Hockey in Canada has a cult following, and its fans spent the past few months of 2012 pining for bloody fights and top-corner goals during the dreaded lockout. But while that was all going on, there was another type of hockey being played right under the surface — namely, the surface of the water.
Underwater hockey is just like ice hockey, except it’s played at the bottom of a pool filled with water. And instead of toothless, angry brutes covered in protective padding, it’s men and women with pearly whites in skin-tight bathing suits. Which version would you rather get into?
Underwater hockey is a relatively new sport. It was created in 1954 in the United Kingdom by Alan Blake in order to keep the members of his swim club from abandoning swimming during the frigid winter months. He needed a sport that could be played in a pool; his idea, a game called “Octopush,” began to spread. Its name eventually changed to underwater hockey, and in 1962 it was brought to Vancouver. Now universities across Canada have formed underwater hockey clubs, and there are world championships held every two years.
The basic rules of the sport are simple. “Hold your breath, get to the bottom and hit the puck,” said Jordan Fryers, a UBC student who is training for Team Canada.
Underwater hockey teams are co-ed. Players are equipped with a snorkel, mask, fins, a curved stick that’s a little bigger than a ruler, a swim cap or helmet and gloves to protect their hands. Using their sticks, teams must maneuver a puck into the opponent’s goal, but unlike hockey, there’s the added complication of not being able to breathe while playing. Plus, since it is a non-contact sport, any holding, obstructing, de-masking, de-finning or injuring other players results in a foul.
The best underwater hockey players are strong swimmers who can hold their breath for long periods of time, but the game is ultimately a team sport that requires cooperation. In order to score a goal, teams must strategize on when and which players visit the surface to breathe.
Six players from each team are in play at once, and up to four other players are substituted on the fly for when players need to breathe. The games are usually composed of two 15-minute periods, and the goals are 25 metres apart. The depth of the pool can vary.
Watching from the surface is something like watching a group of dolphins surfacing for air; each player dives into the depths of the pool, only to resurface when they run out of breath and then dive back down when they’ve caught it. However, none of the real action can be seen from above the water, and spectators have a hard time following the game from the sidelines. This is why in some cases, particularly the world championships, multiple underwater cameras capture the action and stream it live on the Internet.
At the end of August, Fryers will travel to Eger, Hungary with Team Canada to compete in the 2013 World Championships and play against teams from Argentina, Australia, Germany, Portugal, Serbia, South Africa and the U.S. He’s competed in the past as part of Team Canada, and said how he’s lucky because it’s given him the chance to travel around the world to places like South Africa, England and Australia to compete and meet people.
The UBC underwater hockey club practices at the UBC Aquatic Centre on Tuesday nights from 7–8:30 p.m. and Sunday mornings from 9–10:30 a.m. Drop-in for UBC students is free, so perhaps it’s time to snorkel up and play a new kind of hockey in water that isn’t frozen.