Kooky sport. Bad market. Dumb name. Late start. Out of state owners. Check, check, check, check and…check. The Orlando Rollergators of Roller Hockey International reside securely in our One-Year Wonders file of ill-conceived and unlamented minor league teams.
RHI was an effort to capitalize on the 1990’s in-line skating craze. RHI played in big arenas during the summer time, with rosters primarily composed of minor league ice hockey players moonlighting during their off season. Former Montreal Canadiens star Ralph Backstrom was the league’s front man and helped convince well-heeled NBA investors like Jerry Buss and Howard Baldwin to purchase franchises. Other clubs were run more like mom-and-pops as was the case with the Orlando Rollergators, who were owned by the New Jersey Devils’ team orthopedist, Dr. Richard Commentucci. Devils star and future Hockey Hall-of-Famer Slava Fetisov also held a minority stake in the Rollergators.
The Rollergators set up shop in Orlando in late March 1995, barely two months the start of the RHI season. Central Florida is a notorious graveyard for goofy start-up sports leagues. One notable exception was the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League, a wildly popular club during the 1990’s which routinely sold out the Orlando Arena. Orlando wasn’t big enough for two made-for-cable Frankensports and the fans voted with their pocketbooks: they preferred the Preds. So did the managers of the Orlando Arena, who sensibly gave the Predators the prime weekend dates and gave the Rollergators the leftover garbage: a bunch of Monday and Wednesday nights. Commentucci and Fetisov neglecting to spend any money introducing their unfamiliar product didn’t help.
Long-time NHL winger Walt Poddubny was the Rollergators coach and, at age 35, occasionally strapped on the in-line skates as well.
This June 28th game was a typically lonely night of pro roller hockey at the O-Rena. The ‘Gators played the Detroit Motor City Mustangs, another of RHI’s one-season-and-done entries. 1,121 lonely souls (announced) showed up on a Wednesday night. In ten home games in 1995, the Rollergators never cracked 2,000 fans in the 13,000-seat building. The Rollergators beat the Mustangs 7-3 on this evening, but that was a rarity. The club finished the season dead last in the Eastern Confernece at 7-16.
Commentucci, Fetisov and fellow partner Igor Maller flew in for a late season match at the O-Rena in July. Peering out at the announced crowd of 1,082, Fetisov gave an upbeat assessment to The Orlando Sentinel:
“We’ve come to stay,” said Fetisov. “We’re not coming for one season and then run away. We’re ready for this.”
The Rollergators played their final game two weeks later.
The Rollergators were gone but RHI, improbably, returned to Orlando the following summer. New owner Norton Herrick had real money, unlike the ‘Gator guys. The real estate mogul previously tried to bring Major League Baseball to Orlando and was a rumored suitor for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers at one point in the 1990’s. In addition to launching the Orlando Jackals franchise in 1996, Herrick bought 25% of RHI itself. He sunk millions into the promotion of the roller hockey and the Jackals and won the league’s Murphy Cup championship in his first season of 1996. The sport was still a loser on the balance sheet, however. For his passion and largesse, Herrick lost a reported $4 million on the Jackals over two seasons from 1996 to 1997.
RHI itself shutdown at the end of 1997, returned briefly (and invisibly) in 1999, and was gone for good by the turn of the century.
Most of the principals of the Rollergators have now passed away. Owner Richard Commentucci passed at age 71 in 2011. Head Coach Walt Poddubny died suddenly of a heart attack in 2009. He was only 49.