Mike Stevenson still has a blown-up print of the image hanging on his wall.
Stevenson was preparing to march with the rest of the American delegation into the Olympic stadium for the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games. Many of the assembled athletes had been on the lookout for the members of the U.S. men's basketball squad -- the famed Dream Team -- but they were nowhere to be found.
The Americans left the gymnastics venue, which was being used as a staging area, and made their way to the stadium's tunnel to be introduced. While they waited in the tunnel, a door opened and the Dream Team walked out, right in front of Stevenson and his teammates. Stevenson remembers how everyone was shouting Magic Johnson's name, hoping to get his attention, and when he turned around, someone snapped a photo of Magic with Stevenson standing right behind him.
"All the other countries kind of swarmed us," he said, before correcting himself. "Kind of swarmed them."
Unlike Magic and Michael and Larry, Stevenson and his teammates were not the athletic equivalent of rock stars. Indeed, many viewers within the States had likely never even seen their sport. But in that moment, Stevenson -- a roller hockey player -- was standing with the best athletes in the world on the biggest stage. Stevenson and his teammates were among the first Olympians in their sport. They were also among the last.
In 1992, roller hockey made its Olympic debut as one of three demonstration sports at the Barcelona Games. For those in the roller hockey community -- more accurately, for those involved with a version of the sport called rink hockey -- the 1992 Olympics represent the biggest showcase the game's ever known. But the years that followed were difficult, especially in the United States, where the sport struggled to catch on as funding began to dry up.
Still, those involved with the 1992 Games look back on it fondly. They can say they were Olympic roller hockey players, and for folks who've dedicated their lives to the sport, that remains pretty damn cool.
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A primer on the sport is in order: Americans may equate the words "roller hockey" with inline hockey, a sport with rules and gameplay similar to ice hockey, but played on inline skates. The roller hockey played at the Barcelona Olympics was a version of the sport called rink hockey, which is played on quad roller skates, involves a ball instead of a puck and sticks similar the ones used in field hockey. It has a distinct set of rules. (In all of the Barcelona Games' official literature, "roller hockey" was used as the sport's name in English, and "rink-hockey" was used in French.)
Rink hockey dates back to the nineteenth century, when an Englishman named Edward Crawford adapted ice hockey for play on a wooden skating rink, and the earliest version of the sport used a wooden puck or flat disc as well as flat sticks. According to an informational booklet prepared by the IOC in advance of the '92 Games, the sport grew in popularity quickly, especially in England, where there were more than 600 roller rinks. By 1905, England had its first association of roller hockey clubs. In 1924, the sport had its first international federation. Two years later came the first European championships, and a decade after that, the first world championships.
Rink hockey is played five-on-five, with a goalie, two defensemen and two forwards on the rink at any given time. The playing surface measures about 120 feet by 60 feet (much smaller than an NHL-size rink), and the ball is made of a hard rubber while the sticks are short with flat, rounded blades. Each game has two 20-minute halves, and there's no offsides rule, like there is in ice hockey. The equipment is different, too: In addition to quad roller skates, players wear shin pads, knee pads and lightly padded gloves, but in general don't wear the type of armor you'd see on the ice in the NHL. (The goalies, as you might imagine, wear more protection than the other skaters.)
By the time it made its Olympic debut, rink hockey was popular in several European countries and parts of South America, and the best players were able to play professionally in countries like Spain and Italy. In the United States, though, it remained something of a fringe sport. Its heyday in the U.S. spanned from the late 1970s to the late '80s, with its popularity mostly limited to pockets of the country, such as Texas and the Pacific Northwest. Various estimates put the total number of players nationally in 1992 at somewhere between 500 and 1,000.
The sport's inclusion as a demonstration sport in Barcelona made a lot sense: Rink hockey was popular in Spain, and it couldn't have hurt that the then-IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, was a player himself when he was younger. For the most part, countries qualified for the '92 Games based on their finish at the in the 1991 World Cup in Portugal, organized by the Fédération Internationale de Roller Sports, a governing body that oversees not just rink hockey but all roller sports. The United States, while hardly a dominant power, was among the countries that made the cut.
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The selection process for the U.S. Olympic team was to take place in two stages: one in December of 1991 and another in May of 1992. The March 1992 issue of U.S. Roller Skating magazine detailed the process: Players who met certain requirements (as well as the current national team members) were able to participate in the December trials in Colorado Springs, while certain other players would be able to take part in the final trials even if they hadn't participated in the first. About 30-35 players participated in this first stage of the tryout.
Most of the players auditioning for a spot on the Olympic team were amateurs. Stevenson, a Washington native who, at 19, made the squad as its youngest member, was working at his father's roller rink at the time, DJ'ing and handing out skates when he wasn't playing. But in 1992, professional players were allowed to take part in the Olympics, which was good news for 32-year-old Jim Trussell, who began playing in an Italian league in 1986, and had previously been banned from the U.S. national team because he was classified as a pro. Trussell, who would later go on to coach the U.S. men's national team, was among the best American players at the time, so his inclusion would bring both experience and skill to the roster.
There was a problem, though: Tryouts were to take place during the postseason of Trussell's Italian club. "I was asked to play for the U.S. team," Trussell recalled, "and I told them I would, but I wouldn't leave my professional team and sacrifice my prominent professional career during the league playoffs to fly to America to try out for the team."
And so in order to accommodate Trussell, all the potential team members were flown to Italy, where the final tryouts were held in Sandrigo, near Trussell's club. Trussell was among the 15-20 players who took part in the final tryout and he made the team while his Italian club was engaged in the postseason. In all, 10 players were selected, plus alternates.
While in Italy, the team also played exhibitions against Italian pro teams, in addition to intra-squad scrimmages. "The trip to Italy was very good for the American players because most of us hadn't played in this world-class style of play," said Johnny Raglin, the only other U.S. team member who'd played professionally in Europe.
To coach the team, the U.S. federation tapped Dickie Sisson of Lubbock, Texas -- a great player in his day and a member of an influential family in the sport. (He was such a good player that in the late 1960s, the Chicago Blackhawks offered to pay him to learn ice hockey.) Sisson was "vocal," "cocky," and "flamboyant with his comments," depending on which former player you talk to, and he understood the game well, aptly managing substitutions.
"Dickie walked in a room he made sure you saw him," Raglin said. "He wanted you thinking about him. He knew he was good and wanted to make sure you knew it."
Raglin said Sisson was especially hard on him, because the two went back so far, and not just on the rink. Raglin, also from Lubbock, had worked for the brick-laying company owned by Sisson and his brothers, and he said Sisson was a good coach and a father figure who wanted him to be the best player he could be. Stevenson also said Sisson took him under his wing, in part because Stevenson reminded Sisson of himself at a young age.
Others had more mixed feelings. "I can't say he was the best coach I ever played for," Trussell said. "I have played for some excellent coaches in my career. I think Dickie did the best he could with the experience he had."
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The American team had a few months to prepare for the Olympics and in the lead-up to the Games, they gathered in Colorado Springs once a month to train for a week or two at a time. But with players holding down other jobs, it wasn't possible to practice nonstop the way athletes did in other sports. Then there was the issue of money: According to a June 1992 article in the Port Neches (Texas) MidCounty Chronicle, only some players received even partial funding from the USOC for training, though players still in school received scholarship money. (According to the article, Keith Huckabee was chosen to receive the support money, but his brother, Karl, also a member of the squad, was not. Both players had to work to earn money to participate.) Trussell said he received travel and lodging assistance during training, but according to that 1992 article, the USOC didn't provide funds for equipment, which left players on the hook for skates (about $350), sticks ($45 each), and shin and knee pads ($150).
So, while the Americans had finished third at the Pan American Games in Cuba in 1991, they arrived in the Catalian city of Vic, where they'd be playing at the Pavelló del Club Patí Vic, without grand expectations.
The goal of any Olympic participant is a medal -- even if it's the "specially designed demonstration sports silver-gilt medal" described in the IOC's rink hockey explanatory booklet. But the Americans would have been pleased to get out their group, which they knew would be difficult. The field of teams was divided into two pools of six, with only the top three teams in each advancing out of the preliminary stage. The United States' pool included powerhouses Italy, Portugal and Argentina; to have a shot at a medal, the Americans' would have to finish ahead of at least one of them.
The Americans' opened the Olympics with a 10-1 rout of Japan, with Trussell and fellow defenseman Jeffey Gibson scoring three goals apiece and and Raglin adding two. But it's the next game members of the team still replay in their minds.
Argentina was among the best teams in the tournament, and they knew it. The IOC's official report on the 1992 Olympics includes a quote from the team's trainer, Miguel Gómez, which he gave before his country's match against the United States. Talking about Argentina's style of play, he said that, "it's fast, creative and individual. It's dangerous in all areas and it isn't repetitive." He added that "'I think we are capable of going all the way in these Games."
The U.S. team, meanwhile, played an aggressive run-and-gun style out of necessity. Stevenson recalls how their more skilled opponents could pass the ball around for a minute or two at a time, but that he and his teammates, who had less time to practice together, weren't as patient and had more trouble setting up their offense.
The underdog Americans gave Argentina a fight: The U.S. trailed 3-2 at halftime, and was tied 4-4 in the final minute of the game when they were presented with a golden opportunity to pull off the upset. A foul by Argentina gave Trussell a direct free shot, in which a player skates one-on-one with the goalie without a defender. Trussell made his move and hit the bar, missing the opportunity to give his team a 5-4 lead. Instead, the game ended in a 4-4 tie -- an accomplishment in itself, but a disappointing result nonetheless.
"I have reflected on that many times in my life, asking myself if that was a failure," Trussell said. "I do not believe I was a failure. I just missed a shot that I created from getting fouled in the first place." He added: "But I sure wish I would have made that shot."
It proved to be a costly miss. The Americans would be blown out by Italy in their third game, beat Switzerland in their fourth, and lose 7-3 to a very good Portugal team in their fifth and final match. (How good was Portugal? They beat Japan 38-0 in the prelims.) The Americans finished the round fourth in their group with two wins, two losses and a draw -- just behind Argentina, which had two wins, one loss and two draws. The math here is pretty simple: If the U.S. had beaten Argentina (and the other results held), they'd have finished ahead of Argentina in Group A and qualified for the semifinal round. Instead, their tournament was over, and they'd settle for seventh place. As for Argentina, they'd go on to win the gold medal, defeating Spain in the final -- though because of rink hockey's demonstration-sport status, it didn't add to the country's official medal count.
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Many in the rink hockey community -- from the players through the suits running the sport's governing bodies -- were hopeful the game would be included in future Olympic programs. There was even a rumor Samaranch had made a promise to Spain's roller skating federation that he'd get rink hockey into the Olympics as a full-time sport.
"There was a big chance," said Don Allen, now a member of the USA Roller Sports rink hockey committee who's been involved with the sport since the 1960s and helped train the 1992 Olympic team. "We were supposed to become a full Olympic sport in Atlanta."
Stevenson, meanwhile, was more than hopeful that it would happen. He was sure it would. "Oh yeah, I thought it was going to be [a full Olympic sport]," he said. "I was 18, 19 years old, thinking this was the way it's gonna be."
So what went wrong?
An IOC spokesperson confirms roller sports did indeed approach it about inclusion in the 1996 Games, even though it had been decided at an IOC session in 1991 that the Atlanta program would be mostly the same as the one in Barcelona, with only limited modifications. (Returning as a demonstration sport wasn't an option, either, as the IOC had decided in 1989 that demonstration sports would no longer be included in the Olympics beyond 1992.)
There were politics involved, too. Allen recalls that FIRS, the international roller sports governing body, was almost certain, in talking with the IOC, that rink hockey would become a full Olympic sport. The United States was hosting the 1996 Games, and so Allen said it was up to the sport's national governing body to submit a plan for it to become a part of the Olympic program. But Allen said some in the United States Amateur Confederation of Roller Skating (now known as USA Roller Sports) pushed hard for the Atlanta Games to include not just rink hockey but also other roller skating disciplines, like artistic skating. At the time, he said, the U.S. federation was run by artistic-skating people, and they saw rink hockey as a sort of stepping stone to getting the other disciplines into the Games as well. The idea was that if they all didn't get in, none would.
But artistic skating isn't as popular as rink hockey in Europe and South America, and adding so many athletes would have been a challenge for organizers. Allen believes the IOC was into the idea of rink hockey becoming a full Olympic sport, but that it wasn't OK with adding the other disciplines. Allen is hesitant to go into detail about the politics (or paperwork issues) at the U.S. roller sports federation at the time, but admits that back then, there were "some hard-headed people in our group." Ultimately, none of those roller sports made it in.
As a result, federations outside North America blamed the United States for rink hockey's exclusion from the Olympics. "I went overseas sometime after the Atlanta Games, and I was pretty well like a leper over there, because they blamed everything on the United States," said Allen, who believes there was blame to go around. The head of the sport's international sanctioning body agrees there were many factors.
"In my opinion, roller hockey was nearly unknown in the East, with a few federations in Africa," said Harro Strucksberg, the president of the Comité Internationale de Rink-Hockey, the rink-hockey arm of FIRS. Other contributing factors included "poor lobby work by FIRS officials, the personal interest of other branches in FIRS, the lack of TV contracts and poor sponsorship." Strucksberg said FIRS was "really disappointed about the decision of the IOC" to keep rink hockey out of the Games, especially considering the support of Samaranch and the Olympic committees in Spain, Portugal, and some South American countries -- not to mention the great gold-medal game in 1992, which was watched by many IOC members.
Said Allen: "There's absolutely no reason why rink hockey should not be in the Olympics. We have more than enough continents playing to meet their rules. We have more than enough countries playing to meet their rules."
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Rink hockey players around the world were disappointed when the sport was denied entry into the Olympics, but here in the United States, the '90s saw another distressing trend for those involved with the sport: Inline hockey was soaring in popularity, often at the cost of rink hockey. Some rinks switched over to hosting inline competitions, which was hotter at the time. Equipment companies threw money at inline hockey. A U.S.-based professional inline league -- Roller Hockey International -- launched in 1993. Inline hockey even received support from the NHL, which saw it as a way to promote its sport. (That was never the case for rink hockey, which is too different from ice hockey.)
For elite American players, though, the biggest blow came when rink hockey was dropped from the Pan American Games starting in 1999. (The Games that year were held in Winnipeg, and Canadian officials pushed for inline hockey, which the Canadians excelled at, to replace rink hockey, which they were not very good at.) It was a devastating decision, because being dropped from the Pan Am Games meant players could no longer receive financial support from the USOC.
The rise of inline hockey -- and the pushing aside of rink hockey -- was difficult to watch for those who'd grown up with the latter. "It tore my heart out," Allen said. "I devoted my entire life to this game. For me to see what was happening back then -- my son played a little bit of inline hockey. At one time, I owned an inline arena, and I hated it. I sold it."
Tom Hughes, the chairman of USA Rink Hockey, said there are around 600 rink hockey players in the U.S. in 2014, though it's possible the true number is higher. It remains a regional sport -- one for which finding equipment can be difficult. (Players must either order gear from overseas, or buy it at a rink that's already done so.) With no Olympic medals to dream of, the men's national team sets its sights on the world championship, which is held every other year. (The U.S. regularly qualifies, but usually finishes toward the bottom.)
As for the chances of rink hockey making it back to the Olympics, FIRS isn't currently pursuing it. (It's not pushing for inline hockey, either. According to Gilbert Portier, chairman of FIRS' Comité International de Roller In-Line Hockey, these days "FIRS' dream is to have speed skating as an Olympic discipline.")
The one-time inclusion of rink hockey has only magnified how special it was for those involved.
"It was so cool," said Stevenson, who got to meet President George H.W. Bush when the Olympic delegation visited the White House. "The chance of a lifetime. I still think about it all the time. I'm one of only 10 guys that got to play in the Olympics. With the timing, I just got really lucky."