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Hockey is played all over the world. Ice hockey is its most recognizable form. But not all hockey is played on ice. Stick hockey, street hockey, road hockey, roller hockey, skater hockey—these forms of hockey are played in major cities around the world at any time of the year.
Roller hockey, also called “quad hockey,” “inline hockey,” or “skater hockey,” began as a warm-weather alternative for ice hockey enthusiasts. Today, the sport exists in many variations and has a passionate following in nearly every corner of the world. Though it lacks the lengthy history of some sports, people have been lacing up their roller skates, eager for a little fast-paced competition, for about 150 years.
“Roller hockey” is actually an umbrella term used to refer to three variant forms: roller hockey, inline hockey, and skater hockey. It can be confusing to someone new to the sport. For example, roller (quad) hockey was called “hardball hockey” in the united states until 2008 when the United States Olympic Committee adopted the more common name, Rink Hockey. Regardless, the difference between these three forms is based mostly on the equipment used to play the game and whether contact (checking) is allowed (like in ice hockey). Quad hockey and inline roller hockey are the two most popular versions.
Roller hockey and ice hockey were probably an outgrowth of time-honored bat-and-ball games of shinty, hurling, and field hockey, all hugely popular throughout the United Kingdom. Ice hockey was invented in Montreal, Canada by way of English soldiers in the 1850s. By the 1870s, college students at McGill University, also in Montreal, had organized a set of rules for game play. Ice hockey is believed to have been first played in the US in 1893.
Though roller skates were invented in 1760 by John Joseph Merlin, the first roller hockey was probably played in England in 1878, at the Denmark Roller Rink in London. Other sources note that “roller skate hockey” was first played in County Kent, England. It didn’t take long for roller hockey to catch on and spread. By the 1880s, leagues and rules of play developed in cities throughout the U.S. Midwest. Those early games were played on quad skates and the players used curved sticks called “canes,” similar to modern field hockey sticks. Team play consisted of players trying to shoot a roller hockey puck or hockey ball into the goal—the team with the most goals won the game.
In 1924, the Roller Sports Federation was established, whose goal was to standardize and govern international play, with yearly world championships starting in 1936. Since then, roller hockey has gained popularity worldwide. But roller hockey history in the U.S. hasn’t been one long breakaway. In fact, roller hockey’s popularity has risen and fallen. In 1991, roller hockey turned professional with the founding of Roller Hockey International, which included teams around the U.S. filled with talented local amateurs and retired ice hockey pros. Various high-profile exhibition games—at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, notably, though it was called “rink hockey”— brought the sport significant exposure. By 1994, the RHI league boasted 24 teams. Since then, unfortunately, leagues have shed teams faster than a pair of pre-fight gloves. Today, roller hockey is still widely played on both quad and inline skates, and enjoys popularity from Europe to Africa to the Americas.
Roller hockey—also called rink hockey or quad hockey—is a team sport particularly popular in Latin American and European countries. It consists of two five-man teams and is played with a hockey ball rather than a hockey puck. In quad hockey, the ball can be advanced only by the stick. A foul results if a player intentionally kicks the ball down the rink. Quad hockey is divided into two 25-minute halves with two 5-minute overtime, or “golden goal,” periods to break ties. Unlike inline and ice hockey, excessive contact—intentional shoving or checking—is prohibited. This reduces the overall violence of the sport and places a greater emphasis on skill and speed.
Roller hockey, as mentioned, has been an exhibition sport at olympic games and enjoys worldwide participation in the Roller Hockey World Cup, attracting competitive teams from France, Germany, Italy, England, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, and even tiny Andorra. Spain, Portugal, Argentina, and Italy are the dominant powers, with Spain and Portugal winning 31 world titles between them—quadruple all other countries combined.
While quad hockey participation has steadily declined overall—most likely because of the slower pace of play compared with ice and inline hockey—many countries support leagues and teams, some with long and storied histories. Sport Lisboa Benfica from Portugal, for example, the world’s oldest, has been active since 1917.
Scott and Brennan Olson, brothers from Minneapolis, are are often credited with reviving roller hockey in the U.S. After discovering a primitive pair of 1960s vintage roller skates with wheels in a straight line rather than the two-by-two quad design, they saw the opportunity for off-season practice. Their efforts eventually resulted in “Rollerblade” inline skates in 1984. The Olson brothers’ Rollerblade skates had high-wear polyurethane skate wheels and top-of-the-line ball bearings which dramatically improved the skates’ performance over the slower and more difficult-to-maneuver quad skate. Rollerblade skates were smooth, clean turning, and, most importantly, fast. By the late 1980s, inline skating had taken off, though initially as a form of exercise.
Fortunately for brothers Olson, at that same time an ice hockey pro in Edmonton, Ontario by the name of Wayne Gretzky was at the peak of his greatness, dominating the sport, compiling legendary stats, and garnering large television audiences. When the L.A. Kings acquired Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers, southern California had a new hero who inspired kids to pick up street hockey. Soon enough, the streets of sunny SoCal were humming with Rollerbladers right alongside the ubiquitous skate boarders.
This phenomenon was not lost on the NHL. Soon other warm-weather markets—San Jose, Anaheim, Tampa Bay, and Dallas—were sporting professional ice hockey teams. The league expansion of pro-level franchises into warm-weather markets, combined with the rising popularity of inline skating, turned out to be a fortuitous mix for roller hockey. By the mid-1990s, roller hockey had again taken off in America with many leagues and national competitions.
The world is full of sports that are immensely popular but almost unknown in North America. It took decades for American soccer to organize to a point where the U.S. could field a team that was internationally competitive. Roller hockey, while popular internationally, has had an up-and-down history in the U.S., though its popularity is growing. Given the significant exposure the NHL enjoys, and the general popularity of Rollerblading or inline skating, inline roller hockey is sure to continue to grow like any fast-paced and exciting sport should.