'Kids Aren't Born Skating'
How an unknown sport found its footing on Long Island and in the country
By Jake Basile
When Sam Eisenberg stepped onto the rubber blue and red tiles in 2015, he was unsure of himself. In his hands, he clutched a dark blue wooden Koho hockey stick, longer and thinner than the metal bat he was used to holding. The ball, although similar in size to the leather covered sphere he practiced hitting, was bright red and much lighter.
For about an hour, he ran up and down the rink, free from the kicking up of dirt and grass from his cleats. That day, he wore sneakers. The 15-year-old didn’t think much of the game, just a side-hobby with a few high school friends. In fact, he didn’t play too well either. In his own words, “I was absolutely clueless out there.”
Today is a different story. Sam Eisenberg currently sports a yellow shirt with the words "Long Island Hockey Club." His trademark #24 covers part of the back. That’s what he wears when he competes in the National Ball Hockey League. He represents his home, taking on the best players in the country. A weekend activity turned out to be a life-changing passion.
“Ball hockey.” Sometimes it goes by different names: dek hockey, floor hockey, and even the most general street hockey. The common feature is the lack of skates.
The sport has seen its fair share of changes since Eisenberg made his debut. On Long Island, two new facilities have opened, adding to an existing pool of organizations. Over the course of the last 15 years, youth dek hockey has grown from near nonexistent to widely available and affordable, with seasonal fees averaging under $200, less than most pairs of skates for ice hockey.
Nationally, a governing body took form in 2019, known as USA Ball Hockey. Within just two years, its first sanctioned league commenced: a 76- team National Ball Hockey League. USA Ball Hockey now focuses on global training initiatives, with the goal of becoming an olympic sport.
When street hockey is placed in the confines of a rink, it usually adopts the name “ball hockey” or “dek hockey.” Sneakers dart across either concrete or rubber and acrylic tiles often called “sport court.” Equipment requirements can vary, but you won’t see the bulky shoulder pads or thick pants of ice hockey players. Oftentimes a helmet, a thin pair of foam gloves, and a hockey stick is all you need. Shin pads and elbow guards akin to soccer gear can accompany the ensemble.
There are some similarities with its ice counterpart: line changing, positions, and the
goal of scoring more than your opponent. According to Cory Herschk, the coach of
the USA Men's National Team, "both games are about possession." But in ball
hockey, you run, or walk if you’re not so fleet of foot. And believe it or not, a ball
is used instead of a puck.
Although sometimes used interchangeably, dek and ball hockey do have different
rules. Closing your hand around the ball is legal in ball hockey, a motion that’s
greeted with a trip to the penalty box in dek. The offsides rules are also different,
along with some stick-raising nuances.
The biggest disparity is size. A dek rink only spans across a 160 ft × 80 ft surface. The 200 ft × 85 ft standard North American ball hockey surface equals the size of a typical ice hockey rink.
Eisenberg is used to playing on the smaller dek rinks of Long Island, one of the few places in the country where “dek hockey” is the preferred term. The sprawling ball hockey rinks require some cardiovascular adjustment, but Sam likes the open space. “There’s so much room to move around and make a pass.”
'I was absolutely clueless out there'
Two forms of foot hockey
Is this legal? It is, at least in dek hockey. The player does not wrap his hand around the ball.
However, before Eisenberg was able to tackle the jumbo rinks of Leominster, Massachusetts or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he took over the Long Island dek hockey scene.
At 15, baseball had Eisenberg’s heart. But on and off shoulder troubles hindered his ability to progress. By senior year of high school, he tossed baseball to the back burner. His home rink, a miniature net upon a wooden kitchen floor, saw more action. The white walls wore the red scuffs of Mylec hockey balls.
“I started practicing more and more, putting the time and the effort into it. I got a little bit better every day and the results came.”
The mint green tiles of Nassau-Suffolk Dek Hockey, nicknamed NSD, was Eisenberg’s home away from home. His game reached new heights, becoming the league’s top scorer. Goaltenders feared the wind up of his patented slapshot, which has not been clocked, but he assures is over 80 mph.
At NSD, he grew close to another young player looking to improve. Sixteen year old Ryan Steinberg’s slight frame made his speed believable, but the skinny defenseman's blistering shot shocked opponents. The duo dominated the league, culminating in a championship.
A Champion's Huddle: Ryan Steinberg (left) and Sam Eisenberg (middle) after winning their first championship together in the winter of 2018. Photo courtesy of Sam Eisenberg
Steinberg's Shot: An insdie look at one of Ryan Steinberg's patented slapshots.
'Kids aren't born skating'
Steinberg also had a sport before hockey.
“I played soccer all my life. It didn’t really pan out. Everyone got better, and I got worse. My dad had played hockey, but I never skated when I was younger. So that really wasn’t an outlet for me.”
When the 11-year-old heard of an outdoor dek rink offering free open hockey, he jumped on the opportunity. Ten minutes from his Lindenhurst home, he traveled to an industrial backroad in Farmingdale. Perched upon a small hill was a crimson brick building bearing a blue and white sign that read “Nassau-Suffolk Dek Hockey.”
The facility opened back in 1979 (then named Olympic Dek Hockey). Future owner Brian Wilson had made his playing debut a year later. Centrally located on Long Island, the 1980s was a glory period for NSD. With over 120 teams across six different divisions, it was a rubber tile playground for adults.
The Heydays: Nassau-Suffolk Dek Hockey from the 1980s. Brian Wilson, wearing white #3, is seen. Photo courtesy of Brian Wilson.
In 2007 after an array of jobs from Geico to News 12 to MLB, Wilson made a career change: he purchased Nassau Suffolk Dek Hockey. And it was not without its risks.
“Back then, everyone that was playing was my age," Wilson recalls. "We’d play a game, limp off, go to work, and then limp back on the next night. Apparently, it was the most addictive thing that was legal. I just needed to find a new generation of addicts.”
At that time, a 13 year old would have been the youngest player at the rink. Wilson saw an opportunity to bring preteens into the fold. He hoped that his youth players would eventually form his adult divisions as they grew older. The plan had its critics.
“I had to listen to people whisper that I’d be out of business in six months. ‘Kids don’t play dek hockey, they play roller and ice,’ which makes no sense. They’re not born skating. You don’t have to know how to skate to play dek hockey or ball hockey.”
In order to build up a base of youth players, he instituted free weekend open hockey sessions for children five and up. When he “bit the bullet” by cutting off the events in favor of a league, the early numbers were modest: a single 30 player division of kids aged six to 13.
Wilson remained undeterred. Between word of mouth, commercials, and seasonal open hockey, his children’s dek hockey blossomed into age-based, multidivisional leagues from five to 17. As of April 2022, he currently has 27 active youth teams playing
In a moment of vindication for Wilson, one of the children who made their debut at six years old has recently joined one of his adult divisions.
Ever See This? A commercial for Nassau-Suffolk Dek Hockey that aired during New York Islanders and New York Rangers games
Wilson noted the development of new leagues forming across Long Island, such as All Sportz Dek Hockey in Melville and Dek Superstars in Massapequa.
“When I started, it was pretty much just myself. It’s grown a lot in the last 15 years. I’d like to hope I had something to do with that.”
Despite his success, Wilson has not gotten complacent. This included adding a college league to his divisional repertoire, which takes place during summer and winter breaks. He hosts both youth and adult tournaments, including one in memorial of a former player who died of 9/11 related cancer.
Although his divisions are often based on skill, Wilson doesn’t care about the level of competition. He believes it’s an activity for anyone who enjoys hockey.
“You only need to like the sport to do this. You don’t need to be great to do this," he explains. "It’s fine to just go out and have some fun with people you know or people you just met.”
For Eisenberg and Steinberg though, competition mattered. Realizing his game was progressing faster than others, Steinberg sought to challenge himself. In his mind, the best place to go was to the Suffolk County hamlet of Saint James on Long Island’s North Shore. Nestled in the back of a long pavement entryway is the Sports Arena.
Beyond its unassuming brick arch exterior and small blue awning is a massive sports complex. The facility boasts an indoor soccer/football field, a dodgeball arena, a shining basketball court, and even an arcade. Steinberg was the first of the two to test out its hockey rink.
He participated in one of the league’s “Jamborees,” seasonal tournaments that feature some of the best talent on Long Island. Eisenberg followed, unintimidated by Steinberg’s warnings that “this is the most difficult competition you will face.”
It took a few tries, but the two finally won their first tournaments, albeit for separate teams. They did win the same sweatshirt though, a gray hoodie with the words “DEK CHAMPIONS” in black atop two crossing sticks.
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'A passion turned into a career'
When Jay Machin assumed the position of dek hockey director at the Sports Arena in 2011, they didn’t offer jamborees. A youth league was non-existent and the adult divisions contained just 20 teams.
This is not the case today.
In the late 1980s, Machin dropped out of high school in his junior year. He refereed and worked as a scorekeeper across Suffolk County rinks. Machin then took his talents to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, where ball hockey was already growing in popularity.
“I was playing, coaching, organizing, directing, and always refereeing. From there, I got to know the guys who were big in the sport. Then it became day in and out. A passion turned into a career.”
By the mid-1990s, he assembled a super team of Long Island based players. After dominating the American ball hockey scene, Machin took on the international stage. Representing the USA, he coached the men’s national team in the Masters World Ball Hockey Championship, traveling to Bermuda and Banff, among other places.
It’s still surreal to him today. “You turn around and you’ve been in the business 30 years," he says with a smile. "You can get lucky, I guess.”
Bringing decades of experience, he, along with new management, has ushered in a modern day golden age at the Sports Arena. Relying on contacts he’d made through the years, he expanded the 20 team adult hockey into a jam-packed 75 teams spread across 10 divisions. As for youth hockey, the number of teams has crept into the triple digits.
“Parents had a passion for it, and they wanted their kids to do it. A lot of other rinks weren’t offering organized leagues and features like scheduling requests. They also hired people who were familiar with the sport.”
Endlessly motivated, Machin still wants to accomplish more.
“On Long Island, we’re still playing dek hockey. My vision is to get these young guys into the cycle of travel and to acclimate these guys to what is ball hockey. Bigger rink, different rules, more disciplined play, more control.”
So when Machin heard of the National Ball Hockey League, he reached out to one of his top coaches at the Sports Arena. Using a core of an already existing Long Island travel team, the two assembled the “best possible team to represent Long Island.”
Sam Eisenberg and Ryan Steinberg got the call.
Laying Down The Law: Jay Machin blows his whistle for an icing call at the Sports Arena
'Every day there is a stick in my hand'
Seeking more competition, the duo filled up their schedules with hockey. Joining over 10 teams combined, a day’s rest from running on tiles was rare.
Covid-19’s imposed quarantine wasn’t an excuse to forget the sport. Instead, Eisenberg slimmed down, making quickness his priority. The already speedy Steinberg spent his days on the driveway, stickhandling on a marked up sheet on synthetic ice and shooting into a tattered net.
Once rinks re-opened, the usual schedule of daily dek hockey resumed. “Every day, there is a stick in my hand,” Steinberg proudly says.
In September of 2021, in Ryan Steinberg’s white Toyota Rav-4, they drove out to Gloucester, New Jersey for their first national tournament. However, this weekend, the two were opponents.
Steinberg competed with a Long Island based team he had been playing with locally. Eisenberg’s search took him farther. A mutual friend from Banksville, Pennsylvania implored him to join their team. Steinberg would later join that team.
“I was nervous, but I ended up with such confidence playing with such talented guys," Eisenberg remembers. "I ended up scoring my first travel tournament goal. When that happened, I knew I was able to compete with the best from all around.”
When Machin and his partner Nick Lupo first formed a Long Island based travel team, it wasn’t for the NBHL. According to Machin, it was to “put Long Island back on the map” in the world of ball hockey.
Using Lupo’s Sports Arena team as a launching pad, they brought together Long Island’s finest. Steinberg, already a member of Lupo’s team, recommended Sam Eisenberg. The coaches decided he was a good fit.
A 200 mile drive from Long Island to Leominster, Massachusetts introduced the “Long Island Ball Hockey Club” to the national stage in June of 2021. They won the tournament.
New Threads: Sam Eisenberg representing Banksville, PA in his first travel tournament. Photo courtesy of Sam Eisenberg.
Machin applauds Eisenberg and Steinberg’s dedication to the game. Their willingness to find a team all the way in Pittsburgh inspired Machin to help form a team built for and by Long Islanders.
“I still have trouble telling them apart, so I just call them the Bergs,” he jokes. “They’re both extremely skilled and extremely talented. But what I really enjoy most about them is how much they love it. These kids love this as much as I do.”
The respect from Eisenberg is mutual. “There’s no one I’d rather have coaching me. I don’t like being yelled at by anyone, but he can scream at me.”
Long Island's Champions: Sam Eisenberg seen wearing backwards hat in top row. Ryan Steinberg wearing helmet. Photo courtesy of Ryan Steinberg
'This is just the tip of the iceberg'
It’s now a cycle of travel and practice for the NBHL’s 2nd season. Machin’s squad is the favorite to win their division, labeled North Jersey Tier 2. This would earn them a bid to the national championship.
“We could really go far,” Steinberg believes. “ All the way to the Mylec Cup. We want to be considered with New Jersey, Pittsburgh, and Massachusetts.”
Alongside their championship aspirations, they want Long Island to go far beyond a single team.
“I’d like to expand this program from the 20 guys now, to 40, to 60, to 80,” Machin says. “The guys we have now will be a motivating factor. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Eisenberg agrees, hoping for an NBHL division on Long Island. “We have to travel to New Jersey, but our guys are committed. There’s a good base. Lots of good teams, lots of players that love this sport. Hopefully it keeps on going.”
Dan Coldwell, one of the directors for the North Jersey Tier 2 division as well as the marketing director for USA Ball Hockey, is thrilled to include Long Island. A former player coached by Machin, he believes that they add freshness to a division used to playing the same people. Despite his desire to see Long Island succeed within the division, he predicts that their time there is limited.
“There’s too many good players there. They can eventually pull a 6-team division. It’s all about raising awareness to people who have not been mobilized. There’s so much talent not only on the Island, but in New York City, Brooklyn, Queens, and Westchester.”
Cory Herschk also serves as the Director of Hockey Operations for USA Ball Hockey, and played a big role in sanctioning the NBHL. For Long Island to host its own division, they need to overcome one big obstacle.
“They have very few rinks,” he says. “That’s always been the Island’s problem.”
While rinks may be sparse on the Island, new ones have emerged. The USA Ball Hockey sponsored DEK Superstars popped up in Massapequa. All Sportz Melville, another multisport complex, has recently debuted its own indoor dek hockey league.
Justin Fassberger, its commissioner, has spent the first three decades of his life on the dek. In his lap, he has an opportunity to grow his greatest passion.
“I anticipate All Sportz being the biggest dek hockey league on Long Island. Hundreds of teams. A national tournament. We’re going to do everything in our power.”
The New Place: Justin Fassberger explains some rules before a scrimmage at All Sportz Melville.
'Anyone can play'
Amidst its growth in popularity and official organizations, it’s a sport like any other. It has the power to bring people together.
Fassberger notes the benefits of ball hockey: cheaper expenses, exercise, and a less demanding physical toll than traditional hockey. But above all, it’s more than that. “What I’ve really noticed is that I’ve developed some lifelong friendships from this sport,” he says.
No better example exists than the two young stars connected purely due to an inability to play ice hockey. If not for a ball and a stick, the duo, separated by county lines and a two year age difference, may never have met.
Sam Eisenberg and Ryan Steinberg travel together for the NBHL team. Steinberg didn’t pass up on an opportunity to joke around about his teammate.
“Sam is like having a younger brother tag along with everything you do. You have no say,” he says with a coy grin. “He’s unfortunately good enough to play too.”
But an ordinary person doesn’t need to good enough for a national team or travel or tournaments. According to Eisenberg, it boils down to three words: “anyone can play.”
"The Bergs." Sam Eisenberg and Ryan Steinberg warmup before a game at Nassau-Suffolk Dek Hockey
Take a look at how Eisenberg, Steinberg, Machin and the rest of the Long Island National Team are doing so far.