By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ESTERO — The chill was gone, and so was the pressure, for 2006-07 Florida Everblades veteran Ernie Hartlieb.
On Thursday, he was just another rollerblader invading Germain Arena for the 2007 North American Roller Hockey Championships, held in Estero every other year since 2001.
Hartlieb, who played for the United States in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s InLine World Championships in Germany in May, competed at NARCh with his pro team, Mission Syndicate. There are 12 pro teams competing at NARCh for a $20,000 prize.
Thursday was Hartlieb’s first game at Germain Arena since May 17, when the Blades fell 3-1 to Dayton in the American Conference Finals Game 7, one win away from the club’s third Kelly Cup Finals appearance in four years.
That night, Hartlieb was crushed and sad — his only consolation was his upcoming trip to Germany with the roller hockey team.
Since he was a young boy in Michigan, roller hockey has provided offseason fun for Hartlieb.
“Ice hockey is my job,” said the seven-year pro. “But (roller hockey) is a lot of fun. I look forward to it every year.”
He still had a smile on his face on Thursday afternoon despite Mission Syndicate’s 2-1 loss to the Rink Rats, who Hartlieb said might be the toughest competition in the tournament.
The pro teams will play a round-robin leading up to Saturday’s championship, with the highest seed determined by total score.
“They just scored one against us, so we still feel pretty good,” Hartlieb said.
The whole atmosphere at Germain Arena during NARCh seemed built for fun. Booths selling roller hockey and various pro team T-shirts and sweatshirts crowded the concourse, and roller hockey players from all over the U.S. congregated at the arena’s three rinks. Because roller hockey uses a tile-like sport court surface (Mateflex) rather than ice, the temperature in the rinks was significantly warmer than normal, letting fans enjoy the games without bulky sweatshirts and coats.
“This is like a vacation for them,” said Hartlieb of the 402 roller hockey teams that traveled to Germain Arena from places as distant as Japan. Canada was also represented by 43 teams, Mexico sent its first-ever NARCh participant, and South America contributed six teams. Plus, each team brought its own contingent of family, friends and fans.
The crowd at the blue recreation rink on Thursday was a little larger than at the other rinks, though, given that more than a few Blades fans came to watch the ever-popular Hartlieb play.
He has yet to sign a contract with Florida for next season and said that while he hasn’t been in contact with the Blades yet, he has been contacted by other ECHL teams.
“Of course Florida is still my first choice,” he said.
He’ll have to negotiate his ice hockey career later, but for now Hartlieb will be able to enjoy the next few days of NARCh action. The pro team championship is Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Hartlieb will also have to follow another team’s schedule at NARCh: the Mission Mafia. Competing as part of the Mission Syndicate club, the Mission Mafia is a select team of 11- and 12-year-olds from Florida and across the country.
Hartlieb is one of the coaches for the team, and he helped design their uniforms: pinstriped tuxedos with pink bowties. He’s passionate about doing whatever it takes to help roller hockey grow in Southwest Florida.”I love coaching — I’m all about the kids,” Hartlieb said on Thursday. “I’m going to start coaching in more leagues and tournaments. I want to see this sport really catch on here.”