Avs and Av-Nots

The furies of the National Hockey League -- 130-mile-an-hour slapshots, player salaries that would numb Bill Gates's checkbook, blood-streaked goons exchanging insults in French and Russian -- have once more drawn all of Denver under their spell. Since the Avs swept Vancouver, Cup craziness has spilled out of the sports sections and jock bars and seeped into kinder, gentler climes. Witness the sleek gallery owner crowing about Patrick Roy's impenetrability. Behold the librarian who suddenly wants to win it all for grizzled Ray Bourke.

But hockey is a vast realm, and you needn't search far for an alternative reality. While the battle-weary Avs were getting a breather before their second playoff round, another group of players, the Rocky Mountain Wolverines, were psyching up for a grudge match in Greeley against the Colorado Crush. Dressed in a dozen different getups bulging with pads and tape, the Wolverines were grinning and ragging on each other last Thursday night as they practiced under dim lights on the outdoor Hartmann Rink, west of Boulder. Team owner John Powers, a carpenter who manufactures furniture in his garage, was plotting where the team's next supply of gloves and sticks would come from. Their 33-year-old coach, Tim Hannen, who first laced up hockey skates in Buffalo, New York, at the age of three, was taking the night off from his regular job, driving a Zamboni at an ice rink, to get his boys up for the game of the year.

Beefy forward Kriss Regan, who fell for the game on the frozen ponds of La Crosse, Wisconsin, at age five, likely spoke for everyone: "Tell you what -- I work for a living, but hockey's my life."

The game the Wolverines play is roller hockey. It's slower than its ice-slick parent sport but high-scoring. It's played four on four on a plastic floor by guys wearing in-line roller skates, and its strategies unfold at a pace that enables you to actually see them. Instead of paying upwards of $100 per ticket, Wolverines fans -- all 200 of them -- get in for five bucks apiece. The home arena, the Bladium, is a converted airplane hangar at the abandoned Stapleton Airport.

It's a different world, all right. But this is hockey nonetheless, complete with bruising checks into the boards, dazzling passes and nimble stick-handling. The players are as gritty as Peter Forsberg. But until next season, at the earliest, the second coming of something called Major League Roller Hockey (MLRH) is not major-league at all: In fact, the players don't even get paid. They play for the love of the game. And for each other. And for the uncertain promise that some of them might one day earn a living from it. For now, the Wolverines are the league's defending champions: Last Labor Day weekend, they beat the Hampton Roads (Virginia) Destroyers in the MLRH title game in Buffalo. The venue? A little in-line rink called the Amherst Pepsi Center.

Wolverine Jason Anderson grew up in a Minneapolis suburb where, in winter, a fire truck always came around to freeze a vacant lot so the neighborhood kids could play hockey. Today he's a 28-year-old middle-school teacher who puts the in-line skates on four nights a week because he's addicted to the game and intends to keep playing "even when I'm sixty years old and have grandchildren." But Anderson's also praying that MLRH league president Bill Raue can finally turn a long-troubled sport into a going concern. "When you're five years old in Minnesota playing mite hockey," Anderson says, "it's your dream -- to be an adult, play hockey and take a paycheck home for it. That's why we went to those ponds."

Since 1991, three professional roller hockey leagues have come and gone (one enjoyed a season on ESPN), victims of clumsy management, lukewarm fan interest and occasional chicanery. Raue, who took a financial beating when the first pro version of MLRH collapsed in 1999, thinks he can do better this time. He points to the game's inherent entertainment value -- "it's wide-open, end-to-end, run-and-gun stuff" -- and a burgeoning player base. "Five or six years ago, we couldn't develop our own stars in roller hockey," he says. "But a lot of those kids who were watching back then with their noses pressed to the glass are now 21 years old and weigh 220 pounds. The product is better than ever."

A former Washington, D.C., advertising executive, Raue understands marketing, and he thinks the numbers add up: Hockey-equipment manufacturers, upon whom teams like the Wolverines depend for their generosity, tell him there are 2.9 million ice-hockey players in the country -- and 4 million roller- hockey players. "We have the players now," Raue says. "The trick is to build passion and fan loyalty and fan awareness."

This season's 22-team, semi-pro version of MLRH is trying to do just that. Suburban newspapers cover games, especially on the East Coast (where fifteen clubs are located), and the New Jersey Riot recently scored a major coup by signing retired Quebec Nordique Stephane Charbonneau and fellow ex-NHLer Rob MacInnis, brother of star St. Louis Blues defenseman Al MacInnis. If the league is to resume pro status in 2002, it will need more such shots in the arm.

"Orderly growth is better than chaotic growth," Raue says. "This sport already had plenty of chaos."

For now, the unpaid, sweat-stained worthies on the Wolverines are content to play for love -- and for the future of the game. Jason Anderson sows seeds by giving pucks and broken sticks to the curious seven- and eight-year-olds at rinkside. Player/coach Tim Hannen, 33, isn't sure roller hockey will ever arrive, but he teaches and promotes it as "a fantastic stepping- stone, a great way to develop skills." He coaches the Wolverines for nothing, between paid stints as an ice-rink supervisor, hockey-clinic coach and one of the comic characters that beat each other up between periods at Avalanche games.

Owner John Powers, who's also a player, quietly acknowledges that he took $20,000 out of his own pocket last year to keep the Wolverines rolling, but he forsees a time when what he calls "a workingman's league" is self-sustaining and wholly professional. As it is, he will pony up for the team's lone 2001 eastern road trip in late May. League president Raue praises him as one of "a new generation of owner-operators with a sense of how to run things, including small businesses." Guys like Powers, Raue says, "will never own the Denver Broncos, but they're the heart and soul of our league."

Will pro roller hockey catch on? "I think so," Jason Anderson says. "I hope so. But even if we can be the grassroots guys that get that started for players five or ten years down the road, then we can say we were part of something."

In the meantime, Bill Raue says the league's championship trophy -- the one the Wolverines took home last year -- now has a name. The beleaguered executive has dubbed it the Sheba Cup -- after his pet terrier. "I've had her for four or five years," Raue explains, "through good times and bad. Sheba's tough, and she's a survivor."

Just like the game itself.

For now, Pepe Aragon has the best job in horse racing. An exercise rider for trainer Bob Baffert, Aragon has the enviable task these misty Churchill Downs mornings of piloting Baffert's two entries for the 127th Kentucky Derby in their appointed workouts. The star of the stable, a huge chestnut colt called Point Given, is the appropriate early favorite for the May 5 race. He annihilated a talented field in April 7's Santa Anita Derby and looks to be in top form. His daddy, Thunder Gulch, won the Kentucky Derby in 1995.

But Baffert's "second" horse may be just as good. Congaree has had only four starts, but when this precocious son of Arazi scored a three-length win over 4-5 favorite Monarchos in New York's Wood Memorial April 14, Baffert seemed to put an east-west pincer move on the Run for the Roses. The result: Aragon has not one, but two Ferraris to toy with at dawn.

It's hard to bet against Baffert. He's won two of the last four Derbys (with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998), and his one-two punch this year looks like a natural play. Searching for the trifecta horse? Look at Balto Star. On paper he's bred to sprint, but he's won his last three route races, wire-to-wire, by an astonishing total of thirty lengths. Skeptics say the Arkansas Derby winner can't handle the added furlong in Louisville. We think he can.


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