By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006
By day, they are defense contractors, NASA engineers, car salesmen, teachers, economists, insurance salesmen and orthodontists. But at night, on a lighted oval of concrete just off Seminary Road, when they have their skates laced, helmets on, hockey sticks in hand and are dripping in sweat, they are Benito, Rocket Man, BFL (Big Fat Liar), the Egg, Tight Lips, NASCAR and FFO, the Fleet Footed Orthodontist.
Or, if he's having a bad night, just FO.
They are the Phantoms. And they rule in the Thursday night coed roller hockey league at the Washington area's only outdoor roller hockey rink. Unless, of course, you ask their rival, Roadkill. Just the other night in a heated game, BFL, a.k.a. Scott MacQuarrie, and Roadkill's Julio Varillas got into it. By the end of the night, the Phantoms had dominated 2-1 and the two plonked their broken sticks into a trash can.
"When we play that team, we get riled up," BFL explained. "That was a brand new stick. It was only about three hours old."
And that's only on Thursdays.
On Mondays, in the elite league, the well-connected White House All Stars and the all-Czech Bohemians, led by Peter the Czech, who hang out their flag, blast Eurotrash music and drink only Pilsner Urquell, routinely re-fight the Cold War. On Tuesdays, in the Rec League, aging engineers and architects on teams such as Bladerunners and the Dognads -- a name coined from merging the Dog Biscuits and the Nads -- can act out their foiled NHL dreams. And when Dynamo is on deck, all bets are off, especially if the team has brought the moonshine. There's Friday night pickup free-for-all, Wednesday hockey without the wheels and Sundays for the family.
Four men plus a goalie per team. Ten games a season. Three seasons a year. Red balls for when it's hot. Orange for cool. Pink for when it's freezing out. It never stops.
It's a whole other world on wheels.
"It has a funky charm," said Bill Raue, founder of the Alexandria Inline Hockey Association, who built the rink and runs the leagues. "You come. You play. You hang out. You tell lies. I figure I'm keeping 40-year-old juvenile delinquents off the streets."
The game is fast and furious. And addictive. Just ask the Egg, Ed Miehle, who drives all the way from Germantown for the Thursday night games. (His Phantom teammates lured him with the promise of a fax machine and a DVD of the movie "Gladiator.") The leagues can be wild and raucous. It's as if buttoned-down Washington operators stepped into a phone booth, ripped off their clothes and emerged bigger, meaner and ready to kill. And that includes the women.
"Oh, you should see some of them out there," said Raue, pronounced RAO-wee. "They're evil."
That goes for Miriam Prantner, 30, a defense contractor and Phantom team captain, known as Benito, as in Benito Mussolini. "I'm a dictator," she said one recent night while unlacing her skates and peeling off her hockey pants, as the Capitol Hookers, the next team to play, made its way onto the rink.
"The women are the best ones on our team," BFL MacQuarrie acknowledged.
So good, in fact, are the women on the Phantoms and Roadkill that one team or the other wins the championship every year. So Raue had to create a loser's playoff for the other six coed teams. It's called the Sheba Cup, after the dog. (As in "Come Back, Little . . . ") "That damn Sheba Cup. It's just an old champagne bucket my wife found at a yard sale," Raue said. "You'd think it was the damn World Series."
The winners take it from bar to bar and drink out of it. The winners of the Phantom-Roadkill face-off get T-shirts.
The Phantoms are tight on and off the rink. They go out for beers at Cap City Brewery in nearby Shirlington after every game. They celebrate birthdays together. They go to movies together, such as the hockey classic "Miracle," all except for No. 91, Nelson Eng, 41. "He had to go with someone else," Benito scolded.
And the ribbing is nonstop. The Phantoms call Eng "Tight Lips" because they think he works for the CIA. "I'm an economist at State," he pleaded but later asked a reporter, "Please be discreet."
As the group got ready to head out for beers, Dave "Rocket Man" Radzanowski, 41, a NASA engineer, moaned that he had gone to the eye doctor that day and had to get bifocals.
"Hey, maybe that'll improve your defense," was the only sympathy he got.
Marriages have been made and broken up at the rink. Deals have been done. And scores have been settled. Sometimes the action in the parking lot, where everyone hangs out, is at least as interesting as the action on the rink.
Most everyone competes in fun. And if anyone goes too far -- as one all-lawyer team did once -- they're out. "They were a damn bunch of fascists," Raue said. There are Germans and Russians, Canadians and a Pakistani. There are homesick transplants from the Northeast who grew up playing ice hockey on ponds and in college and who found that the dearth of ice hockey rinks in the D.C. area made playing here too expensive and too inconvenient, with some games starting at odd hours, such as midnight.
And like any self-contained universe, Alexandria roller hockey has its own celebrities. Such as Billy Bush of "Entertainment Tonight" fame. "He was intense," said one player respectfully. And Tony Rudy, a one-time aide to Republican former representative Rep. Tom DeLay. Rudy pleaded guilty earlier this year in the federal corruption and bribery case associated with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Rudy's roller hockey team was called the Vandals.
"Yeah, the Abramoff scandal literally cost us an entire team," Raue lamented.
And, as in any universe, there are the characters. Such as Truman, the referee, who came out of nowhere, Raue said, and one day will probably disappear again. And then there's Raue himself.
Raue, 67, spent a lifetime doing public relations and advertising for "leftie" nonprofit organizations, such as the Sierra Club and zero-population-growth groups. He dresses in T-shirts and jeans, and his white blond hair, jammed under an ever-present baseball cap, falls to his shoulders. "I'm just an aging '60s hippie," he said in a raspy voice with a broad Midwestern twang. He fought in the Vietnam War -- with a guitar, he said. Although he was drafted, the Army put him in a folk band to entertain the troops. "It was awful," he said. "But at least we weren't being shot at."
The story of the accident that brought him to roller hockey is legend. In the late 1990s, his wife came home from a yard sale with a pair of in-line skatesthat she had bought for a dollar. A former ice hockey goalie from his college days in Wisconsin, Raue found ad hoc street hockey games on the just-poured concrete of parking lots and malls under construction on Eisenhower Avenue in Alexandria's West End.
He got hooked.
He bought Major League Roller Hockey, a U.S. and European pro league. He set up temporary rinks at recreation centers. And, he said, after getting kicked off every playground in Alexandria, he worked out a deal with the city and the schools. Francis Hammond Middle School on Seminary Road had an unused parking lot, which was used to teach driver's ed back when Hammond was a high school. The school gave Raue permission to build the rink -- he paid about $100,000 to do so -- and he pays rent for the land.The rink is affectionately known as Raue's Pond.
When not used for league games from 7 to 11 p.m. every weeknight and on Sundays, the tree-lined rink is open to the public. T.C. Williams lacrosse players practice there. Kids come to roller-skate. It's a perfect setup, Raue said -- especially since the place is secluded.
"We've never had a complaint by neighbors," he said. "I don't know why. We have perfectly sane adults screaming 'F you!' and 'If you slash me again, I'm gonna smash your face.' "
In theory, Alexandria Inline Hockey is a noncontact sport.
Raue's wife, who is British, rarely comes out to watch what she calls the "unmitigated violence" on the rink. But, Raue said, she understands what has become his obsession. "Look, I'd spent 25 years holding the hands of people wringing their hands and worrying about the state of the world," he said. "This is fun."
Sean King, a former captain of the White House All Stars who has since moved to New York, remembered spending weekends shoveling snow off the rink with Raue and hearing of him out there at all hours of the night patching cracks in the concrete. "When I first saw Bill Raue, I thought of Doc in the 'Back to the Future' movies," King said. "He's sort of a mad genius."
And Raue makes no secret of his political leanings. "I was an appointee in the Bush administration," King said. "He was always saying, "Sean, you gotta come out and play. That is, if you're not going to jail with the rest of your friends.' "
But no one, neither King nor any of the other rollerheads, bats an eye at Raue's dedication. "We're all crazed," King said.
"With roller hockey, you're doing two or three things at once," King explained. "You're trying to control this little thing bouncing around and keeping someone else away from you trying to do the same thing. Then there's the thrill and rush of actually scoring a goal. It's like a hot flash goes through your entire body. No matter how many times you've scored, no matter how meaningless the game, it's a great feeling. To see the dejection on the goalie's face: You are wholly responsible for someone else's misery. It's very uplifting."
Plus, it's a great workout. As Edwin Lee, the Fleet-Footed Orthodontist sees it, "It's not a one-ligament sport."
On a recent Tuesday night in the Rec League, architect Kristian Fonss of Alexandria unbuckled his sweat-soaked goalie leg protectors. His team, the Crimson Dogs, had just lost to The Inmates, who won 4-3, coming from behind. But Fonss felt secure in his position. Roller hockey goalies are hard to come by. Most people want a piece of the action in the center of the rink.
"My first time as goalie, we lost 18-3," he said. "I, uh, improved from there."
His friend and fellow architect Steve Kulinski, who plays three nights a week, has his own formula for making sure he can feed his roller hockey obsession.
"I'm not a really good player. I don't have a lot of natural talent," Kulinski said. "But I learned that if you manage the team, they'll never kick you off."
New players are welcome on Friday nights for pickup games. Adults interested in joining a team or in getting more information may contact Bill Raue of the Alexandria Inline Hockey Association at 703-535-5996, Ext 1, or visithttp://www.sportability.com/alexandria.