Roller hockey has a long tradition as sport with a cult following in North America and in the various parts of Europe where ice hockey has long been established. Today the game, with two distinct variants, is far closer to the mainstream, with an international championship in each of its formats contested by both men and women, and national governing bodies for roller hockey established in over 20 countries.
Roller hockey was first played using the four-wheeled roller skates invented by James Plimpton (1828–1911) in New York in 1863, a successor to roller skate inventors whose work dated from the mid-1700s. Plimpton's invention lead to the development of the "quad" or "box" skate, with two wheels forward, capable of making a pivot, and two wheels on the rear of the skate.
The first application of the roller skate in another sport was that of roller polo, a game played in the eastern United States in the 1870s, when ice hockey was in its infancy. A game similar to modern roller hockey began in England in the early 1900s, and it was played internationally both before and after World War II. It was this form of roller hockey that was contested as a demonstration sport at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympic Games. It is variously known as rink hockey, hardball hockey, quad hockey, or international-style ball hockey. It has specialized rules and tactics.
With the development of the inline skate technology in the late 1980s, which permitted a skater to travel faster than was possible with the traditional quad skates, roller hockey evolved in a new direction. This variant of roller hockey, also known as inline hockey, has spawned leagues across North America and Europe that acted to create both high level competitions as well as those with a recreational sports focus. The Inline International Hockey Federation (IIHF) convened a world championship in 2005 that attracted 16 countries, including nations not associated with ice hockey success, such as Namibia and Taiwan.
The traditional roller hockey game played with the quad roller skate traced elements of its lineage to the sport of field hockey. The players use a stick, referred to as a "cane," that is similar in construction and design to that of a field hockey stick, with the object being to drive a hard rubber ball into the opposing goal. There are four players and the goal-tender per team on the playing surface at any given time. The playing surface, which is enclosed by a barrier, may be of variable sizes but tends to be approximately 145 ft long (40 m).
Inline roller hockey is played on a surface similar in dimensions to a standard ice hockey rink, approximately 200 ft (60 m) by 100 ft (30 m). Given the characteristics of the inline skate, which has similar performance capabilities to that of an ice skate, the tactics and the dynamics of inline roller hockey are very similar to those of ice hockey. As with the traditional roller hockey version, inline hockey is played with four players a side, plus a goaltender; the players use conventional ice hockey sticks and the game is played with a ball or a puck, depending on the region where the sport is played.
Both versions of roller hockey require well-developed skating skills, with a premium placed on speed, agility on the skates, and an ability to change directions rapidly. Body checking of the type permitted in ice hockey is illegal in both forms of roller hockey, although the angling of an opposing player away from the ball or puck often leads to significant incidental physical contact.
The physical training necessary to succeed in either variant of roller hockey is similar in many respects to ice hockey strength and training exercises. Roller hockey is a sport contested in short bursts of activity, which places demands on the anaerobic energy systems. The ability to accelerate and turn quickly requires both explosive muscle power as well as the development of available fast-twitch muscle fibers. Interval training, where the athlete must work to a maximum level and then recovers, is essential to this sport, as is a measure of aerobic fitness, to provide the player with a base against which recovery can be made.
Both forms of roller hockey are played on a recreational level in North America, with inline hockey the more likely type of unstructured, or "pick up," game. Like ball hockey, the casual form of hockey played without skates in all ice hockey nations, roller hockey can be played wherever there is a hard, smooth surface.