Pro Beach Hockey, we barely knew ye
For the moment, Pro Beach Hockey still has two years on the XFL’s lifespan.
In late January 2018, WWE’s fizzled football offshoot was greenlit to join entertainment’s rash of reboots. After lasting a single campaign on its first try in 2001, the XFL is slated for another go-round starting in 2020.
Notably, as ESPN’s Darren Rovell mentioned, this XFL “won’t rely on flashy cheerleaders and antics as its predecessor did.” That presumably means antics like three-point conversions and a faceoff-type “scramble” to determine possession.
Regardless, those headlines alone should have stirred the minds of those who remember PBH. Then there was this past summer, which marked the 20th anniversary of the radical roller hockey league’s inaugural season.
It mustered two more seasons, then failed to reemerge after the summer of 2000. As such, its time never overlapped with the XFL. In addition, it barely coincided with the rise of Survivor, the quintessential harbinger of this century’s reality-competition TV boom.
ESPN2’s PBH had elements of both of those entities. As a sport, it departed a host of norms in the rulebook. Just as the XFL would scrap coin tosses and point kicking, PBH introduced a two-point goal range and skateboard-like ramps on the end boards.
As a TV institution, PBH made like many other Southern California products. Like the first season of Survivor on CBS, it filled a summer void by “premiering” its “episodes” over June, July and August.
With that said, the bid for bragging rights was genuine. Throughout May, six teams engaged in a 10-game schedule, with the best advancing to a playoff. Compensation hinged on how a given team’s season ended. Afterwards, everyone outside of SoCal found out just how the season unfolded.
To fit an hourlong telecast window, portions of the taping were edited, not affecting the final outcome of the game. (Incidentally, one planned change for the new-look XFL is to aim for a two-hour maximum contest length.) But viewers still saw every second of every quarter (yes, quarter), timed at eight minutes apiece.
It needed to be quick in its rookie campaign, for that summer was anything but slow on sports television. For five weeks, the FIFA World Cup permeated almost every waking hour. Primetime programming was seemingly all about Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa jockeying for MLB’s single-season home-run record.
The ESPN family carried some or all of the baseball and soccer action. But with the flexibility of delayed broadcasts, PBH could reach its niche audience almost any time.
Perhaps you were a grade schooler trying to beat the heat at home. Maybe your family was taking some midday downtime or crashing for the night in a hotel room. Or you had a day off from your summer job.
If you were remotely into hockey, PBH was probably there to tempt you at any of those points.
With its format and implicit demographics, comparisons to the X-Games, which ESPN had launched in 1995, were inevitable as well. Commissioner Chris McSorley expressed as much to the Los Angeles Times before play commenced.
“We are creating a bridge between extreme skating and in-line hockey,” he told the paper. “All pro sports constantly review the structure of the rules of play and upgrade where needed to increase the entertainment value.”
Entertaining trimmings would be a must. With only one venue laid out at Huntington Beach, the six-team circuit was a high-profile house league. Except the house had no walls or roof.
As such, the action was a beachside attraction, hence the league’s moniker.
To this day, David McClane Enterprises, the eponymous company of PBH’s brain parent, acknowledges the short-lived experiment’s existence. On its website, DME proclaims that it “felt the sport and the players could gain marketing credibility if new rules reflected what was happening on the streets and the game’s presentation combined the sex appeal of the beach with live music.”
For intermission entertainment, McLane channeled his old Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling show by enlisting the Slammin’ Dancers. Odds are that would not fly in a hypothetical late-2010s or early-2020s PBH reboot.
Given the caliber of play, the main attraction was dressed in loud uniforms representing gimmicky team names. While American Online was just breaking out, the PBH roll call read like the domain names on a primordial group chat.
In alphabetical order, you had the Dawg Pac, Gargoyles, Heavy Metal, Salsa, Web Warriors and Xpress. And because it was ESPN2 in the 1990s, those names were often typed in all lowercase.
But there was some delayed gratification. In April 2013, one PBH alumnus came within smelling distance of NHL action. Goaltender Rob Laurie took the Anaheim Ducks bench for precisely three minutes and 53 seconds, standing in while the real backup ran late after a short-notice summons from the team’s AHL partner in Virginia.
At the time, CBS’ Chris Peters took note of the then-42-year-old Laurie’s playing background. He had previously starred in Anaheim for the Bullfrogs of Roller Hockey International, a less flashy indoor league.
In addition, Peters wrote, “Laurie just so happened to play for one of the best-named teams in all of PBH, the Web Warriors. The Internet sure was neat and cool and mysterious in 1998, so why not name a team after it?”
Another ex-PBH stopper, the Salsa’s Brad Sholl, went on to run the L.A. Kings practice facility for a time. He also oversaw a Vegas Golden Knights youth program and raised a future goaltender in Tomas Sholl.
The younger Sholl, who turned four while PBH was premiering its first season, went on to Bowling Green. He turned pro last autumn, and has played for two teams apiece in the SPHL and ECHL. In between, in an interview with Pucks and Recreation’s John Morton, he credited California’s roller hockey craze for fostering his career on ice.
That is far from enough to make a remote revival realistic. But it is enough to make sense out of PBH’s presence on the archives of McLane’s website.
Given its essential equipment, which has no resurgence of interest in sight, PBH is a plain relic of its era. Yet some products of that era symbolize the worth of the fleeting one-hour game broadcasts, three-month TV seasons and three-year lifespan. McLane can also take a morsel of pride in formulating an early, unique kind of sports/entertainment/reality competition series.