It’s about beach hockey. Even the name itself does not give peace, and the words do not sound as if they belong together. But for three seasons, from 1998 to 2000, Pro Beach Hockey (PBH) was very real and it was great.
Twenty years ago, the last time the innovative singles hockey league surpassed the beach in Huntington, California. By today’s standards, it may be a small relic, but it is easily one of the most unique touchstones of pop hockey culture ever seen.
Don’t you remember the scooter competition with the gadgets? He had everything. Two big ramps behind each target. Two-point arch for remote notched heads. Playing music tapes during the game. Great personalities follow each other on the square. The Laker Girls appear on the sidelines. The barn pipes spread out the stands. It was a show made for television where real hockey players played live on ESPN and ESPN2 for real money. And it was the perfect time capsule from the late ’90s.
How did professional beach hockey come about and what makes it so special – and different from anything the hockey world has ever known? We are looking at one of the most exciting ice hockey leagues in history, with understanding for those who made it and for those who have sewn ice skating into the lineup of the six teams every weekend.
Birth of RBN
In the mid-1990s, online hockey was one of the fastest growing sports in America and had an audience especially in the summer months of the sports calendar. Roller Hockey International (RHI) enjoyed early success as a professional hockey league, selling a respectable number of tickets in NHL arenas during the summer months and finding matches on ESPN. There was the World Roller Hockey League (WRHL), founded by David McLean in 1993 and also broadcast on ESPN.
But when those leagues disappeared, McLean saw an opportunity to do his thing. Besides WRHL, he also created the iconic G.L.O.W. (Magnificent Wrestling Ladies) program and worked in the marketing department of RHI for five years. He had a great understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
It was a journey of eight or ten years from conception until a Beverly Hills kid played in his driveway with a ball, built-in skates and a hockey stick hitting the garage door, McLean said. I said: We can create something new here.
So when he had a chance to try something different, McLean wanted to be bigger, stronger and wilder.
Unlike previous professional roller skating competitions, the beach version used a bright yellow ball and small playing fields instead of plastic discs and NHL-sized surfaces. This accelerated the game and the yellow ball hit the black sports field. After the first draw there were no insinuations, allowing a freer game with fewer interruptions. And although the struggle and physical activity were not clearly exciting, they were not discouraged.
However, two of the biggest innovations in gaming were the two-point arch and the slopes. Players could shoot from the outside of the bow and score for a bonus point, like a three-point bow in basketball. And in each endzone behind the net there were two large slopes that could be used in many different ways, giving the PBH more rollover vibrations. It was the X games and the hockey games.
Six teams – Heavy Metal, Gargoyles, Xpress, Salsa, Dawg Pac and Web Warriors – were at the centre of the league. When he was responsible for marketing at Roller Hockey International, McLane found that the team owners had the opportunity to adjust their strategy to better position the competition in terms of popularity. He learned his lesson and by owning PBH teams McLane was able to creatively steer the casting process of the team as he wanted.
Creating an action bar
When David McLean told me about the concept – the guys on the slopes, the bands playing loud music – I thought about it: Cool, whatever it takes, Mike Butters said.
Butters was one of the first calls from McLean and Chris McSorley to McLean to help find players. McSorley has coached the RHI Anaheim Bullfrogs after a long career in youth hockey. His brother, Marty, a former NHL player, would become PBH’s first colour commentator. McSorley had connections to find players who were willing to try out the revolutionary league.
I’m not your average purist, said Butters, an actor who played for the Bullfrogs and the Los Angeles Blades in RHI. There’s no negative result on my side. I was at the end of my hockey career, so I was just worried about keeping up with the little kids.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Chris McSorley helped David McLean find players for Eric Lafarge Professional Beach Hockey/Champions League of Getty Images.
McLean wanted the players to have talent and personality. He wanted them to help sell the competition. So Chris Nelson was another early caller.
Nelson was probably the face of hockey back then. He played in the World Championships streaming and was an RHI star. If there was a live hockey ad or commercial, Nelson would almost certainly be there. After winning the National Hockey Championship at the University of Wisconsin and receiving a design from the New Jersey Devils in 1988, he enjoyed a solid professional career on ice and stepped into hockey to stay fit in the off-season. But it turned out that online hockey could take him further than a hockey career.
A group of us, who were among the best hockey players in the world, immediately signed up. I had a market identity and I did some TV shows like Malibu Rescue. I was also a big guy who could skate like the wind and strike like a freight train, Nelson said. You said it yourself: You play beach hockey on national television with the cheerleaders of the Lakers. Do you mind? And that’s me: Uh, yeah! I didn’t even ask how much they’d pay me.
Nelson has also proven to be a valuable recruiter. He brought your Vedomanski, who played professional hockey as a minor for 10 years and was Nelson’s teammate on the Jeanie Bass Los Angeles Lesvues RHI team. Yours is the son of Hockey Hall of Fame forward Wenzel Nedomanski.
Many said they wouldn’t, but I was always ready for the challenge, said Nedomansky, who lived in Los Angeles and started a career he had dreamed of since he was twelve: Cinema. There were only a dozen guys on the team, so there were actually a lot of guys who wanted to play and didn’t stand a chance.
It wasn’t just a matter of recruiting talent from previous editions of the competition. In fact, McLean would drive to local roller hockey games near the beaches of California to look for talented players. He literally signed up with street boys to play professional roller skates. And, as Butters pointed out, some of them were extremely talented. The players in each formation were of different ages and had different playing experiences.
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The fun was also part of the work. The identity of the players was at the centre of the show and they had the opportunity to show themselves from different angles outside hockey. Goalkeeper Rick Plester, who also played in a heavy metal band in those days, played the national anthem on his electric guitar… …in the complete goalkeeper’s kit. Nedomansky did the same in his game form. Butters has shot dozens of vignettes as a fictional icon of Fasty LaShaft hockey, a character he invented with old hockey friends who tried to get to know each other through mythical stories from the past. Butters eventually became a colorful league commentator and pinning players during matches on the court.
Interviewing on the ice was one of the ways players could be themselves. Whether it’s a model shot by Tiffany Richardson or one of the color commentators, the interviews were less about the game and more about the players. In one of the few YouTube videos from the salsa era, salsa player Ray Matz was asked to have his false teeth removed to prove that he is a hockey player to whom he owes a distinctive toothless smile. There was very little room for clinical response in BPH.
But although there are many deliberately stupid elements in the competition, the players are always opponents and there is an incentive to win. (Players were paid for each game, but the winners got more money, and at the end of the season, the champion got a bonus).
Nothing was invented, the fights were real, the punches were real, the mess was real. But there were no hard feelings after the game, Butters said. Some people thought it was all staged, but it was 100% real. All the emotions were there.
The first year in the league was a trial period, or as Butters said, free.
It’s very similar to the way we made our own rules for street hockey when we were kids, he says.
In the beginning, the biggest task was probably to encourage players who only played traditional ice hockey to use slopes. For the beach hockey professionals it was a great success, and the competition used Ramp it up! even as their slogan. But the players fought with them in the first season.
The excitement and novelty of his ramp was so innovative, heavy metal specialist Captain Nedomansky said in PBH’s first season. But we looked at it and we thought: What the hell is this? What are you doing in the driveway?
Fault! The file name is not specified. If you were standing on the ramp and hadn’t skateboarded before, you didn’t know what to do, you remember Vedomansky. Professional beach hockey players had to train on slopes, like a player does here. Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times about Getty Images
One day David came up to me and asked me why the boys didn’t use the slopes, Butters remembers. So I suggested he just changed the rules, and he did. We changed the rules halfway through the week after the first weekend of the season.
To encourage players to use the ramps, the league has introduced a rule that the game continues on the ramps after every goal and players are obliged to start playing at least on the ramps. Players still seldom used slopes to gain speed, but over time players started thinking about ways to use them strategically.
The intellect of hockey players, who learn quickly, will find something cool, said Vedomansky. But it was scary. Hockey players, we’re used to being crushed. When you get on the ramp and you’ve never skateboarded before, you didn’t know what to do. It was fun, but if a man didn’t know what he was doing and got caught, you could push him into a corner.
The slopes have also become a valuable instrument for committing crimes. Nelson remembers one of the innovations he brought into play.
Just take the ball, roll it behind the net and shoot it down the slope and [corner glass] and it jumps right in front of the goalkeeper and the guy in front can beat it, he said.
Problems related to Beach Ice Hockey
Many unique things in the competition have also caused problems. First of all, the heat was a problem for the players.
The first year it was easy because you played two games a day. We played three games a day for the second and third year and it was exhausting, Nelson said. You’re standing there on a black surface and the heat’s bouncing off, so you’re sweating from the bullets.
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Several times Nedomansky remembered where the heat was so intense that the glue that held the sports field to the balustrades melted so strongly that it collapsed on the wall. If a player has stumbled on a slope, there is a good chance that he or she will have to skin before returning to the game.
Playing at the beach wasn’t easy either. It was impossible to prevent the sand from flowing onto the playing field – and sand doesn’t mix well with players on wheels. Any liquid on the surface also creates a stained environment.
Then there were the players’ dressing rooms. They were under the bleachers, where beach people swimming in flip-flops could come and go to their heart’s content. If there had been another game, the fans would have been trampled and cheered from above, but the noise wasn’t the worst.
All this time nothing had been poured out of the stands except sand, a penny and booze, Vedomansky said. There was no air circulation, it was about 110 degrees below zero. I think all the teams have dressed in two large rooms and it rained on the sand all weekend. So the equipment had to be cleaned constantly, the wheels had to be cleaned – everything had to be cleaned constantly. The only thing they probably didn’t understand was that they were smarter than sitting in the bleachers.
Hollywood ice hockey
In Pro Beach Hockey, some players from the thriving hockey community in Southern California have been involved in the film industry. Hollywood is always dotted with former PBH alumni. One of the biggest names is Oren Coles, one of the producers of Saw franchise films.
Coles was a talented manager and film producer when Pro Beach Hockey began. He played in VHL and a few small pros, but was suspended from hockey for about 15 years, although he continued to skate regularly and during the summer months often shared the ice with some of the Los Angeles Kings players, such as Marty McSorley and Wayne Gretzky. When he saw the first season of PBH, he had to intervene, even though he was more than 30 years old at the time.
Fault! The file name is not specified. As a three-point shooter in basketball, I almost always went far and followed those two-point goals, remembers Oren Coules. Bruce Bennett/Getty pictures
The man they played with [former Anaheim Ducks TV host Chris Madsen], you could hear him in passing and he was always talking: Oren Coles is the oldest player in the league, and that’s me: Shut the fuck up! Coles said it with a smile.
He had a big hump and used it a lot. Pro Beach Hockey reduced its sponsorship with a skating company that produced integrated inverted roller skates to more accurately simulate the ability to start and stop on the skates. It wasn’t easy for most players and Coles said they really contributed to his style of play.
It was so hard for her to skate that you apologized all the time for running into guys because you weren’t trying to be an idiot, he said. So I couldn’t walk into things, but I could shoot. That’s why, as a three-point basketball player, I almost always played far and scored those two points.
But Cole’s biggest success wasn’t on the ice. He produced his first film, ma’am. Winterbourne, three years before joining PBH, continued to produce the entire Saw franchise with the comedy series Two and a Half Men. But Cole’s always around the hockey game. For a while, he was co-owner of the Helena Bighorns of the North American Hockey League and even co-owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning for two seasons before Jeffrey Vinick bought the team in 2010.
Hollywood has had more Hollywood crossover for the actors and actresses of PBH. Butters, who now lives in Seattle where he buys and sells jewelry, has actually joined Coles as an actor on the set of the film Saw. Although he collected a fairly extensive IMDb site, he stayed close to hockey for many years, was a professional scout for three seasons and joined Coles as co-owner of the Bighorns.
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Among the films, Nedomansky became a director who worked on the films Deadpool and Sharknado 2. He is currently producing and editing a documentary called Big Ned about his father, the first hockey player to leave the communist country to play in the NHL. And Nelson’s background in hockey makes him a particularly valuable asset when it comes to films that stuntmen or technical advisors need. One of his biggest successes was a performance of one of Mr. Freeze’s flunkies at Batman & Robin, which was also attended by some friends of Nelson’s PBH. He also worked on the film Miracle and is currently involved in the production of the upcoming hockey film The Warrior’s Way, which will be shot in Iron Ridge, Minnesota.
The founder of PBH, McLean, is still active as a developer and producer. He has developed several other TV objects, recently a promotion for female wrestling.
After three seasons, beach hockey has disappeared. While there were some successes in the standings – McLean said there were even a few NHL play-off games where PBH fell out of the standings – the online industry as a whole started to weaken at the end of season three. In the end, the league did not manage to get the fourth season on television, which in fact ended the competition. Beach hockey burns bright, but it burns fast.
But it didn’t fade into the memories of the players and people who discovered their games at any time of the day.
I get phone calls, text messages, emails, Facebook and instagrams from people who talk every day: I grew up watching you play professional hockey on the beach, said Nelson, who actually remembers the San Jose Sharks calling him out of the locker room and telling him that they thought the PBH was fantastic. I knew it was important, but I didn’t think it would last forever. I really saw it coming.
I can’t tell you how many people have approached me who have known me since beach hockey, Vedomansky said. It’s crazy, 20 years later people remember the three seasons we were in and they only remember that moment in time. Think about it – Huntington Beach, Pacific, hockey, bikini, heavy metal music. It’s just a crazy combination.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Pro Beachhockey had strong music, bright colors and a strong personality. Al Cockroaches/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
For Cole, a professional beach hockey game allowed his son to watch him play. Miles, who was only 5 and 6 years old when his father made two attempts to score, continued playing hockey in the junior league and reached the level of the American Hockey League.
I brought Miles. It was about an hour from our house. He was just sitting in the bleachers, and all the boys knew him, Coles said. So he didn’t play hockey, and I think that’s what made him play hockey – just to be with all these guys. He just loved the atmosphere and soon after he started skating.
Competitions like Pro Beach Hockey just don’t exist anymore. The IIHF World Championship, which started in 1996, was interrupted in 2017. The first roller skating devil competition was played from 1998 to 2012, but was never blocked. The Professional Online Hockey Association is 18 years old, but has not yet paid attention to the intrigues of the PBH. McLean regrets the lack of creativity and willingness to take risks.
But while we may not see something like Fasty LaShaft anymore, the legend of professional beach hockey only continues to grow in its absence. It will always be a special moment for the players.
The other day I got a message that someone wanted to buy my pro beach hockey shirts and I said no, Nelson said. I could have had two kopecks in my name and I still didn’t want to sell those t-shirts because it was so important, so funny and so unforgettable for me at that moment in my life.
I’ve forgotten a lot of things in my life, but beach hockey is something I will never, ever forget.
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