Ice or Cement, a Love of the Game

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Ice or Cement, a Love of the Game

In-Line Roller Hockey Booms Among Koreans and Expats

Almost two years ago, Lee Byong-hyuk talked Dayle Stoliker into joining the 99ers, an in-line roller hockey team composed of complete beginners. After months of determined practice, passion and accumulated bruises, the 99ers took the Korean national championship a month ago. Now the team is about to lose its goalie, Mr. Stoliker, who is getting ready to move to New Zealand in less than two months.

Last Saturday the Canadian put off preparations for his move to hail a taxi and lug a 14-kilogram bag of gear to practice. "They've been the greatest guys," Mr. Stoliker said about his 15 teammates. "I'll always be a member of this team."

At an outdoor rink, part of a sports facility called Espopia in Apkujong-dong, practice usually consists of warming up, drilling with a coach who plays ice hockey, and scrimmaging against an ad hoc team of Koreans and expatriates. In-line hockey has been taking off in Korea, according to Mr. Stoliker.

Most of the 99ers are in their mid-20s. The exception is Mr. Stoliker, who at 36 calls himself the "grandfather of the team." The team is composed of Koreans and other nationalities.

In-line hockey is a young sport patterned after ice hockey, but instead of ice skates, players wear in-line roller blades, and five players instead of six form the starting lineup. Games are divided into three 20-minute periods.

The three most common shots are the slap shot, snap shot and wrist shot. The slap shot is the most powerful and the snap shot is the fastest as it takes just a flick of the wrist. In the slower wrist shot, the player follows through with the wrist.

It took Mr. Stoliker some time to ready himself for the rink. First he fitted a skullcap over his shaved head. Then he donned thigh-high goalie pads, roller blades, shoulder pads, gloves - the "trapper" on his left and "blocker" on his right - a jersey and finally a helmet. The rather menacing-looking result, standing 178 centimeters tall without the roller blades, left the benches for a spin around the rink.

From the sidelines, Don Ahn, Canadian co-captain of the 99ers, said about Mr. Stoliker, "He's an anchor. He's the reason everyone tried to win the tournament."

The latest biannual tournament was held on the first weekend of October. The 99ers went in with one agenda: to win. They won all five games, including a shutout game against Chaos, a team from Inchon, in the championship match.

But the most memorable game, according to many 99ers, was the semifinal against the Red Spins from Taegu. The 99ers were ahead 2-0 when Harry Ahn, whom Don Ahn calls "our best player," got into a scuffle with a Red Spins player.

Unlike ice hockey, in-line hockey is a non-contact sport. At most, a player can pin another onto the boards. Tripping is also a punishable offense. Though players sometimes look the other way, the referee spotted the foul and expelled Harry Ahn from the game.

The Red Spins took charge in the next period and leveled the score at 3-3. At that moment, the 99ers were downcast, according to Don Ahn, especially because they had lost to the Red Spins in the finals the year before. But a forward, June Na, saved the day, scoring the winning point with a wrist shot that slipped between the Red Spins goalie's right shoulder and the post.

After winning the tournament, Mr. Stoliker posted this message on the team community board: "It's about time boys. We've been a great team for a long time and now we are number one. Finally. To everyone, I want you to know you guys really came through for me this time, I share that shutout with the whole team."

Mr. Stoliker's first started playing in-line hockey after he moved to Korea to teach English. He answered a newspaper ad in the spring of 1998 looking for people interested in in-line hockey. "I hadn't skated in years," said Mr. Stoliker, who played ice hockey as a youth, "but I got hooked as soon as I played in-line." He says he's now better on roller blades than he is on ice.

He began playing in-line hockey in Yoido, then Olympic Park, where he saw a "serious" in-line hockey team, BHS, and met Lee Byong-hyuk, the founder of the 99ers.

"We became friends, and I wanted him on my team," Mr. Lee said.

When the original 99ers came together in March 1999, there were three other in-line hockey teams in Korea, Mr. Lee said. The 30 teams that participated in the recent tournament, which was backed by the newly formed Korea In-line Hockey Association, are evidence of the sport's booming popularity.

"Koreans are getting better and new teams spring up all the time," Don Ahn said.

Mr. Stoliker's contribution to the rise of the 99ers - and to the growth of in-line hockey in Korea - was spurred because he relished a challenge. He joined the 99ers in May 1999 with the intention of beating BHS. "Nobody could beat them," Mr. Stoliker said. "They were so good."

The first 99ers were new to in-line hockey. In the beginning, it wasn't uncommon for Mr. Stoliker to think, "He can't shoot, he can't play," about another teammate. "But love of the game elevated their play," he said. A lot of those same people are now taking on players who once seemed beyond reach, he said.

The 99ers began practicing on paved ground in Yoido. They've also played on parking lots in the past.

"Everyone was such a fanatic about in-line," Mr. Stoliker recalled. "Even if it snowed a bit, we'd shovel it off and play."

Due to military conscription of younger Korean players, teammates came and went, but a core group remained. "The players who stayed have a real hockey mania," Mr. Lee said. The 99ers never died, and eventually they found a more permanent home base in Apkujung-dong, a coach, and even some players to practice with and compete against.

Initially, Mr. Stoliker was not a goaltender. It was a position no one wanted; most players want to score. "The goalie is the most underdeveloped position in Korea," Mr. Stoliker said, emphasizing that it is just as important as strategy and defense.

Also, goaltending equipment is expensive and difficult to find in Korea. When Mr. Stoliker first started playing, goalies did not wear face mask or gloves. "I suspect they were a little afraid of the puck," he said, adding, "Usually the goalie is the guy who can't play."

Mr. Stoliker finally stepped up and volunteered himself as goalie. "I thought I'd play wherever I could to help the team," he said. He also figured that the goalie gets the most playing time and is able to control the game. The goalie has a good view of all the action. At practice, Mr. Stoliker functions as a coach and an extra set of eyes. From the net, he shouts, "Man up front! Center it!" or "Chase it, chase it!"

Whether he's understood by the native Korean players is debatable. "They know something is happening because I start yelling like crazy," Mr. Stoliker said.

He has been recruiting expatriates for scrimmages. "They're tough competition and it's a good recruiting method," he explained. They also share the pay-to-play expenses at the Apkujong-dong rink. While the expatriates are most often Canadians who have been playing ice hockey since childhood, new players - both Korean and foreign, and both men and women - are welcome.

The 99ers finally beat BHS 6-2 this August during a Seoul tournament. "Don turned to me and said, 'That one was for you,'" Mr. Stoliker recalled.

Mr. Stoliker says that watching the 99ers improve, beat BHS, and then go on to win the national tournament, went beyond his wildest dreams. Coming out of the national tournament victorious, the 99ers received a trophy that read, "Greatest Champions in the League." Each player gets custody of the trophy for a week, starting with the captain. "I couldn't wait to get my hands on it," said Mr. Stoliker, who was second in line.

His next ambition is to attain the best goals-against average in an in-line hockey league and even take some time out from the net to score a couple of goals.

He'll be taking his equipment to New Zealand, where he has contacted another underdog team, the Red Backs. "They're not really good," Mr. Stoliker admitted. "I don't feel I'm a really good player, but I like to build up a team. It's always something to see a weaker team knock off the Goliath."

by Joe Yong-hee

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