Speeding skates whistle across the polished floor. Bulky skaters race from one side of the room to the other. Being weighed down with protective pads doesn’t seem to make a difference as they spin and twist.
Roller hockey isn’t one of the most recognisable sports in England. Think of something between traditional hockey and ice hockey – there’s a puck and a hockey stick, a lot of padding, but no ice.
The Fareham Wildcats are just one of hundreds of clubs around the country and the team is just about to get a big boost as there are plans to open a specialist sports rink by July. Having trained in school halls and leisure centres in the past, it’s a welcome change for the members.
Specialising in inline roller hockey, which means players must wear inline skates (ones with four wheels in a line), the Fareham Wildcats have about 40 players.
Kevin McWhirr, 50, lives at Chandler’s Ford, was a speed skater in Southampton and previously played ice hockey. He’s now been the coach for the Wildcats for the past 25 years.
He says: ‘We start with beginners and teach them how to skate and how to hold the stick. Anyone who wants to get involved can as long as they have tried a bit of skating first. It’s like if you can’t run, you can’t play football.
‘We have teams for under-12s, under-14s, under-16s and under-18s. We also have a senior squad which has three different teams. There’s a veteran team too, so there’s a lot of us. It’s a bit like a family.’
The Wildcats play in the British Rink Hockey Association league and the British Inline Skater Hockey Association. They’ve also got players who play for The Snipers, a roller hockey team representing the south of England in national competitions.
Kevin believes the sport is less popular on the south coast because there are so few specialist rinks – the closest is Guildford.
He explains: ‘They have purpose-built rinks which at the moment we don’t have, so it can be a lot more popular in those areas.’
The junior team (under-18s) train on Saturday mornings at Fareham Leisure Centre while the seniors practice on Monday evenings.
The announcement that a specialist rink is being built through Salmiakki Sports, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes lesser known sports, has caused a stir.
Kevin says: ‘It’s a breath of fresh air that a rink is being built here. It will be very good for the sport because more people will get involved and more people will be playing it.
‘It will be a big boost for roller hockey because, finally, we will all be able to play in a purpose-built rink, not a space designed for badminton. Hopefully it will give us some structure.’
He adds: ‘The new specialist rink is all about playing locally in the proper surroundings.’
Roller hockey has a number of different organisations and leagues across the country and Kevin believes this can make it difficult to fit it all together. ‘The sport is quite fragmented and that’s why it’s difficult to get involved and improve the popularity.
‘To play one game we have to register in two leagues – there should be just one national league.’
Roller hockey is the poor relation compared to football, rugby union, cricket, swimming and athletics, getting little attention. Kevin believes this could be a reason why people want to start playing it.
‘Roller hockey is an exciting sport because it’s unusual. If you say you walk your dog at the weekend no-one is really interested.’
Kim Rowlatt, 47, lives at Fareham and is the Wildcats’s assistant manager. She believes the new rink will plonk the sport into the limelight. ‘Anything that pushes the sport along is important, and Salmiakki Sports getting on board is a welcome change. It’s such an achievement that the rink is being opened.
‘It will give the team somewhere purpose-built to train, which is what we’ve needed for a long time now. We’re all very much looking forward to it.’
Kim’s son started playing roller hockey because of his asthma. She explains: ‘Football is a very competitive sport and we thought he might not be able to keep up with the pace, but it’s phenomenal how much he enjoys roller hockey.
‘He’s the net minder [goalkeeper] and he started when he was seven. He’s now 17.
‘The kids are brilliant at what they do and it’s exciting to watch them progress. It’s a fantastic sport, especially for children. You can see they get so much out of it.’
For more information go to wildcatsrollerhockey.com.
Will Crossley has just celebrated his 13th birthday, and has been involved in roller hockey with the Fareham Wildcats for more than a year. The teenager, who lives at Whiteley, started playing ice hockey at the Solent and Gosport Ice Hockey Club.
Now he plays in the Wildcats’s junior team, the under-14s for the Guildford Flames Ice Hockey Club and he’s in the Ash Avalanche Thunders roller hockey team which plays with a ball, not a puck. He’s also heading to Europe in June with his Guildford team for the European Championships.
For dad Daryl, it feels as though the sport has taken over their lives: ‘If someone told me 18 months ago I would be driving Will all over the country five or six times a week I would have said it wouldn’t happen, but it takes over. His sister has started doing ice hockey now too.’
Will says: ‘My coach for ice hockey suggested I did roller hockey to improve and I really like it. It’s very demanding and you need a lot of skill, so you have to try and be quite tough. I really love doing it.’
Roller hockey is a form of hockey played on a dry surface using skates with wheels. Roller hockey (inline) is a variation of roller hockey and is very similar to ice hockey, from where it began.
The game is played by two teams comprising four skaters each and one net keeper, on a dry rink divided into two halves. There’s a net at each end of the rink, and the game is played in three 15-minute periods.
The rules differ from ice hockey in a few simple ways: there is no icing or body checking and it is played in a four-on-four player format instead of five-on-five. Like ice hockey, roller hockey (inline) is a contact sport, and team work, skill and aggression are needed.
The other form of roller hockey is played on quads, skates with four wheels in side-by-side pairs.
Setti Mulari, 33, lives at Fareham, plays in the Fareham Wildcats senior team and is a member of the British Roller Hockey Association Misfits, an all-star team with the best players from the league.
He founded Salmiakki Sports last summer after the Fareham team discovered they might not have anywhere permanent to train.
Setti explains: ‘We were training at a local school but we ended up having to leave, so I thought that I should look into building a place because we needed one anyway.
‘I took the idea to the Fareham Borough Council and they seemed to support it, and agreed to pay 50 per cent of the costs.’
The primary objective of Salmiakki Sports is to promote specialist sports, especially through the new rink: ‘It will be a facility for sports that people might not be familiar with.
‘It needs to be a breath of fresh air and I don’t want it to be competition for other venues because that’s not the point. There can be sports like handball, which no-one plays here but people liked to watch during the Olympics.’
After talking to Fareham Borough Council, Setti spoke to various specialist teams in Portsmouth about the rink, including the roller derby and the lacrosse team. He says: ‘I initially looked at setting up a proper roller hockey rink but it’s not a viable option, it’s not a big enough sport.
‘There’s a lot more sports that can be played on a rink so I spoke to various teams in Portsmouth, such as the roller derby and the lacrosse team and found out enough people want it.’
Setti adds: ‘I really want to see it thrive as a community hub for all the weird and wonderful sports that are around.
‘I want it to be a place where you can go and experience the out-of-the-ordinary sports, as well as take part in disabled sports.’
‘It’s great for everything on wheels, whether that be skates or wheelchairs.’
Go to salmiakki.org.uk for more information.