Skaters don’t move to the rhythm of the latest hits Tuesday nights at Empire Roller Rink. The disco balls don’t spin.
Hockey players take over the place.
It turns into a men’s locker room. Equipment bags filled with pads and sticks litter the floor. Players sit at benches and put on their hockey gear, strapping on their helmets and skates. The stink of body odor and the slaps of hockey sticks permeate the rink.
Willie Trent, owner of the rink, presides over the weekly matches of roller hockey. Two games are played: hardball hockey and in-line hockey.
Trent, 63, is lean and fit. His full gray beard is neatly trimmed and longer than his recently shaved head. His life revolves around skating. His father built the first Empire Roller Rink in 1938.
“I haven’t known any other address my whole life,” he said.
While shouting remarks such as “good save” to players, Trent explained the differences between hardball and in-line hockey.
Hardball hockey is usually played with roller skates, or quads; in-line hockey players usually wear in-line skates. In in-line, players use a plastic puck with hockey sticks; in hardball, players handle a rubber ball the size of a baseball with shorter sticks. While hockey sticks vary in size and reach up to the chest or chin, hardball sticks are all the same size, barely reaching to the waist.
Trent had discussed the rules long enough. It was time for him to play. He took off his glasses and changed out of his red-hooded sweatshirt, white T-shirt and khakis into black shorts, a blue T-shirt, pads and skates.
“I may be slower than everybody else, but remember I’m 20 years older than everybody else,” he said as he stepped onto the rink.
Trent joined in an in-line hockey match, but soon it was time to switch games. His longtime hardball teammates started to trickle in for their weekly game.
Trent has played with the same group of eight men for 15 years, including his son Mike. The team, called the Columbia Rogues, won first place in the bronze division at the Hardball National Championships three consecutive times, from 1998 to 2000.
Since the players know each other’s tendencies, they take every opportunity to seek out fresh competition. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the team hit the road for weekend tournaments. After clocking out on Friday afternoons, they drove to cities such as Fort Worth, Texas, and Oklahoma City. They arrived at midnight and played until dawn. Then they returned home.
“If you did bad, everyone was asleep except the driver,” Mike Trent said.
Those long car rides started for Mike Trent when he was a child. Columbia did not have enough players to form a junior team. He solved the problem by joining a team in Des Moines, Iowa, 300 miles northwest of Columbia. In 1975 his team finished third at junior nationals.
Another one of the Rogues, Ted Anderson, was also on that team. He reunited with Mike Trent when he moved to Columbia in 1989. He came to the rink and was shocked to see his team’s third-place plaque hanging on the wall.
“I have that plaque,” he told Willie Trent.
The players reminisced as they leisurely put on their equipment. Once all their laces were tied, they took the rink.
The players were animated, but none more than Willie Trent. He shouted in disgust or smacked his stick against the wall after his opponents scored. He encouraged his teammates to shoot and complimented their good strikes. His son said few words, even when he faced off against his father. Their intensity was equal, however. The two had the same fiery look in their brown eyes.
The game lasted one hour, and they rarely stopped or stepped off the rink. The game was fast, but not physical like ice hockey. The contact was more incidental like in basketball or soccer.
As the game wound down at 9 p.m., more people showed up for casual in-line games. One hour later more serious competitors walked in. The MU club roller hockey team arrived for its weekly practice.
For the Tigers, practicing at Empire is like a basketball team practicing only with half the court. The rink at Empire is less than half the size of a regulation rink. To be competitive, the team travels to St. Louis every other Tuesday night to skate on a regulation rink, said Mike Schafroth, team president.
The Tigers have been successful since they started play in 1997. They’ve advanced to the national championships five times since 1999, but have never won. Lindenwood University dominates them, and every other team in the National Collegiate Roller Hockey Association (NCRHA).
Lindenwood, located outside of St. Louis, dominates collegiate roller hockey as UCLA ruled college basketball in the 1970s. The Lions have captured five consecutive NCRHA Division-I titles. They offer scholarships and recruit players from Florida and New York.
“It is a rivalry because we always play them really hard,” Schafroth said, “but we’ve never beaten them. They’re an awesome team.”
Last month the Tigers lost to Lindenwood 8-0, but they will have two more chances this season to defeat the dynasty.
And they are working hard.
At practice Tuesday, 16 players cycled on and off the rink during drills. When they abruptly stopped, the skidding of their skates sounded like fingernails scraping a chalkboard.
Once they exited the rink, the weekly night of roller hockey was over. Willie Trent could finally turn off the lights, lock up and rest up for another night of hockey.