The cancellation of the National Hockey League season to date may have created a void for many area fans. But for a Northern Virginia-based professional team known as the D.C. Mad Dogs, the NHL labor stalemate represents an opportunity as inviting as an open net, and the team wants to score.
"We're now the only full-check [full-contact] professional hockey team playing in and around the Beltway," said Steve Baldwin, president of the Mad Dogs, who play their home games at the Dulles Sportsplex near Sterling and practice at the Planet Splash & Play in Chantilly. "For those fans shut out by the NHL, we'd like to be able to provide a fix."
The Mad Dogs play roller hockey, a sweatier and higher-scoring version of the ice game, and are one of six teams in the U.S. division of a shoestring organization known as Major League Roller Hockey. The group hopes to capitalize on the sport's rapid expansion in the Washington area, as well as the suspension of play in the NHL, which is mired in a dispute over a new collective bargaining agreement.
The college students and people with day jobs who make up the Mad Dogs don't command any of the glamour or million-dollar salaries conferred on players for NHL teams such as the Washington Capitals. Their home rink is more like a big gym than an arena, and hundreds of people show up to watch, not thousands. About 300 fans paid to see the Mad Dogs play in their first game of the season Dec. 4.
But they hit and they fight, and they score more than NHL teams. Admission costs far less than the NHL, too -- $2 or $3 a game.
"We're a pretty low-rent league," said Bill Raue, owner of the Alexandria-based league. "A ticket to an NHL game costs [an average of] $35. For that much money, you can take your whole family to one of our games, the kids can have their nose on the glass, and you'll still get change back."
The U.S. division in which the Mad Dogs play consists of the Philadelphia Rage, New York Dragons, Virginia Wings, Carolina Knights and New Jersey Cougars. The winner from that division will compete for the "world championship" against the winners of divisions with teams in England, Scotland, Ireland and the Czech Republic.
"There's obviously a difference between us and the NHL," said Ryan Pomroy, 33, a burly forward from Alexandria who works as a defense contractor by day. "The NHL has the best players in the world. These are the best players in the area."
He added: "People like it because there's a lot of hitting -- and big hits, too. And no one here is playing for money."
Pat Giesecke, 20, a University of Virginia student from Annandale, is one of the Mad Dogs' best players, scoring three goals and getting three assists in the Dec. 4 game against the Virginia Wings, who are based primarily in Winchester.
He grew up playing roller hockey and ice hockey, and is on the University of Virginia ice hockey club team. But he prefers to play the game on the wheels of in-line skates.
"It's more free and more open," Giesecke said. "Ice hockey feels like a job -- with a coach always yelling at you."
Aside from the playing surface and the skates, there are two other critical differences between roller and ice hockey.
First, unlike ice hockey, which puts out five players and a goalie, Major League Roller Hockey uses four players and a goalie.
Second, unlike ice hockey, there are no restrictive blue lines. This makes it easier for teams to advance the puck toward the opponent's goal.
These differences mean more goals are scored than in ice hockey; the Mad Dogs won their first game 14-6.
"That's not your typical NHL score," said the team's coach and general manager, Billy Harrington, 29, a government contractor who lives in Fairfax. "People like that."
One point of contention among roller hockey enthusiasts is whether checking -- or bumping another player to get the puck away -- should be allowed. Many roller leagues, both youth and adult, forbid the kind of physical play that a lot of NHL fans relish.
Major League Roller Hockey stands definitively on the side of checking, maybe even some fighting.
"We don't condone putting on a goon show," Raue said. "[But] there isn't going to be anyone who will pay a dime" for a league without checking.
"You have to have a couple of guys behaving badly so that the fans know that the players care whether the team wins or loses," Raue added. "There has to be some intensity to the thing."
Shortly after the league started in earnest in 1998, players were paid as much as $500 a week. With more promotion, there were more fans. But that financial model didn't work.
"The economics were just not there," Raue said. "We went back to a grass-roots approach."
The league now runs on an extremely low budget. When the Dulles Sportsplex raised its rental fee for a game from $165 to $265, the Mad Dogs considered moving, Harrington said.
The players will make money -- and possibly get reimbursed for their travel expenses -- when ticket sales exceed the team's costs, club officials said.
The league's financial plan assumes that eventually the sport's growing fan base will translate into profits. Soon, Raue said, he will begin marketing Major League Roller Hockey skate wheels, sticks and other game accessories.
League officials cite a recent survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, which found that there are 2.7 million roller hockey players nationwide, compared with 2.8 million in ice hockey.
"Participation has grown tenfold since 1999," said Rich Navin, a 33-year-old medical supplies salesman from Ashburn and former Canadian Hockey League player. "I used to teach in an outdoor rink. Now there are rinks all over the place."
Raue said that "I can envision us one day playing in smaller arenas."
For now, the players and the small group of loyal fans are enjoying a kind of bush-league camaraderie. It may be low-rent, but for at least some of the younger players, who have never played major college or professional hockey, it's a larger and more inviting stage.
"They had a horn and played music between the whistles," Julian Marin, a forward, said somewhat breathlessly last week. "I've never played in front of that many people before."
"I heard a kid yelling, 'Hit 'em back, Number 90,' " said Jonathan Vu, 21, a senior at James Madison University who is from Annandale. "So I knocked the guy down."
"We had kids coming over for autographs," Harrington said. "And some of the adults came out drinking with us afterwards. It's more community-oriented. Everyone thought it was awesome."
For information about upcoming games, check the league's Web site at www.mlrh.com or the team's Web site at www.maddogshockey.com.
Staff writer C. Woodrow Irvin contributed to this report.