At the Bottom of the Pool
FROM THE SURFACE of the pool, the Minnesota Underwater Hockey Sport and Social Club looks like a pack of slender elephant seals. The match is in full heat, but the pool seems calm; no one shouts or blows a whistle. Except for the splash of fins, and the puffing spouts from the snorkeling gear, it is silent. Swimmers surface, keeping their faces underwater to watch the play, and breathe for a few minutes. Then they sink down where the action is.
"It's not much of a spectator sport," says Ben Erickson, one of the club's veterans. He lends me goggles and a snorkel, and I do the dead man's float in the deep end, watching the two teams tussle over a three-pound lead hockey puck eight feet below at the bottom of the pool. Underwater it's even quieter. A distant scraping is the sound of the puck. A player taps his stick on the pool bottom to signal he's open. Bubbles and my own breathing through the snorkel are the only other sounds. But if it is quiet, underwater hockey looks surprisingly fast-paced.
The club, which is some 20 years old, meets Wednesdays at an open pool on the University of St. Thomas campus. The members range in skill from Erickson, an engineer who used to make a living inspecting concrete bridge footings, and Cheryl Webber, an analytical chemist and an underwater hockey world champion, to April, who is 14 and just began a few months ago. It's not a sport for testosterone jocks--men, women, young, old, skilled, novice, muscular, and fat all share the pool. In underwater hockey, says Webber, "people feel like they can fit in a little better, whatever their level." They play hard, in other words, but they don't take themselves overly serious. There is good-natured banter, hugs, jokes, and after the game, deep strategy sessions at the Green Mill. The egalitarian spirit extends to the club's tournament style. The group has driven across the country and into Canada to test their skills against other underwater hockey enthusiasts. During these road-trip matches, the club chooses a coach and a team strategist by popular consensus.
The rules of the game are simple. Two teams of six face off on either side of the pool, with the puck on the bottom in the center. At the signal, both teams (three forward and three back) dive to the puck. Using sticks about a foot long, the players scrape, flip, slide, and push the puck across the pool to a ten-foot goal on each end. Every few goals, the teams switch sides. The slant from shallow to deep end gives an obvious advantage to the team scoring in the deep end. In underwater hockey, a good pass only goes between six and 12 feet, and a great deal of the play appears to be hand-to-hand combat over the puck: A white stick gets on one side, a black stick on the other, and they tussle until one of them flips the puck off the other's stick, or until they run out of air.
In some sports, abandoning a good play because you're winded and need air might be a frustrating limitation. But for underwater hockey players, the constant trips to the surface only add to the challenge. You're always on the lookout, Erickson explains, for your teammates' endurance. When another player is reaching the end of what you guess is her lung capacity, you swim up behind her to help out. As a result, "it's one of the better team sports," he says, "because you always have to come up for air."
The sport has been around in one form or another for some 50 years, and it has claimed a small contingent of die-hard players for most of that time. A handful of English scuba divers invented one early incarnation and called it Octopush. A South African version employed 20-inch hockey sticks shaped like the conventional ice sticks. But these early games were more properly described as underwater shuffleboard--the sticks used to be notched, and puck play was almost exclusively bound to the floor of the pool. The version played in the St. Thomas pool calls for short, curved sticks, which allow players to flip the puck with some spin--vastly increasing the distance the puck travels, and making the game three-dimensional when the puck leaves the bottom of the pool and floats through the water.
Underwater hockey is officially a noncontact sport ("noncontact like basketball," grins Erickson). Sometimes both teams crowd in on the puck, fins flying. Elbows, fins, sticks, even the puck can present a hazard. The players wear protective head gear and sticking-hand gloves, often homemade, held together and to the body with quantities of duct tape. Still there are occasional injuries, even stitches (unlike ice hockey, says Erickson, "blood is frowned upon"). On this particular night, though, the players emerge unscathed.
Watching them wiggle and turn, rise to the surface and hang, descend and charge, it gets hard to tell the players apart. But any poolside awkwardness among the crowd of motley shapes and sizes, swathed in duct tape, drooling spit from snorkels, goggle-eyed--disappears under water. Their play becomes choreography. They worry the puck, roil up the water, dive and retreat, weightless odd fish.
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