The inaugural season of Largo's adult inline hockey league is in full swing. Every Monday night under the lights at Northeast Park, players from across Pinellas County gather. They take to the rink with their sticks and inline skates ready to roll. Some wear only what is required by the city, a helmet, gloves and shin guards. Others choose safety over comfort and wear additional shoulder, elbow and knee pads.
They chase the whizzing puck across the 1-year-old rink for 60 minutes, playing in a 3-on-3-plus-a-goalie format. From the sidelines, wives, girlfriends, parents and curious passers-by hoot and holler.
The 35-member league includes only men, although women are invited to join. The players range in age from 15 to 50, with the teens, all experienced in either ice or inline hockey, having provided parental consent upon registration.
Chip Potts, the athletic program manager for the city of Largo, deems the program a success.
"I'd say our league's popularity is because there's only two other public inline rinks in the county: Dunedin and Palm Harbor,'' he said.
Although the Tampa Bay Lightning has contributed to the interest in hockey in general, a public ice hockey rink has never been considered by the city, Potts said.
"I believe there are four private ice rinks in the county, but for us, the operational cost for an ice rink makes it prohibitive,'' he said.
When asked what the difference between ice and inline hockey is, besides, of course, the ice, Potts stressed the difference in the pucks.
"In ice hockey, the puck is rubber. But for the inline hockey rink, on cement, there's more friction so the puck is plastic with little nubs. Also, falling on the ice is softer than cement.''
For some players, like Chris Egnacheski of Dunedin, ice hockey would be the first choice of game; however, the Pittsburgh native is happy to have found a similar substitute here in the Sunshine State.
"I was going on my 10th year of not playing before I found Largo's league. It's been great, and it brings back many memories,'' said Egnacheski, 25. "But I'd much rather fall on ice.''
For others, like native Floridian Bryan Belcher, inline hockey is his sport. At least, according to the 27-year-old's mother, Diann Belcher.
"He has played all his life, even in the Junior Olympics in 1995,'' Belcher said from the sidelines during a game last week.
"And I'll tell you something else,'' she whispered, as she sat between her husband, Robert, and her son's girlfriend, Lisa Frantz. "See No. 7 on the red team? Those pants he has on are 18 years old. Those are his lucky pants, and I think I've watched him play in those a hundred times.''
The next season, the spring/summer league, will begin in May.