When you hear the word ‘hockey,’ most associate the term with ice. Nathaniel Mata wants to change that line of thinking. Mata is the co-founder and executive director of RGV Roller, a roller hockey non-profit based in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. RGV Roller’s focus is on making hockey more accessible, especially to those who have limited access to ice and also to use roller hockey and skating as a way to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Mata sat with Hockey of Tomorrow (HoT) to share his journey to establishing RGV Roller and his hopeful vision for the organization’s future.
HoT: What got you into hockey?
Mata: I was born in San Jose. The Sharks were the team in the area. I played for one year at a place called East Ridge Mall. This was in 1999 or 2000, so before then I didn't have too much exposure to hockey. I was like five or six years old. I played for a year and I was hooked. It was a blast at the intro level. We didn't even have a real goalie, but ever since then, I was super into hockey and into the San Jose Sharks. Then, my family moved to Texas, I thought that there would be no hockey anywhere around me but sure enough, there was a team here, one to two years into me moving here. There was a semi-professional minor league team that came into the Valley called the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees, so that was really exciting. I left San Jose when I was six or seven years old and when I was seven or eight, there was a team in the area again so that was really cool. The only issue, and I'm sure we'll touch on it later, it's too expensive to keep playing. I played for a year. I tried to ask my parents to put me back into hockey, but the cost was prohibitive to being able to play again. When I played that first year, I was an only child and later on, we had my little brother when I was seven and my sister when I was 11. My family was pretty honest; they said, ‘we can't put all of our money into one kid, you could play sports but maybe not hockey.’ So I continued to watch hockey, play the video game and keep up with the Sharks on TV when they are on. It's kind of far from [playing] hockey, even though it was right in our backyard, but the passion and the love for the game was always there, it never went away.
I followed stats and players. Now, I know a lot more than I did then but I'm still in a lot of ways like a casual fan. I enjoy the game and as I grew older and started to really analyze, not being able to play it, I got into making the game accessible and some of these movements that different areas around hockey have been doing. So I found my way to make an impact outside of just watching the game, but also being someone that brings the game to others, and it's been really exciting to be a part of it.
HoT: How did you pick up roller hockey?
Mata: I didn’t know much about roller hockey until 2018-19. When I couldn’t play ice hockey, it was a lot of street hockey on our shoes in the driveway. I had some neighbors that I just got hooked onto hockey. I kind of have that effect; people realize if you know me, you're going to learn a little bit about hockey. My neighbors in elementary and middle school and I played street hockey. We played all day, and we'd also play football and basketball, but they got into hockey too so I played a lot of street hockey. I was pretty fine with nothing organized, just having some fun. Roller hockey came up in 2018-2019 when I realized some guys that were playing roller hockey. In 2015-16, I started to go out to the ice rink a little bit and go play pick up and I was like, ‘okay, these guys are good, I'm not that good.’ I went casually, I never really joined a league or team but I started to do some roller hockey because I came across some old inline skates and it was fun. It was easier for me because I knew how to ice skate before I knew how to roller skate but the cost was low with roller skating. I was able to go to the rink and I didn't have to pay $20 USD per skate. I didn't have to put as much financially into it and I still do like ice hockey. I realized that roller hockey was kind of up my alley and it was something that I knew how to do already. I knew how to shoot the puck and I just had to work on skating a little bit more and that's what I've done over the past few years. I skate all the time in my inline hockey skates and it's a really fun sport.
Roller hockey is really a fun way to get outside and it's hot down here in Texas but we still play, even though there's no ice to cool this down. Adults, kids, beginners and experienced players, we play about 4 times a week here in McAllen.
HoT: What does the future of hockey look like to you? Is roller hockey part of that future?
Mata: To anybody that'll listen, I try to say, ‘we should have more roller hockey around.’ The approach has always been to build floor, ball and deck hockey. I don't think we should stop doing that but we should encourage more and more roller hockey, because like I said, the barrier of entry is so much lower, that's a huge part of why roller hockey is accessible. It’s much cheaper than ice hockey because you're not freezing ice so we're able to charge for our youth program $40 to $60 for these kids and it’s great economically for parents. They're like, ‘wait, you mean, for one month, right?’ and I'm like ‘no, that's the whole season’. That's three months of practice and games so people are really surprised that the price is so affordable. That's been the biggest blessing that anyone could get into it. I think it's an easier transition: if you're someone that's never skated before, you can go from being on your shoes to being on roller skates for a low price. You don't have to buy the most expensive pair of skates right away. You can get the Walmart or the Target version of skates and if you or your kids really like it, then you could get into your Bauer, CCMs and the hockey brands. We have kids that don't know anything about hockey and very quickly, they get their skates, order their gear for a relatively low price, or if we can get it secondhand; then within a couple of months, they're rolling around really well. They're going from nothing to something really quickly. That's really encouraging to see these kids who knew nothing about hockey get into it, really enjoy it and become hockey fans. I think that can be replicated in a lot of places. If you're somewhere and you only give kids the option of ice hockey or nothing, or ice hockey and ball hockey, it's going to be tough. If you really like floor hockey, then you go over to ice and see how expensive it is, it's like ‘Whoa, that's tough,’ but if you have a kid that enjoys floor hockey and there's a roller hockey program that's affordable and there's an ice hockey program; it's gonna be less affordable [for the ice hockey program] but you could get there slowly but surely. I think it's a lot to ask parents to shell out so much money right away for their kids to try ice hockey and they might not like it. Of course, there are programs that teams do called Learn to Play and different initiatives. That's good but I think roller hockey is something that [should be] established as a part of the future of hockey. It could really have a significant benefit. I was born in 1995 but I know in the 1990s, roller hockey was a big deal. When the Mighty Ducks came out, hockey started to get played in California, Mexico and in different places where there was not a lot of access to ice. That's something that we should try to replicate now in 2023, where people are more conscious of where their dollar is going and realizing how expensive ice hockey is.
If hockey wants to thrive, continue and survive in the next 20 or 30 years, we must invest in roller hockey because it is the great segway between floor and ice. You could really learn the game, play the game and fall in love with hockey. The ice rinks aren't that far away but there has to be that step by step process of giving a kid a stick, a ball on the floor and a flat surface, over to roller, over to ice. I think that really could happen and I'm excited for it because the League, teams and different initiatives are starting to wake up to that. [RGV Roller] getting recognized in Toronto at the Carnegie Initiative Summit [and being awarded the Herbert Carnegie Trailblazer Award] was a big step to show people, ‘whoa this guy's growing hockey and there's no ice within 200 miles of us and we're still playing hockey.’ We went from 0 kids to 60 kids in 12 months with minimal investment. We haven't got these big grants yet. Imagine us getting support from these teams that have grant money, the NHLPA and the League trying to invest. I think roller hockey could be a big part of the future of hockey.”
HoT: What do you think could be done to expand roller hockey?
Mata: We have to get ice hockey people, whether that's teams or people that play ice hockey at a high level to understand that roller hockey is still hockey. We're obviously talking about roller hockey like it's hockey. From what I understand, and I don't live somewhere where ice hockey is king, it's looked down upon. People look at roller hockey and they're like, “yeah, like it's just a lesser sport”, and it just plays from the elitism that hockey has been plagued with. We have to respect roller hockey as something that could grow the game and not something that is a lesser variation of the game. To grow roller hockey, people have to check it out, put some interest into it. I have seen some good things [on roller hockey] lately; I've seen that like the latest NHL [22 video game] had roller hockey in the commercial, I've seen articles about Connor McDavid, Connor Bedard and Auston Matthews playing roller hockey as they became elite NHL players. If that doesn't tell you that roller hockey has value, I don't know what is. I'm not someone who focuses on super elite level hockey because that's not what we do but even if elite players are playing it, it means it's not something that you throw off to the side. It's something that we should invest in. Put it on TV, put it in video games and make it something that's cool again because I think people who love ice hockey know it's cool but people that don't know ice hockey, where do they get in? Can they do it in a parking lot? No, they have to go to a specific place and pay a very high amount of money. With roller hockey, we've played this at parks where there's basketball hoops above us. We have a roller rink to play the game but we teach kids at parks and through clinics. I know the Washington Capitals did something where they partnered with a prominent roller hockey player to host a clinic. It's like we need more of that. I've seen media outlets throw on roller hockey tournaments. We need more tournaments and to put these tournaments into invisible places and highlight these tournaments.
Imagine if there was more support from the NHL, from teams and shining a light on roller hockey. For some people, roller hockey is the pinnacle. They play college roller hockey. I don't think there's any sort of professionalism outside of Europe. I'm not saying, ‘let's try to create this professional roller hockey circuit just for the sake of it’ but if it grows roller hockey, we appreciate it. There could be money in it too; I know many people only speak the language of dollars and cents and people who play roller hockey spend money on gear. They buy skates, gear and sticks. They're contributing to the hockey economy so if only you see it from a dollars and cents standpoint, people who play roller hockey, they're purchasing hockey gear. If we took the approach that it’s ice hockey or nothing, none of these kids would be purchasing gear. We would have nothing because our ice rink is closed.
There is a lot of value in roller hockey. Roller hockey is different but the right kind of different. I think that NHL teams, high-level teams, ice hockey need to realize that and shine a light on it. USA Hockey doesn't have anything with roller hockey right now. Our insurance is through USA Roller Sports so we have to go in a different direction to get insured or be a part of a national organization. There needs to be a governing body that really respects roller hockey and puts it as a part of its apparatus to grow the sport. Now it's becoming a little more popular but I don't know if it's there yet and I think we need to accelerate and push behind it. If we do it organically, it might happen but it might take a while. It seems like hockey is at a crossroads where they want to do this quickly.
HoT: Do you think that roller hockey is an effective tool for getting people into ice hockey? Have you seen any of your players transition to ice hockey or become ice hockey fans?
Mata: We have some kids that two years ago, they weren't playing any hockey. Now, it's Christmas time and they're asking their parents to take them to a Dallas Stars game. That's the perfect example of these kids going from no hockey to hockey. We have some kids that are a little bit older that played ice hockey when the ice rink was around, then the ice rink closed and they wanted to continue hockey. In some way, they played with us; they played it in our adult league levels. They got better at the sport, now they move to places where they're playing ice hockey again and they had a couple of years of roller hockey. They didn't have to stop playing the game. They played a different style and now they're playing at a pretty decent level. I wrote an article on our website about those kids who played roller hockey. They use roller hockey as a springboard for them back into ice hockey. I think that roller and ice hockey can be complementary and not adversarial. When we started this nonprofit organization, the ice rink was still open. My intention was ‘okay, if you're playing ice hockey and you want an extra day of practice, if you want a roller hockey league while your ice hockey seasons are on break so you could continue playing getting better at a lower price, here's a roller hockey rink.’ That was always the plan, there wasn't supposed to be competition and then the ice rink closed in 2020 and there wasn't any competition. Now, people had to come over to play roller hockey if they wanted to play hockey at all. I think that's a big bummer but at the same time it's allowed us to grow. If we had an ice rink built tomorrow, I don't think our organization would go anywhere. We want to continue to grow hockey at the grassroots level. We want to have Learn To Play hockey clinics so that people could get this low barrier of entry and then go over to ice hockey if they want.
HoT: Have you noticed any issues that exist within ice hockey culture in roller hockey?
Mata: That's a good question, and I don't want to act like our area is perfect, but I think in the Valley, we have a unique culture because it is a bilingual, bicultural and binational group that we have here. We have players that come over from Mexico once a week and play hockey with us. We have people that are in law enforcement, people that are Mexican nationals and a lot of Latinos playing with white players. Yes, the issues are there but I don't see them as often. I think that's because we're not at the super-elite level and don't have people vying for scholarships. It is still expensive, we can't pretend it's free. I think that’s one issue that I can see and it's similar to ice hockey. There are not a ton of places to play it. We are very fortunate to have a roller hockey rink, but we're a population of 1.5 million people, if you include the entire Rio Grande Valley, there's only one roller hockey rink. There are no ice hockey rinks. I would love to see more facilities, would love to see an NHL investment or a big investment. I would love to build more roller hockey rinks and deck hockey rinks where people can play roller hockey, ball hockey and floor hockey so that you're not picking and choosing.
So are there issues? Yes. Do I see them as often in our area? Luckily, no. I think having someone like myself, who's a Latino and Black person, at the helm of it, people could see like, “okay, this is someone that's diverse in hockey.” When I'm running this organization, I want people to have fun, I want us to get together and play this sport. It's very pure and I've been lucky that I haven't faced a lot of things myself, and maybe I just don't hear them, but I’m hopeful that we could be a model of how to move forward. It's not to say that there will never be issues. We try to teach our kids at a young age to respect each other and to make sure that the game is secondary to being a good person and that's something that these elite-level teams can look to because I know that the sport is competitive.
Once you put competition above being a good person and a decent human, then that's when we see these issues where truly awful people are allowed to ascend to the highest levels. We don't have any kids that are going to be junior prospects anytime soon so we're able to focus on these kids being good kids and enjoying the sport at the same time. It doesn't have to be one or the other. We do put a good emphasis on civility. We're not in your face about it. We're not here teaching only values but if a kid starts being kind of crappy to another kid, we try to nip it in the bud so that we don't have a toxic environment. If you come to one of our youth games, you can see these parents are getting along, these kids are getting along. That's not something you see in every youth sport, we really have a good culture and I'm super proud of that.
HoT: What are your plans for the future of RGV Roller?
Mata: One important thing from when we started this organization was that we didn’t want to limit who we impact. We named it RGV Roller, because I didn't want it to, one, only be in McAllen, which is the main city in town where we had our ice rink and two, I didn't want it to only be roller hockey. I wanted it to be roller skating in line, skating, talking about health and wellness and getting active. I knew if we were just a hockey organization, people would be like “who cares?” I want us to be valleywide, so I want us to have programs in Brownsville, which is an hour from McAllen, out in Harlingen. These are all towns along the border and some of these cities that are underserved. I want them to be able to enjoy the sport too. I don't want them to have to live in McAllen, I don't want them to have to travel to McAllen. I want there to be a couple more rinks. If we had two to three rinks in this area, we would be bustling. We are jam-packed four days a week, we're there from six to ten. I want more coaches because if we have more coaches, we can have more youth programs right now. Our coaching pool is small, a big part of that is it's all volunteer work.
I look at what Black Girl Hockey Club is doing and I want us to be like them, reaching more people and growing the game. I want this to be sustainable, to be able to be paid and to be able to pay others. I want to be able to have our games to be better and better. I want our league to be better and better. I want the travel team to win and the adult travel team to be also doing well. It would be really cool to see. I just want hockey in this area [the Rio Grande Valley] to thrive again because the last time it was here, I think it was all about selling tickets and then there was a youth league so I feel like they work backwards for us. It's grassroots and then it grows from there. If you have passionate people, it grows from there. I want roller hockey to continue to push hockey forward, to continue to move the health of this region forward. There's health issues down here…in South Texas and the Latino community. I want people to be active. I want people to be able to enjoy the outdoors, to enjoy the sport. I have a lot of plans and I think if I was paid to do this all the time, I'd be so much better at it. I'm able to give just pieces of my attention when I can but life is busy so I can't do everything, I can't reach the potential that I want. I think that slowly but surely we're going to get there. RGV Roller can be a powerful tool, not just for hockey in our region, but for hockey everywhere else to look towards to grow the game and I want to be a big part of growing the game in our region and everywhere. I want hockey to continue to grow in a very meaningful and sustainable way.
For more information and to donate to RGV Roller, please visit https://www.rgvroller.org/
Note: Some questions and answers have been edited for length, clarity, and redundancy