“It’s more how long you can stay down and your maneuverability,” said Kalle, who gave me the low-down on underwater hockey at the Trinity Community Recreation Centre last week. “The person who can manage the stick work and stay down for a long time — they have the advantage. Even if you have this awesome dolphin kick, it’s not going to do much good once you encounter that defensive line.”
Kalle is one of ten people (men and women, of varying skill levels) who showed up for the pick-up underwater hockey game. They warmed up with drills: dives, stick-handling and stretches. Underwater hockey is much like ice hockey and features the same formations, strategies and goals.
It involves sliding the weighted puck along the bottom of a swimming pool and trying to score into a 3-metre long metal tray (the net). Using small, slightly curved sticks made of plastic or wood, players curl their bodies around the puck, shoot, and score on the net. Underwater. The gear includes a bathing cap with plastic ear shields, swimming fins, padded gloves, sticks, fin keeps (a rubber triangle to hold fins on feet), and snorkel masks.
Each half begins with teams facing each other at opposite ends of the pool. The weighted puck is positioned in the centre. At the announcement of “Teams ready? GO!”, the players duck underwater, honing in on the middle of the pool. They tuck their other arm tightly alongside their bodies. Like a maelstrom of piranhas converging on a fleshy snack, the water becomes a churning pool of blackened fins. There are penalties for excessive bodily contact and three potential dimensions for the line of attack — above, underneath and beside. The average person can hold their breath for about two minutes. But once submerged it becomes a mind-over-matter challenge.
The Toronto chapter of underwater hockey is headed up by Emmanuel Caisse. He first discovered the sport while at University in Montreal. “I thought it seemed a pretty silly endeavor but my girlfriend at the time wanted to check it out. Fast forward to today, I’ve been playing for 17 years and love the sport more than ever. In the last five years I’ve had my eye on making the Canadian team. I was finally selected two years ago. My teammates and I are currently training for the 2013 World Championships in Eger, Hungary.”
Another player, Lachlan, explained that when the players appear to ‘rest’ near the surface, they are really looking for the puck and gasping for breath. “I’m not a good swimmer. I don’t really like the thought of drowning. But this is fun. And a really great bunch of people – which makes a big difference.”
Underwater hockey enjoys greater popularity outside of the GTA where the cost of renting pool facilities is lower. Sports that require less equipment and cheaper facilities (basketball, soccer, volleyball) reign supreme here. Caisse has often pitched in his own funds to cover the $140 pool rental fee (the club needs at least 14 players to show up and pitch $10 each to cover their bases). For the beginners, Caisse supplies the necessary gear to start out with. “The reception in Toronto has been wonderful. Thanks to the enthusiasm of the new players, we were able to field two teams at our first tournament just over a month ago. We are trying to find more players so we have a wider pool of players, and we’d love to get it started at more places so we could form a league,” says Caisse, of the sport that is played year-round. “I’ve known players who could barely swim when they started and now can’t do without. We welcome all skill levels – it’s a very inclusive and diverse bunch of people. And this sport is surprisingly very social for something that is played entirely underwater.”
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Lachlan. “I play Ultimate Frisbee, and my Ultimate Frisbee friends would say this is a weird sport. And that’s saying something.”
You should give underwater hockey a shot. Contact the Toronto Underwater Hockey Club.