The origins of the Evesham Ball Hockey League can be traced back to the ukulele.
T.J. Janus still recalls how he, his brother, Pat, and his friend, Anthony Sanrocco, were in his garage one afternoon trying to learn how to play the ukulele. It wasn’t going well.
“We all had ukuleles for no reason,” Janus said. “None of us can play the ukulele now, we just happened to have them. We were trying to play them together. I think we were shooting around the rinks earlier that day and we said, let’s make a hockey league.”
In the summer of 2015, an adult men’s ball hockey league, the Evesham Ball Hockey League, started play. Four years later, the league has grown tremendously, with teams featuring players from across South Jersey, a full website with social media accounts and partnerships with USA Ball Hockey as well as the hockey equipment company, Bauer.
Ball hockey is a sport with similar rules to ice hockey. The biggest difference between the sports is instead of skating, the players wear sneakers and compete on a gravel, concrete or dek surface.
At the beginning of the EBHL, there were no sponsorships and no regularly updated social media accounts. The league started play on a small rink in Kings Grant. Because of the rink size, the teams played with four players to a side instead of the typical five players. The league began with 10 teams playing one season a year during the summer, with nearly all of the players coming from Marlton. The summer season allowed players who were home from college to participate in the league.
Even in the early days of the league, Janus said he wanted the league to have a big-time feel. A website was created specifically for the league.
“When we started it, one of the main things we wanted to have was stats, standings, rules,” Janus said. “We used the website more than social media then.”
Word about the league spread as the years went on, with players from surrounding towns such as Bellmawr and Gloucester Township joining the league. Gianni Sanrocco, Anthony’s brother and one of the league’s current administrators along with Anthony and Janus, said the talent level has increased dramatically recently.
“The talent has gotten better with more out-of-town teams,” Gianni said.
While the league has gradually built itself up over the past four seasons, the summer of 2019 was a turning point for the EBHL. Last year, a dek surface was installed at the Marlton Recreation Council’s hockey rinks off of Lippincott Drive. With the new surface, the league played at the rinks for the first time this summer, allowing it to play on a regulation size surface and change to a 5-on-5 league.
“The surface is the biggest part,” Anthony said to the league’s growth this season. “We were playing on concrete before and it wears down your sticks. When you’re playing on this surface, it doesn’t wear down your stick at all.”
The league also secured a well-known sponsor this year. Bauer, a hockey equipment company, allowed for the league to put its brand on its website and team shirts this year. While the league didn’t receive any money from Bauer, Janus said the sponsorship alone helped give the league notoriety.
“We got in contact with one of their brand managers,” Janus said of the deal with Bauer. “They gave us 180 hockey balls. We gave 10 to each team for warm-ups. We got to put their logo on our website, graphics, shirts, shorts.”
The change in the rinks and new sponsorship were just the beginning. This year, Janus, Gianni and Anthony decided they were going to use social media to promote the league better and build excitement. Social media updates, highlight videos and graphics were frequently posted on the league’s accounts from the start of the season in late April all the way through the championship game on Aug. 11.
“We wanted to make it professional looking and give it that legitimate feel,” Janus said.
Janus, Gianni and Anthony do most of the work themselves. Once a week during the season, they would gather at Anthony’s house and spend about eight hours tabulating stats, creating graphics and editing videos for the league.
“It’s a group effort,” Anthony said. “We all say we’re the commissioners.”
To make the social media look professional, Janus, Gianni and Anthony all had to learn new skills. Anthony spent the offseason teaching himself Adobe Photoshop, while Gianni said he learned Adobe Premiere Pro. Anthony noted the trio’s work was a little rough at the beginning, but by mid-June they got a good feel for what there were doing.
The league did such a good job with its social media, USA Ball Hockey, the national organization for ball hockey in the country, reached out to Janus, Gianni and Anthony to do graphics work and highlight videos of the U.S. teams competing in international tournaments in Europe. This led to a strong partnership between the EBHL and USA Ball Hockey.
“We did graphics for their scoresheets,” Gianni said. “We did highlight videos for all of the games. In return, they let us put their logo on the graphics and they promoted us on their page too.”
With strong partnerships and a growing social media presence, the league’s popularity has grown within the national ball hockey community. Anthony noted the league has followers from all over the country and has even established a partnership with an Iowa-based podcast called Dek Hockey Focus.
The peak of the league’s popularity came at the very end of the season. For the final game of the league’s best-of-three championship series between the Evesham Tortugas and the Bellmawr Hawks, the league livestreamed the game on Vimeo. Whereas highlight videos of games on its YouTube channel would typically get a maximum of about 70 views, about 150 people watched the championship game live and the views of the final game were nearly up to 500 as of late last week.
“It feels good, because we’re really passionate about this and we really want to make it good, not just for us, but we want everyone to have a good time,” Anthony said of the attention the league has. “It was nice to see everyone embrace it this year.”
The league’s exposure this season has caused a spike of interest for the future. Anthony said he’s gotten a lot of interest from new teams who want to join next year and said its likely the EBHL will grow to two divisions in 2020 as the league may double in size from its current 10 teams.
As much as the EBHL has grown, the league’s founders want to make it even bigger. The vision for Janus, Gianni and Anthony is to continue growing the league regionally and establishing partnership with other men’s leagues on the East Coast to possibly create a tournament featuring league champions in the future.
For more information of the Evesham Ball Hockey League, visit http://eveshamhockeyleague.wix.com/ebhl or go to the league’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/EveshamBallHockeyLeague/ for links to highlights of the league’s 2019 season.