FORT SILL, Okla. (April 12, 2012) -- A dedicated group of Soldiers and civilians keep roller hockey alive at Fort Sill Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at a rink near the Patriot Club.

They play on a composite surface, constructed atop a tennis court, which more closely resembles playing on ice, and the surface is more forgiving when competition for the puck results in a fall.

David Rhoads is one of the Soldiers who plays and a regular to hockey. Rhoads is a colossus on the rink using quick hands, fast acceleration and a lot of creativity to either steal the puck or carry it in to the offensive zone and get a good shot on goal.

"Coming out here and playing twice a week gives me the practice I need to get better, and helps me when I play on the ice, too," he said. "What keeps me coming back is the thrill of scoring or passing and setting a teammate up for a score. Sometimes it's mimicking what I see on TV and seeing if I can do it with inline skates."

Players gear up with knee and shin guards, and heavy gloves being the primary protective accessories, should they take a stick across the legs. The gear also protects them again getting hit by the 4-ounce puck on its way to the net. Rhoads said players don't check, like people might see in pro hockey games. At most there may be some minor bumping and such to get possession of the puck.

"We try to make it fun for everybody. We want people who might not have all the equipment to be able to come out here and play and not be concerned about getting hurt," said Rhoads, who said players range in age from their 20s to 40s.

Richard Heazer's game has come a long way in the short time he's played inline hockey. After scoring a goal, Heazer coasts around the back of the net then pivots on his wheels skating backward out toward mid-court, something he could not do three years ago when he started playing roller hockey.

"Although you can't stop like on an ice rink, you learn to make big wide turns to control your speed or move to the net," said Heazer.

James Diamond began playing at Fort Sill shortly after the rink opened in 1992. He said back then 20-30 men might show up to play, and there was league play that included Soldiers and civilians from downtown. Though the interest has waned from those early years, he said the game is a great way for him to relieve some stress and relax.

"It's a good workout and great for my cardio, unlike football that starts and stops for plays, hockey is a constant back and forth. Last summer I lost 15 pounds playing out here," he said.

Despite skating most of his life, Jordan Baxter is experiencing some of the workout aspect Diamond spoke of, though from a slightly different point of view. Baxter, who previously played defenseman or winger, recently agreed to don the goalie pads and guard the net.

"It's definitely not easy and a bit scary seeing that puck coming toward me. But goalie is a lot of fun, and I expend a lot of energy out here moving back and forth depending on where the puck is and trying to cut down on the angle for someone attempting to shoot," he said.

Having only a few weeks experience under his belt, Baxter made a few glove saves and blocked a couple shots with his stick. But, he's still waiting to take on off the body to get a feel for that.

Rhoads said the more one plays, the more one improves. With that improvement the desire to play also increases.

"Just like anything else, once you get going and score a goal or make a backhand shot or go top shelf, you want to do it again," he said. "You realize you can score on a guy and then develop different ways of doing that. Then it's just a matter of coming out, doing it again and improving as a player and a skater."

Gear up
Heazer said when he first began playing he was in the right place at the right time and found a good deal on that included his skates and other equipment needs. Those skates, already used, have since broken down and are no longer usable for hockey. But Heazer's found a sport he enjoys and now has about eight pair of skates. He said gloves cost about $30-$100; shin and knee guards, about $30-$40; skates, anywhere from $40-$600; and a hockey stick about $100-$200.

He said good skates are a wise choice, and the more expensive generally are built better and provide better support. Wheels are another items that breakdown sooner than the entire skate. Again, price dictates the quality and how soon friction will wear them down.

As the players skated about the rink prior to starting a pickup game, some played in shorts, others in long pants. A few players even wore the team jerseys of their favorite National Hockey League team or minor league team.

With no referee to initiate the opening face off, one player dumped the puck into the offensive end, and skaters from both teams raced to control it and put their team on the scoreboard.