There’s a New League In Town: The Tropical Hockey League A Q&A with Blake Eriquiaga from the THL

min - read
Kirsten Staple
min - read
If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
Blake Erquiaga noticed something was missing from roller hockey.
Erquiaga felt a unifying force, a high level league to aspire to, was missing from the sport.
In this interview with Hockey of Tomorrow (HoT), Eriquiaga shares his story of going from a young hockey fan and former hockey player to starting a professional roller hockey league.

Interview Part #1

HoT: What got you into hockey?

Erquiaga: I watched the Mighty Ducks as a kid. My mom got the VHS when I was a kid and I was like, “I love hockey” and that was just sort of my thing ever since I was about 2 years old. At the time there was an ECHL team in town, the Tallahassee Tiger Sharks, and I dragged my mom to the games. Those games were always really awesome and I was really excited about how fun hockey is, but there wasn't a chance for me to play until I got older…this is sort of before you could buy gear on the Internet. We lived far away from ice so I couldn’t play until I was 7 years old. Growing up, I played as a winger. We got some skates that actually fit me and I'm left-handed but I played my first couple of games with a right-handed stick because we couldn't get a left-handed one for me, so I held it the wrong way.

HoT: What was the transition for you from roller to ice hockey?

Erquiaga: [Ice hockey is] what you see on the TV, that's what the best players are playing. There's more prestige to it. It was also just kind of novel like I would go to a summer camp and play on the ice there and be awful, because the skating is completely different, but it was just so much fun that I wanted to pursue that. From a pretty early age, I decided that I wanted to play professional hockey and the only way to do that is on the ice, so that's the direction I went.

HoT: What are some differences between roller and ice hockey besides the different skates and surfaces?

Erquiaga: You'll notice that roller hockey is usually played on a smaller rink; occasionally, you'll play on an NHL size rink, but it's usually smaller. There are less players per side so there's only four skaters instead of five on each team and there are no offsides or icing. There's also no body checking so what ends up happening is that the team with the puck has a lot longer to make a play. It sort of becomes like soccer or basketball where there's these extended possessions and you're trying to manipulate the defense and change spacing as opposed to ice hockey, where it's more a matter of sort of getting territory and trying to create something. Once you have territory, roller hockey teams will frequently come all the way back behind the net and wait for something, whereas in ice hockey you'll see, teams dump the puck in because they would rather be in the offensive zone.

[Goalies] wear these special things on their pads called roller flies, that have these little tiny wheels on the side so that they can slide around. Otherwise, most of the techniques that you see ice hockey goalies doing wouldn't work. They would just drop down and stay there. They have these things on their pads that let them slide around and at least do some of the same moves. They still get burned pretty bad though and there's a lot more scoring in roller.

THL Logo
(Source: Tropical Hockey League website)

Interview Part #2

HoT: What inspired you to create the Tropical Hockey League?

Erquiaga: I mean growing up [in North Florida], I wouldn't have been able to play ice hockey even if it was there, we didn't have the money for all the gear. We scraped by to get just enough for roller hockey, which is cheaper because there's no gear and you're not paying for ice. There's also just the fact that after having an ice hockey career, I was frustrated with how I got treated throughout it. You get treated as expendable, and I guess to some extent you are, but I want a place where people can play, where they aren't expendable, where the players matter and where everyone gets treated with respect all the time. Then, there's also the issue about the best roller hockey players. They play in the top tournaments. They call them professional, the team that wins gets mixed money but really, the very best roller hockey players can barely scrape by if that's all they're doing. It’s the realization that there's this hole at the top of roller hockey. Those three things came together into what eventually became the idea for the Tropical Hockey League.

HoT: When was the Tropical Hockey League established?

Erquiaga: In 2020 but a lot has changed from that original vision. Originally, we weren't going to do fan-owned teams. At one point, we were trying to do a player-owned team, and I still want to do that eventually, but there were all these obstacles with dealing with investors. So at one point, we had as many as three ownership groups in place for teams, which is not quite enough for a league, but they were so demanding. They wouldn't sort of bend to the vision that we wanted to have, like there was one that didn't want to provide housing for the players, and that was a deal breaker of “well, no, the players need to have some place to live, or you'll have to pay them twice as much to make it worth their time.” It got so frustrating that we eventually decided to get rid of all of them. 

Lucky for us, we had been working with an attorney named Eleni Demestihas. She's been helping us out, very kindly pro bono, with the many issues that arise legally with trying to start a hockey league. So, with things like contracts, liabilities, just making sure that everything was squared away. At one point, she did research on the Green Bay Packers ownership structure, which is fan-owned, and it was actually her idea to try and have fan-owned teams. That set the ball rolling in a completely different direction for the League as well. We wanted to make this place that's better for players, that's better for fans too. They are also the people who are impacted by these teams and if we go completely in that direction, then the teams can be something better for the communities that support them because the people who they impact are the ones actually running things. We started our fundraiser now if that goes well, the plan is to start playing hockey in April 2024. There's still a ways to go. We still have to get the money raised and then buy everything. We have to finalize some contracts and we have to recruit people.

HoT: What do you think could be done to expand roller hockey?

Erquiaga: Right now, the roller hockey world is really disjointed. There are multiple tournament operators - State Wars, Arch and Too Hot for Ice, which they call Tours now. They all run youth tournaments, older tournaments and competitive, semi-professional tournaments, but there's not really infrastructure to get people into that. It’s a lot like Youth House League hockey, there isn't competitive high school hockey [for roller hockey]. There obviously isn't a pro league on top to give people something to aspire to. I don't think that we even necessarily need to unify all those tournaments, I think that they're fine how they are, but if we can put a structure that they can sort of center themselves around, that will make roller hockey grow.

THL Logo
(Source: Tropical Hockey League website)

Interview Part #3

HoT: Do you think that roller hockey is an effective tool for getting people into ice hockey?

Erquiaga: I don't know definitely. My journey took me from roller hockey to ice hockey, and now back again, but I think that there's a lot of people who play roller hockey just for fun and don't move to ice hockey. I think that people who pick up roller hockey later on in life or as children are much more likely to watch ice hockey. I don't know that it necessarily makes them more likely to play ice hockey just because the demographics are so different. It's so much cheaper to play, so much more accessible to play. Many of those barriers are still in place to keep you from going over to play ice hockey but that doesn't exist to keep you from watching ice hockey. I think many people who play roller, or who are around roller hockey are more likely to watch the NHL.

HoT: What about adding roller or ball hockey to the curriculum in schools?

Erquiaga: That's actually something that we're working on. We have a deal with Franklin, who makes street hockey gear. We're going to buy sticks from them and put them in schools. That's sort of your first taste of it. If all you do at school is kickball, soccer and football, those are going to be the sports that you gravitate towards, even if you don't actually want to play them.

HoT: Does roller hockey have some of the same issues that exist within ice hockey culture?

Erquiaga: To an extent, yes, there's a lot of crossover. There are people who play both sports and of course, they're going to bring those same issues along with them. They're going to internalize a lot of that stuff. To another extent, it's not as bad. Roller hockey is more diverse, you're more likely to run into a native Spanish speaker or a visible minority playing roller hockey, just because it's so much more accessible. A lot of the higher level tournaments are co-ed because there's no checking. It's generally a more welcoming place to be, people are friendlier, and you don’t see that level of gatekeeping from ice hockey. I'm not going to say it's perfect. There's definitely still a lot of the same issues you see in ice hockey but it's further along. I'll say it's closer to being where we would want it to be.

HoT: What does the future of hockey look like to you? Is roller hockey part of that future?

Erquiaga: I hope so, it's more accessible. I think that's the biggest thing that's holding hockey back is that it's so insular. Everybody is somebody's kid. The only people who get to play are the people who are rich enough to play, people who watch or the people who played in the past, or the people who know people who played. That’s the biggest reason why other sports are more popular than hockey. You can go and get a basketball and you can go outside and play. With roller hockey, that gives you the opportunity to go outside and play and experience it and give you that personal connection to it. That makes you appreciate the sport and that it's not this foreign or exotic thing. It's a part of your life that you enjoy. Roller hockey may be the only way to really do that, it's so much more accessible to people who either don't live near ice and can't go play on the pond or who aren't wealthy enough to afford to play on the fancy team. It gives them a way to experience the sport.

For more information about the Tropical Hockey League, please visit

Note: Some questions and answers have been edited for length, clarity, and redundancy

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