USARS INLINE HOCKEY UNVEILS MAJOR PROGRAM EXPANSION AND INNOVATIONS WITH AAU
Let’s Play Hockey Expo
SOUTH POINT CASINO
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
January 26-28, 2009
A Report from Keith Noll, Member FIRS Inline Hockey Committee;
Member USARS Inline Hockey Committee
Chairman of AAU National Hockey Committee
Each winter the hockey world, encompassing ice and inline, focus attention on Las Vegas for the gala Let’s Play Hockey Exposition in late January. This year the host organizer, Doug Johnson, publisher of the hockey industry’s leading newspaper of the same title, produced yet another exceptional event in terms of exhibitor and buyer turnout, and continued the event’s high degree of hospitality toward all participants and visitors.
EXPO HAS BECOME THE MAJOR INLINE HOCKEY RENDEZVOUS
Like the old pioneer western fur trappers, the AAU again made use of this premier hockey event to meet and interface with hockey friends both old and new on behalf of its membership, tournaments and insurance programs. There were considerable innovative inline hockey ideas advanced during the two days of the expo in meetings set up in rooms immediately outside the exhibit hall and hosted by top officials from USARS and AAU. The central theme was renewal of emphasis on facility support and development of rink hockey programs to build the ranks of grassroots and elite players. The open dialog that was present between organization officials and members surprised many new- comers and was reaffirmation for the initiated that a strong sport entity must listen as well as speak to its members. The message conveyed was that only through our mutual effort can the inline hockey industry advance its own destiny. New tournament ideas were discussed as means of building greater participation under the aegis of the USA Olympic Committee’s recognized National Governing Body for Inline Hockey, USA Roller Sports; and in turn this status is supported by its International parent FIRS, which has for the past 14 years sanctioned World inline hockey championships for men, women and juniors.
For USARS/AAU the show was awesome. There were 24 AAU district directors present, numerous facility owners, operators, league managers, scholastic directors, and USARS executives also in attendance, making all our meetings not only authoritative, but also worthwhile in terms of getting information straight from the horse’s mouth. AAU’s spectacular menu of hockey facility and injury insurance protection was described as a means to protect assets as well as give needed aid to injured athletes. AAU’s superior competition program, as well as the industry’s best and most affordable insurances for facility owners, attracted several new facilities to the Let’s Play Hockey Expo, who then switched over to AAU. They discovered the AAU membership and inline hockey programs are unbeatable and unmatched by competing events.
These meetings produced a free exchange of ideas, with the AAU responding with pledges to explore implementation of several new suggestions. It was really great to see such a representative turnout: 12 state scholastic directors, 18 AIHL organizations, 24 facility and league owners, 24 AAU district directors, and 4 USARS/AAU officials including USARS President George Kolibaba and USARS Inline Hockey Committee Chair George Pickard, who before his retirement was USARS Executive Director for 35 years. Pickard has also served the past eight years as president of CIRILH, the International Inline Hockey Organization.
SUCCESSFUL RINKS ARE KEY TO SUSTAINING HOCKEY PROGRAMS
The Let’s Play Hockey Expo was great because we heard from a lot of people in attendance, that they felt for the first time in more than a decade, under AAU and USARS there is finally the appearance of the needed structure to put progress back into the sport of inline hockey. We’re pretty excited about the new spirit of excitement and cooperation that is appearing within the inline hockey sport which is coming from the facility owners and league operators and owners. If the hockey facilities that house and support our clubs and games do not remain profitable and viable, there is no sport. Inline hockey is not going to be sustained or endure on the strength of event operators alone. Available venues are essential to the success of tournament promoters as well as clubs. Growth for this sport must come from the grassroots, house leagues and scholastic play. Tournaments are fun to go to for players, and there’s nothing wrong with tournaments, but in this sport, you won’t survive long or realize your ambitions by having too many putting the cart before the horse.
AIHL INSTANT SUCCESS IN FIRST YEAR OF ORGANIZATION
The American Inline Hockey League (AIHL), newly organized under USARS/AAU, has its leaders really excited with its participating 31 organizations and 60-plus teams. Originated in joint cooperation with facility owners and internal league managers, it has in its first year demonstrated that it will probably grow to over 50 organizations next year at the elite level and expand even more with the addition of junior and age group levels. First season feedback is all positive from the participating organizations. They find that are able to get hold of a league official when needed, who are both accountable as well as accessible. The AIHL is registered under the AAU as one of its non-profit clubs. Everyone connected with AIHL, AAU, USARS and the independent organizational members are concentrating on what we can do collectively to make this sport better, and that is exactly what is happening.
The AIHL will expand by adding more zones next year. Several new organizations at the Let’s Play Hockey Expo are developing out of current zones and looking to be added to this program. The AIHL will be the official National Championships for league play of USARS, and the league certification should be approved at the USARS Board of Directors meeting this spring. That means that every player will become a member of both USARS and the AAU. This course of action was approved enthusiastically by AIHL organization representatives at the Expo meeting. It was well received by USARS representatives who attended the meetings, which included President George Kolibaba, USARS Inline Hockey Chair, George Pickard, and USARS Executive Committee member, Mark Vittese. We had the majority of the current AIHL organizations in attendance and they voted unanimously for the league to pursue this recommendation.
We are also looking at structuring youth programs as developmental subbases for the elite AIHL structure of the organization, thereby leading to a USA National Championship. Like the elite program, the youth teams will have to be formed from within the same district as the facility which they will represent in AIHL competition. In other words, we will not have six different states represented on a team. In this way, when a team competes for a championship, it will be in competition against the best of the best from within their districts, and not all star teams assembled from the entire country. This is a restriction on team composition that the AAU already has in use among the other 40 sports under its jurisdiction and only inline hockey is the current exception. When you really get down to it, there are not that many travel teams out there that have kids from multiple states and when this happens it hurts the sport more than it helps it, by discouraging teams from participation.
NATIONAL SCHOLASTIC CHAMPIONSHIP
The scholastic meetings at Let’s Play Hockey went very well. We had 12 of our 16 states enrolled in AAU scholastic inline hockey represented at this meeting. That’s where the fastest growth of inline hockey is coming from. We’re excited about the growth potential. More scholastic leagues are coming on board AAU every year and we have been working very hard to encourage two AAU national scholastic championships on both east and west coasts to help parents cope with travel costs associated with only a single event. It will provide more student-athletes the opportunity to compete and encourage further program development. In the past, when all had to travel either to the east coast or west coast, we lost many teams that simply could not afford the cost of travel. An East Coast and West Coast Scholastic Championship was created to overcome this hurdle. Within two years, we hope that the economy will improve and this decision may then be reconsidered. Given continued development, we then hope that the AAU’s special relationship with the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex will enable us to get our AAU Inline Hockey High School National Championships on ESPNU. That’s what we’re striving for. AAU conducts over 70 national championships at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in a given year. It’s been great that ESPNU has broadcasted some of these AAU National Championships at the Wide World of Sports Complex. Given the natural excitement of a great hockey competition, we believe that obtaining television for the scholastic high school championships is an achievable goal, one that we are well on our way to getting done. The wheels are already turning toward an effort to make this happen.
A LOOK INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL
We see a movement toward greater community acceptance and support for inline hockey. Popularity among young people has not waivered, only their opportunities which are limited by facility availability and the organization of affordable grassroots inline hockey programs. At Let’s Play Hockey, I talked to three men at the show who are building new facilities, an experience that I have not encountered for several years. So, here is yet another event that has us excited.
The National Hockey League’s Anaheim Ducks are getting behind inline hockey by investing in major inline hockey facilities in Corona and Huntington Beach, Calif. and are now associated with AAU. They are contemplating other locations and are interested in conveying their enthusiasms among their fellow NHL owners as they have found that inline hockey families buy season tickets to NHL games. I think that we have the beginning of a relationship with the NHL that will be very positive for the development of inline hockey throughout the country, one that can perhaps provide the needed facility investment and support needed for player development. There will be additional conversations with other NHL programs around the country.
WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS OPEN DOORS FOR INLINE HOCKEY
Richard Graham of Inline Hockey Central told me at the Expo that he felt that FIRS, the International Roller Sports Federation has dropped the ball in many ways over the years; he said that it’s almost impossible to get information from them, and they’re not very accessible. I explained to Richard that he has misjudged the structure of FIRS. It is true that FIRS headquarters in Rome has done little for inline hockey in recent years, for that matter for any of its disciplines other than inline speed skating for which it seeks program entry into the Olympic Games. That does not mean that inline hockey has been floating pilotless. Each discipline of FIRS, of which inline hockey is the newest, elects its own officers, seeks its own funding, manages its own World Championship events and promotes its own expansion into nations around the world. This is a most difficult task without gobs of money to cover promotion expenses, and recently made worse by the accelerating cost of airline transportation and the plunge in value of the USA dollar. But, there has indeed been progress, pushed forwarded by CIRILH President George Pickard and now by its new president, Frenchman Gilbert Portier. I have been elected to the Inline Hockey Committee to represent the United States in place of George Pickard.
In 1995 the United States hosted the first ever World Inline Hockey Championship for men in Chicago, organized by USARS under FIRS and CIRILH has done so every year since, using national venues around the world. FIRS Women’s World Championships were begun in 2002 in Rochester, N.Y. and this year CIRILH has finally involved female participants at our World Championships from all five of the Olympic continents, symbolized by the IOC five-ring logo representing Africa, Americas, Europe, Asia and Oceania.
CIRILH has conducted a Junior Men World Cup nearly every year, beginning from the second year of our international organization as a sport. Last year, for the first time out of USA, CIRILH established the first official FIRS Junior Men World Inline Hockey Championship, with Germany acting as host. Last summer in Philadelphia, ten teams vied in the second such Junior World Championship, with USA being runner-up as Great Britain won its first World Championship gold medal. There are 43 different countries that competed in FIRS World Inline Hockey Championships over the past 14 years. This is an enviable record for what is essentially a new sport, except we all have regrets that because of money considerations, never more than 20 countries at any one time appeared at a specific World Championship.
The CIRILH inline program under FIRS is recognized by every major international multisport agency associated with the International Olympic Committee as the unique world patron for inline hockey, and the only such organization contributing significantly to inline hockey’s world wide development. There is significant growth in the number of countries in Asia that play inline hockey and the Asia Olympic Committee has agreed to consider inline hockey as one of the roller sports to be added to the Asian Games. Should this happen, it will encourage more Asian nations to take interest in our sport. We still aspire for greater growth in Africa and in Northern and Eastern Europe, areas that contain substantial related ice hockey interest. All should try to help us with this achievement. In so doing, we greatly add to the respect and support for our sport within the Olympic community. This is our sport, yours and mine, and we must do all we can to make it even greater.