By Collin Insley, Staff Writer | Follow him on Twitter
The world was a weird place in the late 90s (see: “Bizkit, Limp”), and especially so in the wide world of sports. The NHL was in the middle of its “garage league” clutch-and-grab devolution, and brilliant tactical coaches like Jacques Lemaire and Scotty Bowman were doing their absolute best to strangle the last grasps of creativity out of the game – all this despite the League being chalk full of bright, young talent. In some ways hockey wasn’t very much fun anymore, and in many ways, the sport was dying, although we wouldn’t really know to what extent until 2004.
At the same time, action sports were exploding in popularity due in large part to the X Games. Skateboarding, aggressive skating, BMX, motocross – extreme sports were “now,” “cool,” and absolute ratings dynamite.
It should have come as no surprise that network producers at ESPN would, through any means necessary seek to capitalize on the sudden interest in alternative sports culture. What better way to attract viewers then, but by hybridizing a sport already possessed of an established and dedicated, if relatively small following (hockey), with the culture and style of the latest ratings darling (extreme sports), into a sort of deformed Fankenstein-esque bastardization?
Enter: Pro Beach Hockey
Hockey On The Beach, You Say?
I do say – and my, how glorious it was. That is, if you’re alright with defining glorious as a kitschy, over-the-top, almost humorously perverse rendering of “hockey,” expertly packaged to appeal to the MTV/Action Sports generation – the generation way into Limp Bizkit (to be fair, at least “Nookie” was a fun song).
A brief primer for the uninitiated:
Pro Beach Hockey was a professional roller hockey tournament held over the course of two months every summer for three years in the late 90s (1998-2000). Six teams participated in the tournament every year, for the chance to lift the much coveted James J. Allegro Cup. The rink was built outdoors, literally on top of the sand in Huntington Beach, CA, roughly a football field’s length from the water. Sponsored, produced, and broadcasted by ESPN2, Pro Beach Hockey was known for several, let’s say quirky “innovations.”
PBH (as the cool kids called it) is perhaps best remembered for its rink having ramps inexplicably built into the boards behind each net. The idea was that the ramps would generate speed and excitement by way of impressive feats of agility/acrobatics/whatever. (This is 100% supposition, but I’m fairly confident that all of the players involved thought that this was just about the stupidest thing ever.)
A gel-filled ball was used in place of a puck (the gel was supposed to give the ball more weight and make it easier to control). During the first season of PBH the players were asked to wear V-Form skates – spectacular monstrosities masquerading as hockey skates. Rather than aligning the wheels in the “regular” way (which is to say, perpendicular to the ground and, you know, in-line), V-Form skates had its wheels set in the chassis at diagonal angles so that the 1st and 3rd wheels slanted to the right, and the 2nd and 4th wheels slanted to the left. The intended effect was to give the skates more defined edges, which in theory would make them feel and respond more like ice skates. I was never fortunate enough to be able to try these V-Form skates out, so I can neither confirm nor deny these allegations at this time.
(In what can only be described as a ringing endorsement, the V-Form skates were ditched after the first season of PBH, and replaced by the gold standard of inline hockey skates: Mission.)
The only other “innovation” truly capable of giving the behind-the-net ramps a run for its money in terms of outright ridiculousness was the awesomely named “Dome Zone.” Originating from each corner, and starting at the goal line, the “Dome Zone” was an arc that cut through the offensive zone. At its apex, it was roughly 25-30 feet from the net, and the rules stated that if you shot the ball from behind the “Dome Zone” arc and scored a goal, that goal was worth not one, but two points (!!!). Yes, you read that right. And no, whatever you do, under no circumstances should you mention this to Gary Bettman or Brenden Shanahan. If you thought the ringette line was confusing, just imagine a R&D camp featuring the “Dome Zone.”
Think you got it? Just in case you’re still fuzzy on the details, now is the time to bow down before the YouTube gods and offer up a gift of thanks (your VCR-taped episodes of “The Real World” may do the trick) for the awesomeness you’re about to experience.
So, you may notice a few things.
First, those poor, poor goaltenders. I remember it being unbearably hot just sitting in the stands – I can’t imagine wearing full goalie gear. Second, if you ever followed professional roller hockey leagues (the two main pro leagues were Roller Hockey International [RHI] and Major League Roller Hockey [MLRH]), you’ll likely recognize a few of the names mentioned above – Joe Cook, Rob Laurie, C.J. Yoder, etc. This was one of the main draws of the PBH in that it afforded pro roller hockey fans a chance to see their favorite players in a slightly more intimate and yet radically different setting. I grew up admiring guys like Joe Cook and Rich Garvey (more on him later), and I always cherished the times my Dad would load me in the car and drive me out to Huntington to see my heroes play some hockey. Third, just like roller hockey at large, off-sides and icing were not enforced, which has the effect of really stretching the rink out and encouraging the home run pass while de-emphasizing zone play.
Finally, you’d have to be blind to not notice the general atmosphere of and surrounding the game. From the metal dude (Rev Jones of Black Symphony…who?) being interviewed at the beginning of the clip, to the smarminess of the host, and right down to team names (The Web Warriors and Heavy Metal are featured in the above clip, and the other four teams that comprised the PBH were called Salsa, Dawg Pac, Gargoyles, and Xpress) – there’s a certain kind of celebration of alternative culture going on, and all in a way that, at least to me, very much calls to mind some of the same qualities as the WWF and WWE. And make no mistake, this is very much intentional.
Now That’s Entertainment!
I have a distinct memory of their being a concerted effort to present certain teams as the “mean” teams – or, to use wrestling parlance, the “heel” (if memory serves, the biggest heels were Heavy Metal and Gargoyles) and certain other teams as the “faces” – Dawg Pac and Web Warriors. And then you had Salsa: PBH’s answer to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
As with any level of professional hockey, hostilities had a tendency to run high and rivalries developed (they were clearly manufactured rivalries, though rivalries nonetheless), which resulted, as these things do, in fights. Though I remember there being a definite “showy” quality to a lot of the rough stuff, it was never to the extent of the pre-determined fights you see in pro wrestling – what with its steel-backed chair weaponry and the anything-goes-but-don’t-go-off-script outcomes. Perhaps the best analogy would be to say that there was a defined Roller Derby quality to Pro Beach Hockey – which, to an adolescent boy, was, in a word, awesome.
Good, wholesome fun for the whole family, right?
As I’ve alluded to earlier, one of the cooler aspects of Pro Beach Hockey was getting the chance to see your RHI and MLRH heroes up close and personal, and even having the opportunity to interact with them on a more one-on-one level. My personal connection to PBH was Rich Garvey. To explain:
Right around this time, I had just switched rinks – I moved from the local Boys & Girls Club rink, to the at-the-time brand spankin’ new Wayne Gretzky Roller Hockey Center in Irvine, CA. The leagues were better, the facilities nicer, and it would afford me a better opportunity to develop my skills. At that young age, coaching is one of the key components to skill development and I was fortunate enough to, in my first season of Rec hockey at the Gretzky Center, have one of the rink pros as my team’s coach – that pro was Rich Garvey, who at the time suited up for the Los Angeles Blades of the RHI. He also played at least a couple of summers in the PBH, for the Dawg Pac.
I looked up to Rich an awful lot – not only because he was a really good hockey player and a great coach, but also because he was fun to be around. He always seemed to be smiling and/or laughing, and forever had a fist bump and a pat on the back waiting for you. To a 10-year-old, this means the world. Suffice to say, whenever I was fortunate enough to go to Huntington to take in some PBH action, I was very much a fan of the Dawg Pac. And per usual, whenever Rich would see me in the stands, he’d give me a wink and, if I was close enough, a fist bump. One time, he gave me an extra stick blade he had lying around (remember two-piece sticks?). I still have that blade to this day.
As an aside, I have a very distinct (and decidedly embarrassing) memory of Rich. It was my first season of Rec hockey at the Gretzky Center and I had recently decided that Jaromir Jagr was my favorite hockey player – not only was he, you know, really good at hockey, but he was also Czech and I just so happened to be a quarter Czech myself. Convenient, right? I’d watch and re-watch my handful of NHL-produced highlight compilation VHS tapes, intently studying Jagr’s different stickhandling moves, and then I’d go outside and practice those same moves for hours, dangling around patio furniture like no one’s business. That summer, during one of my Rec league games with Rich behind the bench, I scored a goal – a garbage goal off of a rebound, if I remember correctly – and to celebrate, I tucked my right glove under my left arm, lifted my bare hand to my helmeted forehead and gave my best approximation of the Jagr salute. Yep. That’s right.
I like to think that I was too young to know any better, and maybe I was, but looking back on it, I can’t help but to feel a little bit embarrassed. Rich, though, thought this was absolutely hilarious. I remember him laughing and laughing, and then laughing some more. He could’ve absolutely buried me for that kind of display (and he would have been well within his rights), but instead he saw my celebration for what it was: a little kid, desperately, hopelessly in love with hockey, just having some fun.
The PBH Legacy
Fun is the legacy (if you can even call it that) that Pro Beach Hockey ultimately left. Yes, the ramps were weird, the “Dome Zone” was ridiculous, and the V-Form skates were questionable at best, but more than anything, PBH was just a lot of fun. The players didn’t take it too seriously, and neither did the fans, and that, I think, is exactly what was so fun about it all – in some senses it was nothing more than a very expensive, very well organized pick-up game held at the beach. At the end of the day, everyone went home happy, entertained, and a little bit sunburnt. What more can you ask for?
Hockey’s lifeblood is the fun that people have not only playing it, but also watching it, and for those few summers, at least as far as I was concerned, there wasn’t more fun to be had than being down at the beach, hanging out in the sun, and watching some hockey.