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Roller Hockey Hopefuls Compete to Be Lord of the Rink

(Photos: 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, 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.” Games are played with a roller hockey puck, a plastic orange disc that slides on pea-sized bumpers. The players stride and swerve on inline skates, using traditional hockey sticks, helmets, and gloves.

Today, prospective players will showcase their talent for three 20-minute periods, hoping to get drafted. The NYCRHL is a not-for-profit league with 32 teams across five divisions, including a “Legends” league for players 35 and over. Tier 1 is the highest level, while tier 4 is the lowest. These tryouts give captains from each team a chance to recruit new talent.

“It’s almost like a bazaar,” says Smith. “Essentially, whoever makes the best offer, you can jump on that team.”

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. He played roller hockey years ago in Philadelphia, and (in a typical Philadelphian display of subtlety) has a Flyers logo on his jersey and helmet.

O’Connor says he’s 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. As 4-on-4 play begins, the temperature hovers around 30 degrees, even though the rink is in the sun. It’s strangely quiet. An American flag flutters in the wind above a Parks Department outhouse, and the occasional horn or distant siren cuts through the silence, but the players are withdrawn.

This, I assume, is because most of them have never met, and nobody wants be the overzealous newbie shouting at a bunch of strangers. The gameplay, however, is smooth and free-flowing. Unlike regular hockey, there’s no icing or offside in roller hockey, which means less stoppages and more end-to-end action.

One of the captains hoping to recruit players, Alex Roeblen, is watching closely from the scorekeepers box, trying to find players for his tier-four team. 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.

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. It turns out, however, that Roeblen might have an unfair advantage. 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.”

It was tough to get a feel for the rink, the puck, and the speed of play, he says, 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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