By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
On Monday nights, behind Francis C. Hammond Middle School, Devils fight it out with Convicts and Concrete Donkeys.
No, this is not the start of an urban fantasy novel; it is the real-life, two decade-long clash between Alexandria’s best roller hockey teams.
For 20 years, the Alexandria Roller Hockey League, an evolution of the Alexandria Inline Hockey Association, has been a second home for men and women who want to forsake their ties, collared shirts and employee badges for sweaty pads, broken helmets and taped-up hockey sticks.
“It really is a second home to a lot of people,” Jared Elder, one ARHL’s co-founders and players, said. “I’m a person who work can really drive me to peak anxiety, and there’s nothing that can make me just forget about everything that’s going on in the world quite like playing hockey and being around the guys and being at the rink.”
After two decades of hard wins and even harder losses, the rink — a coliseum made out of battered boards and cracked concrete — has seen better days.
With the help of the Washington Capitals and Alexandria City Public Schools, those better days are finally here.
A new rink opened on the same site on May 14. For the players, some of whom have been in the league since its inception, it is an acknowledgement of the place the rink occupies in Alexandria’s hockey culture.
“It’s a great example of the city working together with the Capitals and all the players to continue the great tradition of hockey in Alexandria and also bringing this to new people,” Ethan McAfee, an ARHL co-founder, said.
To look at the new rink is to acknowledge the last 20 years of Alexandria roller hockey and the man who started it all: Bill Raue.
Raue, who Elder described as a doppelganger of Doc Brown from “Back to the Future,” had tried to open other rinks in the area, with mixed results.
Matthew Milici, a Cadillac salesman and veteran of the Hammond rink, played in another of Raue’s leagues until it was shut down after neighbors complained about the noise, he said.
Finally, in the late 90s, Raue partnered with ACPS to create the rink behind Hammond in a lot that had previously been reserved for driver’s education courses.
“Bill provided the money and built the rink on school property and the school system would basically lease the rink,” McAfee said.
Raue managed the rink and the league well into his 70s. By then, he was already splitting his time between Alexandria and England, his wife’s native country. Eventually, he moved to England permanently and transitioned management to McAfee, Elder, Alex Silverman and Ben Malakoff, four longtime players in the league.
The transition occurred in March 2018. To signify a new chapter in Alexandria roller hockey’s history, the four new league leaders rebranded the league to the ARHL, Elder said.
Since then, very little has changed. The league became a little more structured and the lease increased in price. For many players, consistency is part of the rink’s appeal; the rink remains the same, even as players’ lives change and their bodies become high-risk variables.
“It’s basically in a parking lot behind a school, so it is what it is,” Milici, 47, said. “But it’s got a charm that you don’t get anywhere else. You park right there and you hang and drink beers with all the guys after the games.”
The rink might be changing, but the people, the heart and soul of the place, are still there. It is the camaraderie and the on and off the rink friendships that players pine for, especially as they grow older.
“As you kind of get older — I’m 42 years old — you kind of miss your high school days of being on a team and playing a sport together,” McAfee said.
Players find the rink in their own way, but they all stay for the same reason. It is a concrete field of dreams for amateur athletes, former college players and retired pros alike.
Milici followed Raue’s firebrand attitude from rink to rink. Elder heard about the rink in a 2006 Washington Post profile. McAfee, who played hockey at Virginia Tech, just did a Google search for “Alexandria hockey rink.”
“It’s kind of like a field of dreams, so to speak, for middle aged guys and gals to go play and enjoy themselves and just have a lot of fun,” Elder said.
The ARHL embraces players, men and women, of all skill levels, and the structure enforces that. There are four divisions in the ARHL, each designed for different levels of skill.
They range from the recreational Sunday morning division to the elite Monday night division. The Thursday night division is a co-ed recreational league, but every division is co-ed if the players are at the right skill level. A woman and her husband, both of whom played ice hockey professionally in Austria, currently compete on Monday nights. Add to that the Hammond physical education classes that occasionally use the rink during the day and the rink is consistently buzzing with activity.
Each division has six to 10 teams, each with nine or 10 players. Some teams have been around for a decade or more.
Friendly rivalries form between teams and players that have faced off for years, rivalries built on mutual respect and sportsmanship. Most rivalries remain cordial. But this is still hockey, and fights do break out in the heat of the moment.
“There are a lot of people who are the nicest people in the world when you talk to them off the rink and then you get them on the rink and they are total jerks who want to fight you,” McAfee said.
However, by all accounts, the league used to be more rough and tumble. The ARHL co-founders established an official system of warnings and suspensions, and players generally are more hesitant to fight long-term friends and foes.
“I think the longer people know each other, you don’t get as upset with guys that you know,” Milici said. “It’s like going to school. The new guy always gets into a fight because if you get tripped by a stranger, you take offense to it. But you get tripped by a friend, you look and smile and keep it moving.”
“We have this attitude that we carry at the rink all the time when things start to out of hand, which is: everyone has to go to work in the morning, guys,” Elder said. “You’re not in the NHL. Just tone it down a bit.”
After all the fights, victories and defeats, the league still attracts players from week to week. The rink is just a structure; the community gives it life.
“A lot of people go home after work and sit in front of the TV,” Milici said. “I’d much rather just be hanging out up there, get a game or two in and just hang out with all the guys.”
Wear and tear from players and mother nature took their toll on the rink over time, particularly the outdoor surface. The league invested time and effort for repairs, but the $89 per person fee was not enough to pay for everything.
“It got to a point where it was just really beat up,” Elder said. “[With] concrete, while it has a special finish, it has cracks. We were constantly patching those. The boards were starting to get a little rickety.”
Luckily, one of Raue’s parting gifts was a blossoming partnership with the Washington Capitals and ACPS to renovate the rink. The National Hockey League has a fund aimed at growing hockey in new markets through youth programs and new rinks. After taking leadership, the four ARHL co-founders worked to get some of that money to come their way.
The project had a long, tortured history. Sometimes it was put on the back burner in favor of other projects; other times it just seemed like it fell through the cracks of corporate and local scholastic bureaucracy, players said.
The ARHL invested some of its own money to compensate for gaps in funding. The co-founders knew the Capitals would not cover the cost of lights, a necessary feature since all their games take place at night, so they chipped in to cover the cost.
Finally, after a year and a half, the new rink is nearly complete. The rink officially reopened on May 14 with new boards, benches, releveled concrete and a scoreboard. A new sport court surface is in the works.
The rink is fresh and new, but the spirit behind it remains the same. It is still a beacon of light in a dark parking lot at the end of a hard work day.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years, pretty much every Monday and every Tuesday night for the past 15 years,” McAfee said. “It becomes part of your life and therefore binds you to Alexandria and binds you to the friends that you’ve met.”