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Hockey on Wheels 

An Evening at the Pavilion With Your Chicago Cheetahs

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In the late 70s my father used to take my friends and me to see the Phoenix Inferno, our local Major Indoor Soccer League team. The game was perfect for bored eight-year-olds: even though there was nothing at stake, we didn't understand the rules, and all the teams looked and played alike, it was fun to watch. Unlike professional baseball or football, where franchises had decades of tradition and rivalry to elevate their status, indoor soccer had the atmosphere of a bad traveling carnival. MISL games were played indoors, on artificial turf, behind a plastic barrier. The uniforms were bright and silly, the quality of play fairly shoddy. Players came and went and didn't inspire much loyalty.

The Inferno had a player named Cha Cha, which my friends and I found very amusing. There was a guy we nicknamed "Afooshi," for no other reason than that we enjoyed screaming "Afooshi! Afooshi!" whenever he got the ball. Then there was our favorite player, John McDermott, whom we nicknamed "Dermie," which was even more fun to scream than "Afooshi!" During MISL games our dads let us do whatever we wanted; it was the perfect league for kids because adults didn't care about it at all.

I thought about the MISL last week when I went to see a professional roller hockey game. My home team, the Chicago Cheetahs, played the Buffalo Stampede, who were currently leading the Atlantic Division of Roller Hockey International, North America's in-line hockey league. Chicago was in third place in the Central Division, behind the Minnesota Arctic Blast and the Pittsburgh Phantoms. Both Chicago and Buffalo were poised for the playoffs, and this was the first-ever game between the two teams.

This is the Cheetahs' inaugural season. They play at the UIC Pavilion, which seats 9,000. Only a few hundred seats were filled when I was there, and 90 percent of the crowd appeared to be under ten years old. I chose a seat in front of a row of kids. They were all blond, with freckles and crew cuts.

The lights dimmed and the announcer introduced the Buffalo players, who skated onto the court. Their jerseys were adorned with a picture of a snorting bison. A faint boo drifted across the court, but the stadium was mostly silent. Then, over the loudspeakers, came the sound of thunder, two booms, followed by a loud, catlike roar. Music blared while the announcer introduced the Cheetahs, who wore home white with multicolored trimmings. In the program the team's colors were listed as "desert orange, butterscotch, tan, and black."

A boy sitting in front of me turned to his father. "Dad, dad," he said. "Who are we playing tonight?"

"Um," the dad said, looking at his ticket. "It looks like Buffalo." Some of the other teams the Cheetahs face include the Atlanta Fire Ants, the New Jersey Rockin Rollers, and the Tampa Bay Tritons, whose colors are listed as "jade and eggplant." Then there are the Sacramento River Rats, the Vancouver VooDoo, and the San Diego Barracudas, whose colors are "purple, teal, light teal, yellow, and fuchsia."

The Cheetahs' theme song began to play, to very bad heavy-metal music that sounded like it was written by a band from the western suburbs. The lyrics went:

Wo-oh-oh-oh

Cheetah! See spots run

Wo-oh-oh-oh

Cheetah! See spots run

You might catch a plane

You might catch a freight

But you can't catch a Cheetah

Wearin' in-line skates

Later in the song, a bridge went:

Cheetahs

Are breakin' all the laws

Baby

It's the fastest game on claws

The teams skated to the center of the court and the announcer said, "Will the Buffalo Stampede bus driver please report to the announcer's booth?" As he repeated his question, the game began. The action was blurry and hard to follow, but it quickly became apparent that it would contain no defense.

In the first minute each team had two shots on goal. Then, two minutes into the first quarter, the Cheetahs were penalized for having too many players on the court. (Apparently substitutions weren't something they'd been practicing that week.) When Buffalo scored 20 seconds into the power play a roar burst over the loudspeaker, as well as the opening riffs of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The teams whipped back and forth across the court, taking shots, it seemed like, every 30 seconds or so. Finally, seven minutes and 22 seconds into the first quarter, the Cheetahs scored.

It was a solo breakaway shot by Jeff Rohlicek, who was coming off a game against the New England Stingers where he'd scored six goals and picked up three assists. The Cheetahs had won that one 13-8. I flipped through the season's scoresheet: 11-6, 10-8, 12-10, 13-10, 15-11, 11-8. One game, with a score of 4-3, looked very out of place.

About a minute later Al Secord, who is 36 and played eight seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, picked up a goal, putting the Cheetahs up 2-1. Other Cheetahs include Ladislau Tresl, a Czech who, according to the program, "rides a Harley Heritage Classic"; medical student Tony Seibel; and Robert Wallwork, who "went over Niagara Falls in a barrel." Most players have some professional hockey experience.

After a quick face-off Buffalo just missed a goal, and the Cheetahs skated back down court, just missing their own goal. "That isn't ice!" a kid behind me screamed. "That is some other substance!" The Cheetahs' theme song boomed from the loudspeakers.

Thirty-seven seconds into the second quarter, Buffalo scored again. Then, after a long injury time-out, they pushed in another one. "Aw," said a kid behind me. "I think the Cheetahs stink now."

The ten blond kids ran down to the front row, where they pressed their noses against the Plexiglas. Two players crashed against the boards and the kids jumped back. One kid ran up the stadium steps, waving his arms. "Dad, did you see that?" he said. "The players must really like us." Meanwhile Buffalo scored again.

The kid's dad turned around. "Are there four periods?" he asked me.

"I guess so," I said. "That's what it says in the program."

"I don't understand this game at all," he said.

Roller Hockey International was founded by Larry King and Dennis Murphy, two Los Angeles businessmen who had previously started the World Hockey Association and World Team Tennis. After an initial exhibition tour of the west coast in 1992, RHI became a 12-team league in 1993, with each team playing 14 games. The Anaheim Bullfrogs were RHI's first champions, beating the Oakland Skates in a two-game playoff series. This year, 24 teams are playing 22 games apiece. RHI games are played in regulation-sized hockey rinks, on cement or a plastic surface called "Sport Court." There are five players per side, one less than in ice hockey, and there's no offside penalty. Games are divided into four 12-minute periods.

At halftime of the Chicago-Buffalo game a bunch of kids lined the railing, waiting to slap the Cheetahs' hands as they came back from the locker room.

"How many games have you been to?" I asked one.

"I've got season tickets."

"How did you get them?"

"I got them from Mike."

"Who's Mike?"

"Mike. He works in the score box."

Buffalo scored 42 seconds into the second half, making it 5-2. "Buffalo's awesome. I hate the Cheetahs," one kid said, but he cheered exactly one minute later as the Cheetahs made it 5-3.

Meanwhile, on the court, a Cheetah player's stick broke, but rather than replace the stick or bring in a new player, the coach elected to leave him on the court without a stick. The player skated around, pushing over various members of the Stampede, but Buffalo scored nevertheless, making it 6-3.

Suddenly in the stands appeared a short, buck-toothed, slanty-eyed cat. This was Charlie Cheetah, the team's mascot, who shook hands with some kids for about five minutes and then disappeared down a tunnel. He was not seen again. As the third quarter ended, Buffalo was up 7-5.

At the start of the fourth quarter, after a brief scuffle, the Cheetahs' Al Secord and a Buffalo player headed to the penalty box. About a dozen kids ran up to Secord and began banging on the glass. "Come on, Al, come on Cheetah!" they shouted. "You've got to talk to us!" He watched the game instead.

"I wanna see goalie on goalie," someone yelled. Now the scoring really kicked in. Nevertheless, by the time the score reached 9-7 the crowd had begun to thin considerably, and those remaining were beginning to boo the Cheetahs. About two dozen little boys gathered in front of the Plexiglas and banged on it furiously. I followed them down, hoping for some action.

There were five minutes to go in the game when suddenly the Cheetahs skidded home two consecutive goals to tie the score. The kids jumped around, making a lot of noise, and I got excited too, giving them all high fives. I put my nose against the glass and immediately two players crashed the boards. It was my first taste of real hockey violence. I got thrown back into a seat, where a bunch of kids pounced on me.

Then two of them started showing off, picking up a friend of theirs and carrying him on their shoulders, chanting, "Cheetahs, Cheetahs, pumpkin eat-ahs!"

"Is Buffalo ahead?" one kid asked me.

"No," I said, "the score is tied."

They pointed to another friend of theirs. "He likes Buffalo. He likes Buffalo. What a jerk. I think he likes their colors better." Then they dropped the kid they were carrying on the concrete. He hit his head and started to cry. As I helped him back to his seat, I heard the crowd groan; with only two minutes to play, Buffalo had scored again, making it 10-9. As I went back to my seat the crowd roared. The Cheetahs had also scored again. It was now 10-10.

No one scored for the last minute of regulation time, and we were treated to an overtime shoot-out. As the kids were whisked back to their seats by security guards, the announcer explained that each team would have five shots on goal, and if they were still tied there would be a sudden-death round.

"Where'd they get that rule from?" said the guy in front of me.

The first Buffalo shooter scored to resounding boos from the crowd. Then the first Cheetah shooter scored and everyone cheered. Incredibly, the next four shooters for both teams all missed, so it was on to sudden death. The first Buffalo shot was deflected, but the first Cheetah shooter nudged the puck in. The Cheetahs had won, 11-10. The crowd cheered very loudly, but some people seemed confused.

"Did we win, dad? Did we win?" said a kid to the guy in front of me.

The dad scratched his head. "I think so," he said.

"Wow," the kid said. "That was the best game I've ever seen! The Cheetahs rule!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ross F. Dettman.

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