eastern, Southern and Mid-western states, led by New York, Massachusetts and Virginia. In some places it has become downright fashionable. Bobby Clarke and Phil Esposito put out equipment in their names and Norman Mailer has taken to reminiscing about his street-hockey days in Brooklyn.
"You have to think big," says Ray Miller, a 50-year-old Parks' man who led the drive to build Brooklyn's oldest rink in Borough Park. "I'd like to see a Madison Square Garden of roller hockey. It has to be exposed on TV."
But with growth come problems. Kids are quick to imitate the violence of adult leagues and the NHL. And, inevitably, there is talk of the benefits of "keeping the kids off the street." The name of the game used to be keeping the kids on the street.
WALTER IOOSS JR.