Starting on Sept. 25, the National Ball Hockey League will begin its playoff tournament to crown the national champion at the Mylec Cup. The defending champions are the Penn Hills Imperium, who knocked off the Pittsburgh Pioneers thanks to a third-period goal with less than eight minutes to go in a 2-1 thriller last year. Sanctioned by USA Ball Hockey, the NBHL is the first nationwide league of its kind and the Mylec Cup is tiered across three men’s divisions and a women’s division, which also includes transgender and non-binary players under an inclusive policy developed with the You Can Play Team.
This is not your typical backyard league, although it may have started that way. The origins of the NBHL can be traced to three childhood friends: brothers Anthony and Gianni Sanrocco and TJ Janus of Marlton, NJ, the site of the Mylec Cup and located in Evesham Township, roughly 20 miles from Philadelphia.
“It started back in 2015,” says older brother Anthony, referring to the Evesham Ball Hockey League (EBHL), the precursor to the NBHL. Sanrocco had been playing since he was five years old after his parents had signed him up, and despite dabbling in lacrosse, soccer and baseball, it was ball hockey that became his ultimate passion. “A couple of my buddies made up a 4-on-4 street hockey tourney in the rink in our neighborhood. We had a bunch from our hometown and people from further and further away started to come play in our league.”
“We had stats, standings, videos, highlights all that kind of stuff,” adds Janus, who along with the Sanroccos had taught themselves how to produce and edit and put everything online. “Our first thought was maybe just a Pittsburgh division and a New Jersey division, and they’ll play each other.” Their efforts to grow their backyard league would not go unnoticed, and as luck would have it, the right person at the right time happened to come along.
“I was walking into a rink one day during our 2019 camp in April,” says Cory Herschk, the director of hockey operations for USA Ball Hockey and head coach for the men’s national team. “At the time, the Sanroccos and TJ were running an organized men’s league, and it was more organized than anything I had ever seen before. They were advertising their league on social media. Teams had a logo, matching shirts and shorts. They were doing highlights, top 10 plays, box scores.” Herschk had played ball hockey growing up in a parking lot next to his mom’s house, but aged out at 16 because there were no under-20 leagues at the time and ended up coaching his younger brothers. He immediately recognized the potential of this local league.
Herschk and the Marlton boys ended up connecting, and in the winter of 2019, the basic groundwork for the NBHL was laid out. It began play in 2020 with five divisions: Chicago, Pittsburgh, DC, Massachusetts and New Jersey. The Marlton boys would continue to run the league as they had, while Herschk would leverage his connections to help grow the NBHL. USA Ball Hockey would also provide certified referees to enforce their official rulebook so that the systems and structures were uniform.
But before it could get off the ground, the whole world paused due to the COVID pandemic. It was an unmitigated setback, but the extra time afforded them to further fine tune and build out the league. The NBHL ended up expanding before the original five divisions began play, adding another division in both Massachusetts and New Jersey, and also adding divisions in Philadelphia, California, Texas and the Pacific Northwest. Last year, 76 teams participated in the NBHL’s inaugural season, and this year that number had grown to 151.
“I think the concept of a national ball hockey league as a whole was floated around the ball hockey community for a while,” says Gianni, who had followed his older brother into ball hockey. “There’s always been local leagues that have been scattered, mostly in the northeast. Everyone has always said there needs to be some way to unify this.”
Ball hockey had always been very popular in northeastern US Ray Leclerc developed the ubiquitous no-bounce orange ball in 1972 in Massachusetts, and he had also developed a surface specifically for ball hockey called “dek.” Made up of small perforated plastic tiles and pieced together like Lego, the different colored tiles can be formed to indicate faceoff dots, red lines, blue lines and goal lines. Because the tiles are square, the faceoff circles and goalie creases often look pixelated from afar, as if someone had built a massive real-life version of a hockey rink using Atari graphics. Leclerc built the first outdoor dek hockey rink in Leominster, about 50 miles northeast of Boston where it still sits today, and his pioneering is a big reason why Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have remained ball hockey hotbeds.
“I’ve always been an organizer,” says the elder Sanrocco, who also serves as the NBHL’s president and commissioner. “I was always passionate about it and competitive but, y’know, there was never a bigger thing that I was looking towards playing, and the NBHL kind of filled that gap. When I was younger, I would have loved to have been able to look up to playing in a national league.”
“I want it to become a full-time job,” he continues. “We really want to be nationwide. We want to get Canadian teams involved. We just want to continue growing. We want to grow the women’s game as much as we can, too.”
Adding a women’s division had been a priority. While more established sports are seeing the women’s side playing catch up to the men’s, the NBHL has an advantage in growing the men’s and women’s game together in the same league.
“In the early ’90s, there wasn’t too much going on for young girls [in ball hockey],” says Jen Free, who is in charge of the NBHL’s women’s tier and also the General Manager of the US Women’s Masters National Team that recently claimed gold in the Czech Republic. Free had an old Mylec stick – with a purple blade, she fondly remembers – and played under the street lights until late at night as a kid. As she grew up other priorities took hold, but two years ago after watching her kids play, her interest was sparked yet again. She put out feelers – would you be interested in a women’s league?
The response was tremendous, and the Pittsburgh Women’s Ball Hockey League (PWBHL) attracted over 85 players in its first season and doubled to over 150 players the following season. USA Ball Hockey reached out to Free to gauge her interest in managing a team, and it was an easy decision.
“At my kids’ ice hockey rink, there’s a progression of ice hockey and they showed that to the kids,” recalls Free. “They say, ‘this is where you start, and this is where it’s going to take you.’ In terms of the NBHL and USA Ball Hockey, all of those organizations are thinking of ways to work together to do something like that, to show young women and kids that there is a progression. It’s starting to emerge in a national and international infrastructure, and that it’s something you can work towards for young boys and girls… that’s amazing to me.” Both Herschk and Free had both aged out of youth leagues, only to end up getting involved as a coach and manager, respectively. “The gap that used to be there, the one that I used to see, like a black hole… it’s been filled in.”
Like all good entrepreneurs, the Marlton boys recognized something that was needed but wasn’t served, and rolled up their sleeves and filled the gap themselves. And like all successful entrepreneurs, they dared to dream big. “My dream is to create a professional circuit of NBHL,” says Sanrocco. “We’re a little ways away but I think we’re moving in that direction.”
Ball hockey has often been stigmatized for being the cheapest – and therefore least worthwhile version – of hockey, even though it has drawn the interest of former NHL players, including long-time Canucks right winger Alex Burrows, who was inducted into the Canadian Ball Hockey Association Hall of Fame in 2010, and former Red Wings prospect Mitch Callahan, who played for the Orange County Wolves in the NBHL’s inaugural season. So there is one more thing everyone at the NBHL and USA Ball Hockey agrees would be the ultimate stamp of approval: becoming an Olympic sport.
Getting certified as an Olympic sport can be a long, arduous process. Not only does ball hockey need to prove its value and appeal as determined by the International Olympic Committee, the International Street and Ball Hockey Federation (ISBHF), located in Prague and in charge of running the biannual tournaments, is not yet recognized as an international federation by the Olympic Charter as of August 2021. At least 40 countries need to certify ball hockey as a sport and, according to Herschk, the US isn’t even one of them yet since USA Ball Hockey has not met the minimum requirement of being a non-profit organization for five years. There is a lot of potential, though; the ISBHF lists 55 members on their website, and ease of access is one of ball hockey’s biggest appeals. It’s not just limited to wealthy countries that can build rinks or those with colder climates.
The other big challenge is time. A lot of organized ball hockey is volunteer run and the NBHL is an all-amateur league. Those who are involved often burn the candle at both ends. Anthony Sanrocco now lives in Long Beach and works as a travel nurse, working on the NBHL during the summers. Younger brother Gianni works at a firm helping non-profit organizations, and Janus is a full-stack web developer actively looking for a new gig. Herschk teaches third-grade math at an inner-city school in Pittsburgh and takes care of matters related to USA Ball Hockey during his commutes or when his two special needs kids are asleep. Free runs her own professional writing business and has two young boys who play ice hockey.
Putting a timeline on when ball hockey will make an appearance at the Olympics is a tough call and it’s too early to say. But for the three boys from Marlton who dared to dream big, and for the managers, coaches and players who are incredibly passionate about growing a game they once played in empty parking lots – where there is a will, there is a way.