Pro Beach Hockey. Even the name itself is jarring, and the words don’t sound like they belong together. But for three seasons from 1998 to 2000, Pro Beach Hockey (PBH) was very real, and it was glorious.
It has now been 20 years since the innovative inline hockey league last overtook Huntington Beach, California. It might be a bit of a relic by today’s standards, but it is easily one of the most unique touchstones of hockey pop culture, the likes of which has never been seen again.
Don’t remember the gimmick-laden roller league? It had it all. Two large ramps behind each goal. A two-point arc for goals scored from distance. Live bands playing during play. Big personalities skating up and down the court. The Laker Girls performing on the sidelines. Beach bums lining the bleachers. It was a made-for-TV spectacle, with real hockey players playing for real money live on ESPN and ESPN2. And it was the perfect time capsule of the late 1990s.
How did Pro Beach Hockey come to be, and what made it so special — and different from anything the hockey world had previously seen? We look back at one of the most fascinating hockey leagues ever with insight from those who created it and those who laced up inline skates for the six teams each weekend.
The birth of PBH
In the mid-1990s, inline hockey was among the fastest growing sports in America, and there was an audience for it, especially in the summer months of the sports calendar. Roller Hockey International (RHI) enjoyed some early success as a pro inline hockey league, selling a decent amount of tickets in NHL arenas during the summer months and finding its games on ESPN. There was the World Roller Hockey League (WRHL), founded by David McLane in 1993 and also televised on ESPN.
But as those leagues faded, McLane saw a chance to do his own thing. Beyond his WRHL venture, he had also created the cult-classic program Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (G.L.O.W.) and worked in the RHI marketing department for five years. He had plenty of insight into what worked and what didn’t.
“It was an eight- to 10-year journey from conception, and seeing a kid in Beverly Hills playing in his driveway with a ball, inline skates and a hockey stick, hitting it against the garage door,” McLane said. “I said, ‘We can create something new here.'”
So when the opportunity arose to try something different, McLane wanted to go bigger, louder and wilder.
Unlike previous pro roller hockey leagues, the beach version used a bright yellow ball and smaller playing courts rather than a plastic puck and NHL-size surfaces. It made the game faster, and the yellow ball popped against the black sport court. There were no face-offs after the opening draw, allowing for a more free-flowing game with fewer stoppages. And while fighting and physicality weren’t expressly encouraged, they also weren’t discouraged.
The two biggest gameplay innovations, however, were the two-point arc and the ramps. Players could shoot and score from outside an arc for a bonus point, similar to the three-point arc in basketball. And located in each end zone behind the nets were two large ramps that could be used in all sorts of different ways and gave PBH more of a roller derby vibe. It was the X Games meets hockey.
The six teams — the Heavy Metal, the Gargoyles, the Xpress, the Salsa, the Dawg Pac and the Web Warriors — were all centrally owned by the league. When he was the marketing lead for Roller Hockey International, McLane felt team owners had a way of mucking up his strategy to better position the league for popularity. He learned his lesson, and the league ownership of PBH teams allowed McLane creative control in molding the teams the way he wanted.
Building a cast of characters
“When David McLane told me the concept — guys on ramps, bands playing loud music — I was like, ‘Cool, whatever it takes,'” Mike Butters said.
Butters was one of the first calls from McLane and Chris McSorley, whom McLane had enlisted to help find players. McSorley had been a coach with the RHI’s Anaheim Bullfrogs following a lengthy playing career in minor league hockey. His brother, former NHLer Marty, would end up being PBH’s first color commentator. The McSorley’s had the connections to help find players willing to give the revolutionary league a try.
“I’m not a purist like some guys are,” said Butters, an actor who had played for the Bullfrogs and Los Angeles Blades in RHI. “There was no negative on my side. I was at the end of my hockey career, so I was just worried about keeping up with the young kids.”
McLane wanted players to have talent and personality. He wanted them to be outgoing and help sell the league. So, of course, Chris Nelson was another early call.
Nelson was arguably the face of inline hockey at the time. He had played in inline world championships and was a star in RHI. If there was a commercial or ad for inline hockey, Nelson almost certainly was in it. Having won a national championship on the ice at the University of Wisconsin and having been drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 1988, he was on track for a strong pro career on the ice and kind of fell into inline hockey as a way to stay in shape during the offseason. But as it turned out, inline hockey could take him farther than ice hockey career.
“A group of us that were among the premier roller hockey players in the world signed on right away. I had a marketable personality and had done some TV, like Baywatch. I also was a big guy who could skate like the wind and hit like a freight train,” Nelson said. “They said, ‘You’re going to be playing roller hockey on the beach with the Lakers’ cheerleaders on national TV. Are you cool with that?’ And I was like, ‘Uh, yeah!’ I didn’t even ask what they were going to pay me.”
Nelson also proved to be a valuable recruiter, too. He brought on Vashi Nedomansky, who had played 10 years of minor pro hockey and was teammates with Nelson on the Jeanie Buss-owned Los Angeles Blades of the RHI. Vashi is the son of Hockey Hall of Fame forward Vaclav Nedomansky.
“There were a lot of guys that said they were not going to do that, but I’ve always been up for a challenge,” said Nedomansky, who was living in Los Angeles and beginning to pursue the career he’d dreamed of since he was 12 years old: filmmaking. “There were only 12 or so guys to a team, so there were actually a lot of guys that wanted to play that didn’t get a chance.”
It wasn’t just plucking talent from previous iterations of inline leagues. McLane would actually go to local pickup roller hockey games near the California beaches to scout for talent. He signed some of the kids literally off the street to play professional roller hockey. And as Butters noted, some of them were exceptionally talented. Players on each roster were a wide range of ages and had different playing backgrounds.
Being fun was part of the job, too. Player personalities were a central part of the broadcast, and they had the chance to showcase other sides of themselves outside of hockey. Goaltender Rick Plester, who was also in a heavy metal band at the time, played the national anthem on his electric guitar … in full goalie gear. Nedomansky did the same in his player gear. Butters filmed dozens of vignettes as fictional hockey icon “Fasty LaShaft,” a character he made up with old hockey buddies who tried to one-up one another with mythical back stories. Butters eventually became the league’s color commentator and needled players during games over the rink speakers.
Rink-side interviews were one of the ways the players could be themselves. Whether it was with model-turned-correspondent Tiffany Richardson or one of the color commentators, the interviews weren’t so much about the game as they were about the players. In one of the few YouTube videos remaining from the era, Salsa player Ray Matz was asked to remove his false teeth to prove he was a hockey player, which he proudly obliged, showing a trademark toothless grin. There was very little room for cliché answers in PBH.
But while there were plenty of purposely goofy elements to the league, the players were still competitors, and there was incentive to win. (Players were paid on a per-game basis, but the winners would be paid more, and there was a bonus at the end of the season for the champion.)
“Nothing was made up, the fights were real, the hitting was real, the pushing and shoving was real. But after the game, there was no hard feelings,” Butters said. “Some people thought it was all staged, but it was 100% real. All of the emotions were there.”
‘Ramp it up!’
The first year of the league was a trial-and-error experience, or as Butters termed it, “loosey-goosey.”
“It was a lot like when we were kids and we’d make our own rules playing road hockey,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest early challenge was getting players who had played only traditional hockey to use the ramps. They were kind of a big deal for Pro Beach Hockey, with the league even using “Ramp it up!” as a tagline. But players struggled with them in the first season.
“The excitement and newness of it, having a ramp, it was so innovative,” said Nedomansky, the captain of the Heavy Metal in the first season of PBH. “But we looked at the thing and were like, ‘What the f— do you do with a ramp?'”
“David came to me one day and asked me why the guys weren’t using the ramps,” Butters remembered. “So I suggested he just change the rules, and that’s what he did. We changed the rules mid-week after the first weekend of the season.”
To encourage the players to use the ramps, the league implemented a rule stating play would resume on the ramp after each goal, forcing players to at least start the play up there. It was still pretty rare for players to actually use the ramps to pick up speed, but over time, players began to figure out how to use them strategically.
“The intellect of the hockey players, whoever was a quick learner would come up with cool things,” Nedomansky said. “But it was scary. Hockey players, we’re used to level ground. Going up the ramp, unless you skateboarded before, you didn’t know what to do. It was kind of fun though, if a guy didn’t know what he was doing and got caught back there, you could just pound him into the corner.”
The ramps also became a valuable tool to generate offense. Nelson recalled one of the innovations he brought to the game.
“You’d just get the ball, skate behind the net and fire it up the ramp and off the [angled glass at the top] and have it pop right out in front of the goalie, and the guy in front could just bat it in,” he said.
The challenges of beach hockey
Many of the unique things about the league were also the things that caused issues. For one, the heat was a problem for players.
“The first year, it was easy because you’d do about two games a day. The second and third year, we were doing three games a day, and it was exhausting,” Nelson said. “You’re out there on a black surface, and the heat just bounces off of it so you’re out there sweating bullets.”
Nedomansky recalled a few times where the heat got so bad that some of the adhesive that kept the sport court in place on the ramps would melt enough to run down the wall. If a player fell while on the ramps, there was a good chance they were going to have to peel themselves off of it before getting back into play.
Playing near the beach was also a challenge. It was impossible to keep sand from blowing onto the playing surface — and sand does not mix well with players on wheels. Any liquid on the surface would also create a slick environment.
Then there were the players’ dressing rooms. They were beneath the bleachers, where flip-flop-clad beachgoers were able to come and go as they pleased. If there was another game going on, fans would be stomping and cheering above, but the noise wasn’t the worst part.
“The whole time, nothing but sand and pennies and drinks would come spilling down from the bleachers,” Nedomansky said. “There was no air flow, it was about 110 degrees under there. I think all the teams dressed in two huge rooms, and it just rained sand all weekend long. So you’d constantly have to clean your gear, clean out your wheels — everything had to be cleaned at all times. That’s probably the one thing they didn’t figure out, to be smarter than to put us under the stands.”
Hockey in Hollywood
Pro Beach Hockey had a rather large pool of players come from Southern California’s burgeoning community of hockey players involved in the movie business. Hollywood is still dotted with PBH alumni today. One of the biggest names is Oren Koules — one of the producers of the Saw movie franchise.
Koules was a talent manager and film producer when Pro Beach Hockey kicked off. He had played in the WHL and some minor pro, but he was about 15 years removed from competitive hockey, though he still skated regularly, often sharing the ice with some Los Angeles Kings players such as Marty McSorley and Wayne Gretzky in the summer months. When he saw the first season of PBH, he had to get involved, despite being in his late 30s at that point.
“The guy they had doing play-by-play [former Anaheim Ducks broadcaster Chris Madsen], you could hear him when you’d skate by, and he kept saying all the time, ‘Oren Koules, the oldest player in the league,’ and I’d be like, ‘Shut up!'” Koules said with a laugh.
He had a big shot and used it often. Pro Beach Hockey had cut a sponsorship with a skate manufacturing company that made inline skates with inverted wheels that were supposed to more accurately mimic the ability to start and stop on ice skates. It wasn’t that simple for most players, and Koules said they actually contributed to his style of play.
“They were so hard to skate in, you ended up apologizing for running into guys all the time because you weren’t trying to be a jerk,” he said. “So I couldn’t skate in the things, but I could shoot. So I almost always would set up wide like a three-point shooter in basketball and go for those two-point goals.”
But Koules’ greatest success wasn’t on the rink. He had produced his first movie, “Mrs. Winterbourne,” three years before he joined up with PBH, and he went on to produce the entire Saw franchise, along with the sitcom “Two and a Half Men.” Koules stayed close to hockey, though. He was a co-owner of the Helena Bighorns of the North American Hockey League for a while, and even co-owned the Tampa Bay Lightning for two seasons before Jeffrey Vinik bought the team in 2010.
There was plenty more Hollywood crossover for PBH players and execs. Butters, who now resides in Seattle where he buys and sells jewelry, actually joined Koules on the set of the Saw movies as an actor. Despite putting together a rather full IMDb page, he stayed close to hockey for many years, serving as a pro scout with the Lightning for three seasons and joining Koules as a co-owner of the Bighorns.
Nedomansky went on to become a film editor who has worked on “Deadpool” and “Sharknado 2,” among films. He is currently in the process of producing and editing a documentary called “Big Ned” about his father, the first hockey player to defect from a communist country and play in the NHL. And Nelson’s hockey background made him an especially valuable commodity when it came to films needing stunt men or technical advisors. One of his biggest breaks came in playing one of Mr. Freeze’s skating henchmen in “Batman & Robin,” which also included a few of Nelson’s PBH friends. He also worked on “Miracle” and is currently helping with the production of a forthcoming hockey movie called “Way of the Warriors,” filming in Minnesota’s Iron Range.
The founder of PBH, McLane, continues to work as a promoter and producer, too. He has come up with several other TV properties — most recently the Women of Wrestling promotion.
A lasting legacy
After three seasons, Pro Beach Hockey was gone. It had enjoyed some ratings success — McLane said there were even a few NHL playoff games that PBH out-rated — but the inline industry as a whole was beginning to wane by the end of the third season. The league was ultimately not picked up for a fourth season on television, effectively ceasing the league’s operations. Pro Beach Hockey burned brightly but burned out fast.
It has not faded, though, in the memories of the players and the people who discovered its re-run games at all hours of the day.
“I get calls, texts, emails, Facebook messages, Instagrams every single day from people who say, ‘I grew up watching you on Pro Beach Hockey,'” said Nelson, who actually remembers San Jose Sharks players calling him from their locker room and telling him they thought PBH looked awesome. “I knew it was a big thing, but I didn’t think it would just continue and last. I could really see it coming back again.”
“I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me who know me from Pro Beach Hockey,” Nedomansky said. “It’s crazy, 20 years later, people remember the three seasons we were on and just remember that moment in time. Just think about it — Huntington Beach, the Pacific Ocean, hockey, bikinis, heavy metal music. Just a crazy combination.”
For Koules, playing in Pro Beach Hockey allowed his son to watch him play. Miles, who was only 5 and 6 years old back when his dad was taking two-point shot attempts, went on to play minor league hockey, reaching as high as the American Hockey League.
“I used to take Miles with me. It was about an hour from our house. He would just sit in the stands, and all of the guys knew him,” Koules said. “So he hadn’t been playing hockey, and I think that made him want to play hockey — just being around all those guys. He just loved the atmosphere, and pretty soon after that, he started skating.”
Leagues like Pro Beach Hockey just don’t exist anymore. The IIHF’s World Inline Championships, which began in 1996, were discontinued in 2017. Major League Roller Hockey ran from 1998 to 2012 but never really stuck. The Professional Inline Hockey Association is in its 18th year but hasn’t come close to matching the intrigue of PBH. McLane laments the lack of creativity and willingness to take risks.
But while we might not see anything like it again, like Fasty LaShaft, the legend of Pro Beach Hockey only continues to grow in its absence. For the players, it will always be a special moment in time.
“I got a text the other day that someone wanted to buy my jerseys from Pro Beach Hockey, and I said, ‘Absolutely not,'” Nelson said. “I could have two nickels to my name and I still wouldn’t sell those jerseys because, at that point in my life, it was so important and so fun and so memorable for me.
“I’ve forgotten a lot of things in my life, but Pro Beach Hockey is something I will never, ever forget.”