How does a chance find in an op shop lead to one of Australia’s most diverse sporting leagues?
It’s Saturday afternoon a bowls club in Perth's suburb of Bayswater. Rain showers earlier in the day have passed, and a few people are out on the greens, having quiet and leisurely games.
On a concrete “slab” players from Austrsalia’s largest and most successful street roller hockey league are working together to brush the water off the rink so they can play.
A suburban bowls club may seem like an odd place to find Perth’s fastest growing sport, but with declining membership and rising costs, the SRHL helped save the Bayswater club from closing.
The story of how the league’s founder and commissioner picked up an ice hockey stick in a Balcatta op shop in 2013 has become the subject of legend.
“It turns out it was left handed and I couldn’t even use it,” commissioner Eamonn Lourey says. But that didn’t slow him down.
Lourey says he told some mates about his chance find, and they all jumped on board.
“We sourced enough blades and sticks to hold a game. It was sport in its rawest form, 10 grown men learning to play a sport on the fly” he says, “After that initial game, the league kind of just flowed and grew organically.”
There are not many sports where you’d find the players pulling together like the SRHL, but Perth’s street hockey scene isn’t like many other sports.
Their self-organising attitude and progressive approach to gender is part of the glue that has seen the league grow to over 100 teams in just three years.
Joining founding teams Hamersley Rangers, Cottesloe Street Sharks, Mosman Park Murderers and the Dalkeith Ducks are now teams with names like Shannon Nollamaras, Applecross Dressers, Bayswatermelon Breezers, MDM8s, and Fifty Shades of Graylands.
Teams are often started just for the opportunities to make an irreverent pun — some, including Maylands and Como’s teams, are too rude to print — but that doesn’t mean the players take it for granted.
A key difference between Lourey’s self described worst league in the world and what he says are more organised sports is a lack of pressure on players to achieve a certain skill level to be able to play and enjoy the game.
In the SRHL Lourey says more than 95% of players have never played ice or inline hockey prior to joining a team, and player skill levels naturally progress at their own rate.
Team captains work out each week’s fixtures between them, and that flexibility is part of the league’s success so far.
Casey Causley has been playing for two Bayswater teams — the Barracudas and the Bayswatermelon Breezers — since they were both formed earlier this year. She says players love SRHL for how it is.
“Many of us were attracted to it when we weren’t attracted to other sports because of what it is…I don’t think the same formula would work for other sports. This is an ‘organised sport for disorganised people.’”
SRHL also has an important distinction from more mainstream sports: with mixed teams playing together. When other sports have an unspoken assumption that women and men can’t play together, it’s just normal in Perth’s hockey scene.
The subject of mixed teams and gender equality also lends itself to a wider discussion of women in sport.
Jarrad Robb plays for North Perth Bald Beavers and the Roleystone Henges, and has some strong opinions on the seamless integration:
“As far as I’m concerned it just shows that when you self organise something you can make up the rules, and you don’t have to have the same kind of weird gender structures that come into force even in junior organised sports," he says.
“If it’s allowed to happen organically why wouldn’t men and women compete together?”
Robb and Causley both agree that some of the best players in the league are women.
“I definitely think that the girls can compete with the boys,” Causley says, “As with a lot of things it’s about attitude, skill level and drive.”
Lourey is in no doubt either, saying in the mixed team games, women “stick it to the men.”
Robb says he is often frustrated with other mixed sports.
Playing for mixed five-a-side soccer teams, Robb says in his experience there always needs to be a strict male-female quota because otherwise teams “field only guys, or one female player and leave her out entirely.”
He says it’s not unusual in soccer to see teams put a female player out of the way in goal, so they can have an additional man on the pitch — something he calls out as both sexist and cheating.
Mixed teams are so commonplace in the SHRL, the teams don’t need strict quotas: they just put their players on, and the mix takes care of itself. There also exist female-only teams, whom Causley says have a subtly different style of play to the mixed games
Why is it that women’s cricket teams and soccer teams can win sporting world cups, but don’t receive the funding or recognition of their male counterparts?
Causley admits the pay gap is “a can of worms” and says she thinks it’s ridiculous that women in sport are paid less than men, but admits in a consumer-driven society for as long as male dominated sports are more widely watched, they will attract more sponsorship and funding.
Robb doesn’t sit on the fence when asked about it, either. In no uncertain terms he says the lack of equal pay is “bullshit.”
“How can you expect women’s sports to grow their audience to a point where more money flows in when it’s consistently shut out of the media?” Robb asks, but also says he is pleased with the effort SBS is making on its Zela women’s sports coverage, and that the Matildas are “finally getting attention, given they’re currently our best international sports team.”
Lourey has been involved in coaching, sports management and sports club committees since he was 18, and says that the controlling sports bodies and TV channels don’t market and promote women’s sport enough, but agrees with Causley, saying there equally “needs to be a change in mindset by consumers before equal pay can be achieved.”
Perth’s SRHL is unique in Australia. Lourey says he knows of a group of people that play pick-up games in Canberra, and that a street roller hockey league started in Manly last year, but that it seems to have faltered.
What’s next for Australia’s revolutionary street roller hockey league? Lousey says he would “love to have a playing facility we can call our own. A modern day flip on the traditional bowls club, but with sports more relevant to Gen Y in 2016.”
Losing playing arenas has been the league’s biggest hurdle, and Lourey says it has constantly had to adapt to survive.
The league needs to develop, build or modify its own facilities to stay alive, and provide as many rinks — while at the same time not slugging members to raise the funds. Lourey says it is the next challenge he’s trying to address, but he’s optimistic.
“In 2066 I want to be retired,” Lourey says “pottering around a suburban roller hockey club, cooking meals, pouring beers, and looking after the joint for the young players that are coming through the sport.
“And I want my current hockey mates to feel so connected to this movement that they are right there with me in 50 years time.”
If saving the Bayswater bowls club is anything to go by, Eamonn Lourey’s dreams might not be so far fetched.