Inline hockey club heads to Nationals again

Inline hockey club heads to Nationals again

Inline hockey club heads to Nationals again
April 02
00:06 2015

Alex Lessard / Staff Writer

In south Louisiana, there weren’t many opportunities for Brandon and Brady Stafford to do something they loved side by side. But growing up, the brothers found a unique passion watching minor league ice hockey in a region where football was everything.

As the years passed by, roller hockey began to gain popularity. It provided an opportunity for ice hockey players to get more practice in the offseason, and gave others a chance to try something different. For Brandon and Brady, the sport quickly became a large part of their lives. After Brandon joined the North Texas Inline Hockey Club in 2011, the possibility of playing alongside his brother was real.

“On all the travel teams we played for growing up, we never really were in the same age bracket,” Brandon said. “It’s created a unique experience. Even though we’re four years apart, we’re still able to play on the same team.”

Brandon, 29, graduated last fall with a bachelor’s degree in behavior analysis. He is in his second season as team president and is the team’s starting goalie. Since the season started last fall, Brandon is able to finish out the entire season even though he has graduated.  Brady, 25, is a biology senior and plays forward. Brady said the opportunity to play with his brother combined with the affordable tuition and academic prowess of North Texas made his decision to transfer to UNT from Baylor University in the fall of 2012 an easy one.

“[Brandon] showed me the ropes in the driveway and showed me how to shoot, just the basics,” Brady said. “From there, the rest is history.”

The club is in the Southwest Collegiate Hockey League, which is regulated by the National Collegiate Roller Hockey Association. The SCHL has four divisions, and North Texas has teams in both Division I and Division III, because of their size. The main difference is the level of competition between the two teams.

Each team has made history once this season after finishing with 13-6 and 12-4 records respectively. Both received bids to the NCRHA National Championships, which will take place April 8-12 in Independence, Missouri.

The D-I team is the only roller hockey program in the state to receive a bid to Nationals, and has done so seven years in a row. The D-III team has received the same honor five years over that span. However, neither team has won a national championship.

“We’re very competitive on a national level,” Brandon said. “We just haven’t gotten over that hump getting into the single-elimination playoff games.”

The club practices once a week at Lonestar Indoor Sports in Denton, about a 10 minute drive from campus. Brandon said having a local rink is a major recruiting tool, and some schools have had to shut down their roller hockey programs because they had nowhere to practice.

“When people find out that there’s a hockey team and the rink is in their backyard, it’s very easy to recruit and keep people playing,” Brandon said.

The team finds most of its talent in the Dallas area and recruits in a variety of different ways, including youth camps, restaurant fundraisers and posters in the Pohl Recreation Center. Some of its roster is comprised of ice hockey players looking for extra practice in the offseason, while others had limited to no experience before coming to North Texas.

Forward and kinesiology junior Jerrod Hughey is in his third season with the D-III team, but never played roller or ice hockey before trying it out his freshman year.

“When I got here, my skating was pretty bad,” Hughey said. “But we practice once a week, and throughout the entire year, you have to improve.”

Roller hockey is played with a plastic puck on a sports-court surface designed to look and feel like an ice hockey rink. Compared to ice hockey, roller hockey is much less physical, and is played four-on-four to give smaller rinks more playing space and encourage higher scores.

Although North Texas has the luxury of the largest roller hockey rink in Texas, the courts at Nationals are the size of an ice hockey rink, making the transition to higher competition tough for newer players.

“Here, we’re at a disadvantage because we’re playing at smaller courts,” Brandon said. “When we get to Nationals, it’s like playing in a pasture. It’s huge.”

Throughout the season, friends and family come out to all the games they can to support the club. With inspiration from the Dallas Stars and the large DFW market, roller hockey may continue its rise in popularity.

“Every game is exciting, whether we’re favored to win or favored to lose,” Brady said. “We’re out there skating our hardest with our buddies supporting us.”

First-year head coach and former North Texas roller hockey player Jerid Nemergut said Nationals will be a good challenge for both teams, as only seven of 24 players are returning members from last season.

“Any time you switch the chemistry, you don’t know what you got when you go to Nationals,” Nemergut said.

North Texas has seen success in the past early on in Nationals, but has never won a game in the final portion of the tournament. However, Nemergut said the team has risen back up to the level of play he remembers from his days as a player in the early 2000s.

“It’s been a hot bed, and it looks like it will stay that way,” Nemergut said. “There’s nothing indicating that next season is going to be any different.”

Featured Image: The UNT inline hockey team pose with their Southwest Collegiate Hockey League championship trophy last season. The team has won the championship five years in a row. Photo courtesy of the team’s Facebook

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