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Endangered Rhinos?

[whitespace] San Jose Rhinos The roller hockey team has a championship in its pocket and adoring fans, but to some they're just spinning their wheels

By Will Harper



WHEN KINDERGARTEN teacher Ruth Gehle first heard about the San Jose Rhinos in 1994 she thought going to see the city's professional roller hockey team would be a good way to get a hockey fix during the summer. Up to that point, Gehle had just been a San Jose Sharks fanatic. She immediately became a Rhinos fanatic and ultimately a season-ticket holder.

"Once I went to a roller hockey game and saw how exciting it was," she recalls fondly, "I fell in love with it."

Now, Gehle serves as the secretary of the Rhinos' booster club. She proudly notes that the Rhinos (www.rhinos.com) are the only professional sports team in San Jose to bring home a championship.

Didn't know that? Well, it's not even common knowledge to regular Arena-goers. The championship banner comes down after Rhino games because the Arena management doesn't allow it to stay up for other events.

This is just one way, Gehle points out, that roller hockey gets little respect. The Mercury News buries any mention of the Rhinos deep inside the sports section. No one ever calls KNBR, the Bay Area's leading sports-talk station, to complain about some lousy game the Rhinos just had. (And if they did, would they ever get past the call-screener?) Few games are televised and often are tape-delayed if they are.

Probably few San Joseans are aware that this season marks the return of Roller Hockey International after a one-year hiatus during which the league restructured its finances. At its peak, the six-year-old league boasted 24 teams. Now, only eight remain.

"It's been a struggle," concedes team general manager Jon Gustafson, who was also the Rhinos' goalie during its championship year.

Aside from the obvious difference in the skating surface, there are a few other subtle distinctions between roller hockey and professional ice hockey. For instance, whereas the Sharks play three 20-minutes periods, the Rhinos play four 12-minute quarters.

And then there are the mascots. The Sharks, of course, have SJ Sharkie. The Rhinos have the cute and cuddly Rocky the Rhino.

And in order to boost revenues, the Rhinos wear ads on the bottom of their home jerseys for See's Candies, Henry's Hi-Life, Extreme Adventures, Gagliardi Insurance, Togo's, Expressions Unlimited and the very macho Peggy Sue's.

The low-budget mystique gives the roller hockey league a certain unpretentious charm.

One of the teams is actually called the Buffalo Wings. Roller hockey players make a pittance compared to other professional athletes. According to Gustafson, if the team wins, each player gets $300; if they lose, each player gets $200 for the game. "So there's an incentive every game to win, which ensures a quality product," Gustafson reasons.

After Rhinos games, fans are invited to skate around the Arena. Following the Rhinos Sunday game against the Las Vegas Coyotes (who beat the San Jose team 9-5), Rhinos players held an autograph session.

Ruth Gehle appreciates how accessible Rhinos players are to the public, at least compared to other professional athletes. She also loves the cheaper ticket prices, which run as low as $10. "Ice hockey is nice," Gehle says, "but you really have to shell out the bucks."

When I went to the Rhinos game on Sunday against Las Vegas, I was able to sneak down--without anyone's noticing--to the courtside seats, enabling me to see the game's only fist-fight up close.

Some of the younger fans seemed a little confused about whom they were watching. One mother kept reminding her son that these were the Rhinos, not the Sharks. This explanation was met with a blank stare.

During a Rhinos power play, one kid started doing the "chomp," the two-arm biting gesture Sharks fans do to the theme of Jaws.

It was hard not to wince a little.

Most Rhinos players play ice hockey in the winter either in the minor leagues or in other countries and use roller hockey to keep in shape, Gustafson says. Since nearly the whole Rhinos team is from Canada, the Rhinos owners put the players up in an apartment complex on San Jose's east side.

They'll be off to their home countries pretty soon. There are only four home games left in the Rhinos' short 26-game regular season schedule.

At first when I ask Gustafson if fans can count on the league being back next season, he sounds firmly optimistic. "Yes," he replies. Then after a short pause, he backpedals slightly: "I sure hope so."

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From the July 29-August 4, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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