If we told you some of the best hockey players in the world were competing Saturday in Fort Wayne, you'd probably think, “OK, so what else is new?” But what would you say if you learned they were playing without skates?
Before you scoff at the idea of ball hockey, realize many of the 30 women who were at the SportONE/Parkview Icehouse have competed on ice skates, rollerblades and in sneakers, and have chosen this as their preferred means of playing hockey. Also realize, they were trying out for the U.S. Women's National Team, which will compete in the International Street and Ball Hockey Federation's World Championships in 2022 at Brandon, Manitoba.
“It's really very similar (to ice hockey),” said Eileen Meslar, 32, a national team veteran. “I think it's just the weight of the ball to the puck, since the puck is much heavier. To be honest with you, I'm a much better runner than I am a skater, since I learned to skate much later (around 13). So I prefer this, but it's definitely different. In ice hockey, you can coast or you can glide. Here, you have to run; there's a lot of running.”
The different movement is something U.S. team general manager Angelo Terrana appreciates.
“In ice hockey, I can get somewhere by gliding,” said Terrana, who played on the men's national team in 2014.
“Anytime you want to go anywhere in ball hockey, you've got to move your feet. It rewards people who are in top physical shape. That's one of our goals; our team will be in shape, period.”
There are, of course, other differences to ice hockey, including a floating blue line that creates a large, offensively charged zone. And national team coach Scott Hicks – also coach of the Indiana Tech women's ice hockey team – evaluated the physical grit of players through tightly spaced drills Saturday.
Players had come from all over – only one was from Indiana – and there will be future tryouts in Irvine, California, and Westborough, Massachusetts, before a roster of 25 is chosen.
“This is an unbelievable community and it's been so welcoming,” Terrana said. “It's obviously a hotbed for hockey and it's a market we haven't tapped before. So part of our goal is just to expand the skill we're getting a look at. Even if they haven't played ball before, or are really good ice players, we want to take a look.”
Those at the ball hockey tryouts, which conclude today, believe their sport is growing in popularity; the U.S. finished second at the last two World Championships, behind Czech Republic and Canada, respectively.
“I've been very fortunate to have a lot of support from friends, family and coaches, who have said, 'OK, you may not have the traditional hockey background, but we see potential and we're going to work extra hard and get you to the elite level that you need to be,' ” said Lindsey Machak, 31, a national team veteran who played soccer, bowling and field hockey before getting the ball hockey bug at Temple University.
“This sport as a whole, I think it's a very cool thing. It's this hidden secret a bit, and I don't want it to be a secret anymore because it's an accessible way to find hockey for people. My big goal, and how I try to represent myself, ... is that this is a very inclusive, welcoming environment. The more people that we have at these camps and at tournaments, and playing, the happier I am.”