Rick Smith leaned on the fence and peered out at the skating rink with a smile. His eyes twinkled at the fact many of the players who were around when the Police Athletic League started its roller hockey league in 1998 were filing into the rink Tuesday evening. "The older kids are creeping back in," said Smith, PAL's roller hockey program director. "This place used to be packed with people when the league started in 1998. We had teams for ages 8 to 18, and games were played on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights."Today, only a few of the league's players are under 18. It's an adult league now. As we stood just inside the entrance to the rink, which faces the intersection of U.S. 41 and 13th Avenue East, Smith shared stories about how former Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells used to fight tooth and nail for funds to help the fledgling league thrive, and how players drifted back and forth between playing at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, formerly known as J.P. Igloo, and PAL.The league has seen its fair share of peaks and valleys. The sponsorship signs along the wall have faded, and the red lines on the rink's floor have partially disappeared because of the daily beating of the scorching sun. But the lack of cosmetics hasn't stopped the faithfuls from treading the rink they've loved for so long.At least 75 players and fans congregated, laughing and talking, as the Blue and Red teams played to a 6-6 tie in a preseason game. The regular season starts June 26.Whether it's preseason or regular season is not important. What is important is they're playing. There are about 40 members in the league broken up into six teams. Each team plays a league game on Tuesday night, and the league offers pickup games on Friday night.The teams will play 12 regular season games, followed by the playoffs. The fact the league is still around is a blessing to Smith. When the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex opened in 1999 with its plush amenities and indoor roller hockey league, many of the participants at PAL bolted for better conditions.With that, the Florida Wheels and Stardust Event Center of Sarasota eventually pulled the plug on their leagues, too. "The players didn't like playing in the heat," said Smith, who in the early 1990s played two years for the Tulsa Oilers of the Central Hockey League, a former minor league affiliate of the New York Islanders. "We had to beg people to come out to play in the heat. This time of the year, it's hot with all that equipment on, but we had some loyal guys stay here."
One of those players is Blair Pontious. Pontious, 21, remembers when the rink had two-feet-high makeshift boards and games were played with a ball instead of a puck.
That was nine years ago. "Instead of staying home playing video games, I was out here playing hockey," Pontious said. "It was difficult for me at first, but I kept playing it. This game helps to take a lot of the aggression out, and helps relieve you of stress, because you are out here with your friends."
On Tuesday evening, it was a real family atmosphere around the rink. It was evident as toddlers skated around the rink, and fans chatted with each other on the metal bleachers as hockey sticks pounded the cement.
"This is what community is all about," said David Daniels, a long-time member of the league. "This is grass roots all the way."
Daniels coached the Bradenton Blades 14-Under squad to national championships in 1996 and ’98 and both tournaments were played in Chicago. Pontious was a member on both teams, and PAL's rink was the Blades practice facility, which gave the Blades an advantage.
"We practiced on this court in August in the heat of the year," Daniels said, "and that gave us better endurance up in Chicago."
When Sarasota's Stardust Skate Center shut down its student roller hockey league in 2005, Jared Glosser joined PAL's Adult Roller Hockey League.
Glosser, 15, said he was welcomed with open arms, but it took him six months to adjust to the competition. "It's better competition than I had in Sarasota," said Glosser, a 10th-grader at Riverview High. "It's more physical here. In my first game, I felt a lot smaller than I used to, but I got used to it, and I scored three goals in a game one time."