By Annette Hinkle
Though the New York Islanders will soon abandon Nassau Coliseum in favor of the Barclays Center in hipster Brooklyn, in the 1970s the team grew to be a hockey powerhouse and the pride of Long Island, culminating with the Islanders first Stanley Cup win in 1979-80. That same year the unsung US Olympic hockey team bested the USSR in a legendary Cold War match up.
And in the Long Island suburb of East Northport, a group of boys was paying close attention … and they were inspired.
This was back in the day when kids made their own fun. On empty lots and at the end of cul-de sacs they organized games, broke up fights and clarified rules. Parental involvement came only at dusk when mothers raised their voices to announce that dinner was served.
The first time he strapped on a pair of roller skates, Michael Brunone (a.k.a. Bruno) was 10-years-old. They were the teeth jarring, metal-wheeled variety with clamps that squeezed over your sneakers and he took to the streets to play hockey with the other boys in the neighborhood.
“They were probably my sister’s,” admits Brunone. “It started with eight or 10 of us in front of the house. When the ball went under a car, you had to stop play. You also had to move the nets for cars.”
But as the players grew and skills progressed, so did the equipment and the venues. The disco era ushered in skates with polyurethane wheels and the game moved to a tennis court and finally, a basketball court on Bellerose Avenue in East Northport.
“When we were kids we played several days a week,” recalls Russ Bernier who made his own skates by putting polyurethane wheels on his sneakers.
They called themselves “Pellas,” a melding of the words “pals” and “fellas,” and held rivalry-based games — Islanders fans vs. Rangers fans for example, or Italian vs. Irish (reflecting the makeup of the neighborhood’s two predominant ethnic groups). Along the way, there were also hardships — most notably bitter winter weather and the unyielding basketball posts that ringed the perimeter of the court like waiting land mines.
“We’d play in sub-zero temperatures,” says Bobby Taglich, “and even on New Year’s Eve.”
The Pellas played through their teens and into college. Then adulthood intervened and they drifted off to careers, wives and lives far from the old neighborhood, largely putting roller hockey behind them.
Or so they thought.
Two years ago those boys, now in their late ‘40s, revived the Pellas RHL (Roller Hockey League) with a single commemorative match-up on their home turf. Along the way, a strange thing happened — these grown men with real jobs, graying (and in some cases, long lost) hair and family commitments also discovered their long lost youth.
And they haven’t stopped playing since.
“We had forgotten how much fun it was to be competitive. This is the most fun you can have with another guy,” says Sag Harbor’s Mike Taglich, Bobby’s big brother and his fiercest rival. “There’s that great thrill, when you still have the same moves you had when you were 20. It gives you a feeling like no other.”
“There’s birth, school, work and death — now you have roller hockey in between,” he adds.
Every Sunday from late October through April, the Pellas — with the average player pushing 50 — meet up for a weekly game. They have real jerseys now and younger players have been recruited to keep things competitive.
But it turns out one of the newest recruits is actually the oldest player in the RHL. As a kid, East Hampton’s Adam Flax, 52, played street hockey in suburban New Jersey and has reclaimed his childhood position of goalie. It’s the most difficult position to fill, due to the need for full pads and the pressure inherent in potentially being responsible for letting up goals.
On an outing to the East Hampton Skatepark with his daughter a couple years ago, Mike Taglich caught sight of Flax on the empty rink defending the net from some kids who were shooting at the goal.
“He had the circa 1978 hockey pads in their original box,” recalls Taglich who knew immediately he had found his man.
And his instincts were right. Flax fit right in and has even become one of the organizers of the league.
“As a goalie, I’ve learned their game,” says Flax. “I went from being rusty and achy to having quicker reflexes, which I thought were long gone. Their skating picked up with time and they improved their game too. We all got in better shape.”
Make no mistake, despite its origins, this is no kids’ game. The competition and the endurance are both serious.
“We don’t often have subs so we play for an hour and a half straight,” says Mike Taglich. “Unlike real hockey where it’s three minutes on and three minutes off, we’re playing and playing. We take a couple breaks, but you’re skating for 20 minutes straight. We play to the point of exhaustion and it’s an incredible workout.”
“It’s exciting to have your body go through that endurance and not have a heart attack,” he adds. “I’m going to keep playing until things break.”
With players living from Nassau County to East Hampton, a second venue has been added — the roller hockey rink at Red Creek Park in Hampton Bays, complete with boards, big nets and lights for night games.
“The Hampton Bays rink is the first real one we’ve played on,” says Bernier. “Four of the guys are young and their game dominates there. On the smaller court, we may not be as fast, but playing all those years they don’t dominate against us.”
“On a little rink, I can bang them,” adds Mike Taglich. “People are in much tighter proximity and you’re going as fast as you can.”
Which may explain the injuries.
“A lot of guys in the last few years can’t play anymore,” says Bernier. “A 56-year-old broke his ankle last year, but he swears he’s coming back. Another guy threw his back out a couple years ago, now he’s out.”
Bernier once got hit in the eye and when Brunone fell on his head, he had to go to the hospital to get an MRI (like the NHL in the ‘70s, most of these players still refuse to wear helmets).
But the threat of bodily harm alone is not enough to dissuade this crew, especially given the long-dormant hostilities which surface regularly during play in the form of trash talk and the occasional dust-up.
“It started with cheap shots when we were 10-years-old and it continued when we were 47-years-old,” says Bernier. “As much as you consider someone a best friend, when you get hit with a cheap shot you hate that person for the moment.”
“We’ve known each other for 40 years,” says Mike Taglich. “That’s more than adequate time to develop grudges.”
“We do purposely organize a lot of games to have grudge matches,” confesses Bernier. “If a guy did something to tweak someone 35 years ago, he’s still doing it.”
Grudges also happen between siblings, as evidenced when the Taglich brothers (who co-own a private equity firm) dropped the gloves last season after one heated play.
“I checked him,” says Bobby Taglich. “He went down and started accusing me of being a cheap shot. But he’s the most physical player out there.”
“We can’t get in a fist fight in the office,” counters Mike Taglich. “But we can on the court.”
Though in the end no punches were actually thrown, witnesses say it was close.
“The reality is, when there are a few minutes left in the game and it’s a tie, all bets are off,” explains Bobby Taglich. “Mike’s got his own rules. He wears full padding on the field, yet he’s the guy hitting everyone.”
“I’m a cheap player,” Mike Taglich freely admits. “I’ve always been despised.”
Adding considerable fuel to the fire is the weekly email, a form of communication employed not only to figure out who’s playing the next week, but also as a device to recap the personal highs and lows of the most recent game.
“When we were younger you’d just stew about it,” says Bernier. “Now we’re shooting each other emails — it can be 20 in a day and they’re so in your face. You can’t wait to redeem yourself. You forgot how that felt.”
And ultimately, that’s what keeps these guys coming back. It’s a powerful motivator that restores the lost glory of a simpler time and one that can’t be dampened by injury or the demands of modern living.
“You’re still a kid. That part of you has been wildly repressed and the cares and worries in our lives have ground it down,” says Mike Taglich. “But it’s somehow surprisingly still there and it explodes in full vigor.”
“When that shot goes in or you execute a great play, it’s just like it was in junior high,” he adds. “When you’re 48 and can savor that again, it’s great.”
“Just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you can’t still act childish,” he says. “And for two hours every Sunday morning, we’re 11 again.”