Columbia roller rink marks years of hockey success

Monday, June 9, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 9:29 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 9, 2014
The Columbia Rogues practice every Tuesday night at Empire Roller Rink. The Rogues won the Bronze Division Rink Hockey National Championship in 2013.

COLUMBIA — In 1957, Willie Trent organized a rink hockey team called the Columbia Rogues.

They are based at Empire Roller Rink on Business Loop 70. The rink was built by Trent's father in 1938 and has been a staple in Columbia for more than 75 years.

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In the beginning, the Rogues had no helmets, gloves, mouth guards or shin pads. A few players had hockey sticks; those who didn't used brooms.

There were no hockey nets — only 3-by-4 door mats laid at opposite ends of the rink as goal markers. A point was scored by rolling a ball onto one of the mats.

But the Rogues eventually acquired the necessary equipment — and skill — to compete against some of the best rink hockey players in the country. By the late '90s, they evolved from their league's worst team to national champions.

From 1998 to 2000, they won the senior bronze division Rink Hockey National Championship three consecutive years. In 2013, they won the division again at the national championships in Albuquerque, N.M., competing against four other teams.

In July, they hope to defend that title.

Origins of rink hockey

Roller polo — the precursor to rink hockey — was first played in London around 1878 as a cross between hockey and polo. The sport came to the United States four years later, when the National Roller Polo League was established in Dayton, Ohio.

Now called rink hockey, the sport is played in more than 50 countries worldwide, according to USA Roller Sports, the national governing body for competitive roller sports.

Rink hockey is comparable to ice hockey and roller hockey, but with a few key differences.

Roller hockey and rink hockey are noncontact sports. Ice hockey uses a vulcanized rubber puck, but roller hockey uses a plastic one. Roller hockey also is usually played outdoors on asphalt or indoors on a synthetic surface, known as Sport Court.

Rink hockey is typically played on a smooth wood or concrete surface with a hard rubber ball. The hockey sticks are much shorter than those in ice and roller hockey, and they are commonly made from wood or plastic. Metal is prohibited.

Their leagues and tournaments are primarily divided by age and skill level. The Rogues' roster comprises hockey veterans, all 35 and older.

Building a winning team

At their first tournament in St. Louis in 1957, the Rogues didn't have uniforms, so they skated onto the court in cut-off jeans and white T-shirts with numbers drawn on the back. Their first game was almost comical.

"We would steal the ball from each other," Trent said. "We all wanted to score."

The Rogues lost and kept losing, he said. But they tried to learn something from every tournament.

"We played for two years before we ever won a game," Trent said.

Although the lineup has changed since then and the team has competed sporadically, last year the Rogues beat a team from Salem, Ore., 4-3 in the national championship.

Jim Cade has been on the team for 35 years. He said that during the tournament, the players were able to use their collective experience to beat out much younger opponents.

"We've played the game longer than some of the kids are old," he said.

The training grounds

When Frank Trent opened Empire Roller Rink in 1938, it was a wooden A-frame structure that rested on old railroad ties. 

The Trent family lived in a small apartment above the rink. It had a living room, kitchen, bathroom and a bedroom with four beds, shared by Frank Trent, his wife, two daughters and a son, Willie.

Willie Trent inherited the roller rink after his mother died in 1963. In 2000, the original rink was torn down and replaced by a new facility. For Willie Trent and his family, the rink has always been a place to live, work and play.

His son, Mike Trent, is a skilled rink hockey player who has won two national championships while playing for the Rogues. He said the 2013 title came as a pleasant surprise.

"We honestly didn't have any expectations," he said. "We just really wanted to go and have a good time."

Emma Trent, 19, Willie Trent's daughter, is a highly decorated artistic roller skater. She began competing at the age of 10 and has won at least six national championships in figure skating and team dance, but she doesn't know the exact number.

"I've lost count," she said, smiling.

Like her father and brother, Emma Trent has also taken advantage of the family rink.

"I've been skating since I could walk," she said.

She is preparing for the 2014 national championships, which will be held later this year in Lincoln, Neb.

So, too, are the Rogues, who play whenever they can find the time and energy.

They try to practice once a week — usually on Tuesday, though they have to juggle families, jobs and other priorities.

Willie Trent is 70, and the average age of the team is 55, he said. One teammate is recovering from a shoulder injury, the result of a nasty spill during a pickup game. 

"You have to be young at heart to play this game," Rogue player Rob Parker said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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