From June 28th to July 8th, the Anaheim Ducks, Reebok, and the Amateur Athletic Union hosted a massive, two-part roller hockey tournament at The Rinks: Huntington Beach. The 2012 Inline Hockey Adult Nationals segment of the tournament was held from June 29th to July 1st, while the 2012 Inline Hockey Junior Olympics ran throughout the course of the week-and-a-half -long event.
I participated as a player in the Adult Nationals tournament, and played spectator to a large amount of both Junior Olympics and Adult Nationals games. This is my experience.
Making The Team
Most Saturday mornings, I get up early and head to the rink to play some pick-up hockey, and there’s a core group of guys and girls that show up just about every weekend, rain or shine. The game is limited to the first sixteen players to show up, which results in the regulars getting to the rink extra early to ensure a spot. Aside from regular league games (a handful of us play on various adult league teams), we spend a lot of hockey time together, which has led to a unique sort of friendship among us. Some of us have taken to calling our little group ‘The Saturday Morning Pick-up Crew.’
One Saturday morning a few weeks before the tournament, one member of the ‘crew’ named Alex approached me about joining his team to play in Adult Nationals. He told me that it would be a bunch of the guys who either play, or have played pick-up on Saturday mornings, and that we’d be in a lower division, where we should have a good chance to win. It’d be fun, he said.
With about a month off in-between adult league seasons, I was eager to play some competitive hockey and quickly agreed without knowing much by way of specifics. None of that really mattered though – it’s probably been close to a decade since I last played in any sort of real tournament, and I’ve missed that environment. It would be fun to be involved in that again.
I suppose that in the days leading up to the tournament, I should have been worried that our team hadn’t even had so much as an informal skate to get all of our pucks in a row – worse, I didn’t actually know who specifically was on the team. For all I knew, everyone might have been primarily a defensive-minded player and we’d have a tough time scoring goals (this wound up being close to the truth).
What I did know was that our team would be called HB Fury and that we were playing in the Bronze division. We’d have one game on Friday night, two on Saturday, and two more on Sunday, with both weekend games having large breaks in-between. What I wasn’t prepared for was the level of competition, and the sheer amount of people from all corners of the globe who would descend upon Huntington Beach and Southern California to participate in and watch some of the best roller hockey being played anywhere. Having now had a week to digest the experience, I must say it was an awfully impressive spectacle that speaks volumes about the strides that the hockey community has taken here in Southern California.
First Impressions – Huge Tournament; Small Community
I arrived on the scene Friday night a little bit earlier than I had to, just in order to acclimate myself and take it all in. It became immediately clear as soon as I pulled into the parking lot that this would be a far cry from a typical rink experience. Firstly, the parking lot was jam packed, and I was lucky to even get a parking spot. I suppose that this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, from the Ducks press release:
Over 3,000 athletes from eight different countries are expected to travel to Southern California for the Junior Olympics and Adult Nationals this summer. Of the 350 expected teams, over 175 are California-based, more than any other single state or country. Participating countries in the 2012 Junior Olympics are expected to travel from China (Hong Kong), Great Britain, Australia, Canada, Columbia, Taiwan and New Zealand.
The figures are impressive, but to me don’t do the scene justice.When I stepped foot into the facility, my senses were immediately assaulted with a kaleidoscope of sensory input – the swirling colors and languages of different nationalities, the familiar, thunderous sound of pucks hitting end boards and plexiglass, the putrid stench of gear…it was all a bit overwhelming at first. Allow me to attempt to paint a picture:
In the entry way to the facility, where there is usually only a handful of people milling about and the thoroughfares are easily navigable, I was immediately confronted with a traffic jam of bodies – both on foot and skate, ranging from toddlers to full grown adults – and equipment – both shouldered and strewn in haphazardly neat piles on the floor.
Sponsor booths from major hockey manufacturers like Tour, Reebok, Mission, and Labeda lined the walls on either side, while food vendors hawked standard rink fare: pizza, hot dogs, and beer. Outside the Ducks organization had constructed a sort of fun zone for the little ones – two mini-rinks upon which to skate, shoot and kill time between games, a couple of inflatable knee hockey rinks for the even littler ones, and even an area to clock the speed of your shot (word on the street is that the technology was fussy). I’ve never seen such a spectacle – not quite this big, at least.
It was a test of endurance to transport myself and my equipment bag from the entrance to the back rink where we’d be playing our first game. The total distance of this journey – one that I’ve taken many times before – is maybe 200 steps. It probably took me close to five minutes to get from point A to point B, so jam packed were the walkways between rinks.
And arrive I did, but not without stumbling across some faces from memory.
It’s somehow fitting that for as large a tournament as this was that within five minutes of arriving at the rink, I should run into not one, but two people that I’ve known for years and years – one that I should have expected to see there, the other an individual I haven’t seen in probably over a decade, and had no reason to think would be at the tourney. Now, hockey – specifically hockey in Southern California – is an extremely small community. It’s not uncommon to run into a handful of people at the rink any given night that you know and have played with in the past. There are, after all, only so many rinks available. It’s a matter of simple economics.
What is strange, however, is walking into a facility teeming with such a density of people from literally all over the globe and randomly seeing two people from your past in a matter of minutes. It’s a neat feeling.
First I ran into my former high school coach, Jim Irwin. I played on my high school’s roller hockey team for all four years of school, three of which were spent on the Varsity team. Jim was my coach for all four years, and without a doubt the best coach I ever had (sorry, Dad). I learned so much about the game from Jim – not only about where to go and how to react in certain situations, but also how to carry yourself on and off the rink. One of the things that Jim instills in all of his players, and that has stuck with me to this day, is to always remove your glove when shaking your opponent’s hands following a game. It may seem a small thing, but it’s a sign of respect.
Jim also happens to be one of the most in-demand youth-level coaches in California. After talking for a bit, he told me that he was coaching eight separate Mission-Bauer teams at the tournament, ranging from Squirt to Bantam, with at least several tiers (A, AA, AAA) at each level. I have no idea how he’s able to juggle that schedule, but I’m sure all of his players are grateful for his coaching.
Next, I saw a guy I grew up playing hockey with named Lucas Romero. We played together on a club team called The Bulldogs that operated out of Irvine. The team started together in Squirt and stayed intact through Pee-Wee, or roughly three or four years. Although we went our separate ways for our Bantam year, a few of us stayed in contact and would occasionally play together – for whatever reason Lucas and I didn’t do that. We’d recently reconnected via facebook though, and I learned that Lucas went on to play Junior hockey up in Canada for the Pembroke Lumber Kings, and then onto college hockey at Westfield State in Massachusetts.
Although we hadn’t seen each other since we were thirteen, we immediately struck up a conversation, and I learned that he was here at the tournament playing in the Pro division for Mission AKS Empire against teams from sponsors like Reebok, Tour, and Labeda. Lucas was always one of the best players on The Bulldogs, so it doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise that he’s playing at such a high level, but nevertheless, it’s pretty impressive stuff.
The weekend was just getting started, though. Once I was through catching up with both Jim and Lucas, it became time to find my teammates (whoever they’d end up being) and our locker room. We had games to play.
To Be Continued…