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Hockey boys get their skates on

Roller hockey combines all the fast fun of skating and hockey in one exciting sport and can be played year round. So, will schools catch on? One coach is hopeful, writes Roddy Mackenzie

If coach Derek Blyth had his way, roller hockey would be played in every village, town and city in Scotland. He has done much to set the wheels in motion, despite the fact that the sport has no major sponsors, precious little support from local councils and no recognised governing body in Scotland (unlike England).

Getting a sport on to the school curriculum is not an easy matter, as Mr Blyth acknowledges, but there appears to be quite a lot of youth interest in roller hockey. His club, the Benarty Blackhawks of Fife, has been going for eight years and with 13 other clubs throughout Scotland (76 UK-wide), it is clearly more than a passing phase.

The Benarty club has teams at under-12, under-14, under-16, under-18, under-21 and senior level and has enjoyed considerable success at British level. It has been fortunate to be in the shadow of the Fife Flyers ice hockey team, which has generated much of the interest in playing hockey of one sort or another.

"A lot of it is word of mouth and players come to us, rather than us going into schools to find them," Mr Blyth says. "Players have to want to play the game."

Six Benarty Blackhawks - five at under-15 level and one at under-18 - will play for Great Britain in the World Junior In-Line Roller Hockey Championships and then the Junior Olympic Games in New Orleans from July 25 until August 4.

Mr Blyth's son Kyle (Beath High) is one of the players selected. The others named in the Great Britain under-16 team are Gary McLean (also Beath High), Peter Alder (Balwearie High), Blair Greig (St Andrew's High, Kirkcaldy) and Stuart Blake (formerly St Andrew's High). Blair's older brother Ross (also St Andrew's High) is included in the under-18 team.

Mr Blyth concedes that the considerable expense of making the trip to New Orleans is unlikely to be rewarded by any medals.

"I expect the teams to do very badly, to be frank. They will be playing against teams who have come out top in their state at under-16 and under-18 level and the standard will be very high," he says candidly.

"The Americans dominate the sport at youth level and it is only once you get to senior level that teams like Spain, Russia and the Czech Republic start to come into their own. It is very much a minority sport in Great Britain."

The Benarty Blackhawks' costs are mainly borne by the players' parents.

Fife Council gives grants of pound;200 to local players who make Scottish or Great Britain squads, but the trip is likely to cost each boy more than Pounds 1,200.

However, Mr Blyth says: "It is important to go to these events to see the level teams are at. You have to find out what you're aiming at, whether it is a Scottish team playing in the UK or a UK team going to the world championships."

The sport peaked in Scotland about four years ago, says Mr Blyth, and there has been some drop-off in player numbers at the grass-roots level. While the older age groups have been fairly stable, fewer are coming in at under-10 and under-12 level. "It's something we have to address."

Another problem, he says, is that it is the same small group of people doing most of the work in terms of officiating and coaching. "We need more volunteers coming in to help with matches."

Roller hockey is played in rollerskates or in-line skates between teams of five players, including a goalkeeper, on most hard surfaces, either with a puck (on smooth flooring such as wood) or a ball (on rougher ground such as tarmac).

"In my opinion," says Mr Blyth, "every village in Scotland should have a roller hockey team. It is ideal for our country as it can be played all year round and in school gym halls and leisure centres."

He stresses that the sport does not damage floors.

"Quite of a few schools do indoor hockey and grass hockey, but of course that is not on blades.

"I think there was one primary school, in Cowdenbeath, which was keen to introduce some extra-curricular roller hockey, but there is not too much evidence of organised school activity."

The sport is expensive, though it is cheaper to equip players for than ice hockey, Mr Blyth points out. He estimates it costs pound;300-pound;400 to kit out a keen player, pound;100 of that going on skates. There are also elbow and knee guards, helmet and sticks to buy.

"There is not a big market in second-hand equipment, as there is a stigma attached to playing in used gear," Mr Blyth explains. "It is also quite hard to get kit.

"The good thing about roller hockey, as opposed to ice hockey, is that many games are local and you may only be away for three hours out of the day to go and play a match.

"Ice hockey can take up the whole day as matches can be in Inverness and Aberdeen, and it requires a huge commitment from the parents."

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