About Inline Hockey
Inline Hockey is a fast team sport that is played on a rink similar to an ice hockey rink, except there is no ice. In stead there is a plastic tile floor, a wooden floor or smooth cement. In some countries inline hockey is played outdoors on a cement or asphalt floor. The equipment for inline hockey players and goalies is very similar to ice hockey equipment, except for the fact inline hockey players wear inline skates and don’t wear shoulder pads. Inline hockey is played by teams that have one goalie and four players on the rink (opposed to five players in ice hockey). In general there is no checking, no ‘icing’ (often called clearing in inline hockey) and no offsides, although some leagues and federations have different rules. Inline hockey is played with a plastic puck that often has gliding pegs to make it glide more easily.
What’s my name?
The sport of inline hockey has had a very difficult history and still suffers from huge fragmentation around the world. In the US and some other countries inline hockey is often called roller hockey. Then again roller hockey in other countries is often used for a different sport (rink hockey or hardball hockey), which is more like field hockey on quads. Below is an overview of terms that are often used to describe the same sport, inline hockey:
- Inline Hockey – we believe this is the term everybody should use. It’s hockey on inline-skates. This is also the term the two main international federations (FIRS and IIHF) use when they talk about the sport.
- Roller Hockey – as Americans often call inline-skates roller blades it’s understandable why this term is used a lot too. In some European countries it is used for a different sport, though. This makes it a more confusing term.
- Roller Inline Hockey – is the term that is often used in France. We know they like to say things reverted, but this is just too much.
- Street Hockey – is often used for outdoor inline hockey, but also for hockey played on shoes. If you play on a rink, don’t use this term.
- Inline-Skaterhockey – was introduced by the IISHF, a European federation that has a different rule set, which includes playing with a ball and with full-contact on a small sized rink. It’s a good term to identify inline-hockey played with a ball, but it’s still inline-hockey.
If there is one good reason why inline hockey hasn’t grown to where it is supposed to be looking at the number of participants and the level of exposure it’s because of the huge fragmentation all over the world. We will try to explain the situation:
When inline hockey started to emerge it was so similar to ice hockey (and often looked at as the summer variant of ice hockey) that the IIHF, the International Ice Hockey Federation, started to organize inline hockey. They made their own rule book (4 x 12 minute periods, center line offside, illegal clearing) and started to organize yearly World Championships. In the meantime the FIRS (Federation Internationale de Roller Sports) started to do the same as they felt they were the governing body for all roller sports, including speed skating, rink hockey and artistic roller skating. They used the goals from rink hockey (lower, thicker posts) and didn’t use a offside or clearing rule, creating a bigger differentiation from ice hockey. They also started organizing yearly World Championships.
This happened on a global scale, but in every single country the same fragmentation occurred. In most countries organized inline hockey was organized either the ice hockey federation, the roller sports federation or a newly formed federation that would associate itself with either the IIHF or FIRS. In countries were ice hockey had a strong presence the ice hockey federation would pick up the ball, in most ‘warm’ countries the roller sport federation would start organizing an inline hockey league. This is the main reason why nowadays you won’t see a country like Finland at a FIRS World Championship or a county like France at a IIHF World Championship. And this hurts the sport. And the chance of ever being included at the Olympic stage. Many say it was a demonstration sport in Barcelona ’92, but that was rink hockey. And only because the president of the IOC at that time, Juan Antonio Samaranch, played rink hockey as a goalie.
In the meantime something different happened in a part of Europe. Some players played a ice hockey like game on quad skates and called it Skaterhockey. Because it was played a lot outdoors they used a ball. With the arrival of inline-skates the game turned into what we now call inline hockey, but they kept playing with a ball. This sport especially gained popularity in Germany and was soon called Inline-Skaterhockey. This is how the sport is now played mainly in Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, The Netherlands and Poland. The IISHF (International Inline-Skaterhockey Federation) organizes a European Championship every year and in a country like Germany the number of participants, attendees and the amount of sponsorship money is way bigger then in puck inline hockey.
A lot of national federations have taken the rules of either the IIHF or FIRS and adapted them into their own rules. This has caused great fragmentation in rules and therefor the recognition of a unified sport. The two World Championships every year is also something that really needs to be solved. The IIHF is considered to be of a higher level, while the FIRS tournament brings in more countries.
Back to the beginning
Inline hockey has had a rough history. When the RHI league started in the US, professional inline hockey looked to have a bright future. When the league collapsed due to management mistakes the sport had the take a few steps back and to this date a true professional league is yet to emerge. Currently there are three leagues in the US that are trying, creating even more fragmentation. There is the AIHL (American Inline Hockey League), the PIHA (Professional Inline Hockey Association) and MLRH (Major League Roller Hockey). Then there are a few professional style tournaments with prize money (NARCh and TORHS). While some players get sponsored (mostly with equipment) and winning teams sometimes divide the prize money these leagues and tournaments do not feature players that can make a living playing inline hockey.
In Europe leagues are organized by the national governing bodies and they make smaller steps toward professionalism. Clubs participate in these leagues and have teams in different age categories. Especially in France, Spain and Italy the level of play and professionalism have grown steadily over the last few years, which has also attracted players from the US and Canada to come and play in their leagues. While some players, mostly the import players, do get paid to play there is still a long way to go for the leagues to become truly professional. Another huge difference between the US and Europe are the rinks, as the rinks in Europe are mostly smaller and plastic tile surfaces and real dasher boards are still rare. But because the club teams are mostly made up out of local kids that slowly made their way up to the ‘elite’ team of their club that is more support from the local attendance, creating a devoted crowd and better atmosphere at most games.
What needs to happen now?
For the sport of inline hockey to become a real professional sport a lot of things need to happen. First of all the sport needs to unify. It’s no problem to have slight variations in rules, as we can see in ice hockey (NHL / IIHF). But there needs to be one global federation that takes care of (for now) the biggest event in inline hockey: the World Championships. As long as the IIHF and the FIRS don’t come to terms the World Championships will never be recognized as a true world class event. Getting into the Olympics will be a long shot as it is, but without the two governing bodies working together it will never happen. In Europe the sport can grow as it does now, with the European Cup becoming the true elite ‘league’. In the US all the league and tournament directors need to figure it out. A true pro league needs to evolve, either from current initiatives working together or from the ground up. There is nothing wrong with the level of play, but it’s just too confusing for outsiders right now. These days you don’t need ESPN or Versus to broadcast games. Create an online channel (either paid or free) and start from there. MLRH has made a first start in this with Roller Hockey TV, but the production needs to be professional. In Europe more and more games are also broadcasted online. This exposure is important for attracting sponsorship money and inline hockey fans. Because it all starts with money and a fan base.