Yes, it’s a thing. No, really.
When given a puck and a stick on ice, Canadians generally know what to do: play hockey. But when presented with a puck, a stick, a bathing suit, and a swimming pool, most wouldn’t have a clue.
The answer is underwater hockey. Though many have never seen or even heard about the sport before, and some laugh in disbelief at its mere existence, the game’s history dates back almost 60 years, and Toronto has a team that meets weekly. (They’re currently training for an upcoming competition that kicks off on Oct. 26 in London, Ont.) Here are eight things you should know about this under-exposed, oxygen-challenged sport:
1. It was once called Octopush: “Octo” for the original number of eight players per team (it’s six now) and “push” for the act of pushing the puck. Englishman Alan Blake created the game in the winter of 1954 when he couldn’t find a sport inexpensive and practical enough to keep he and his friends in shape during the cold season; he hosted the first matches in his Southsea Sub-Aqua Club. Australian scuba diver Norm Liebeck is credited with introducing the game to North America in the 1960s. It took 20 years for Canada to form a national team to compete in international championships.
2. You won’t need your usual hockey equipment: The swimmers use a stick almost as long as a Subway sandwich to flick and dribble the three-pound puck (which is slightly heavier than a normal hockey puck so that it can sink). They use metal plates instead of a net, so there is a clang when a goal is scored. Players also need fins, a water-polo cap, and a mask that consists of a snorkel and goggles.
3. No, you don’t have to carry an oxygen tank: Players can either hover just under the surface to breathe through their snorkel while watching the game, or just pop up for air. Either way, there should be no fewer than two people underwater at any given time.
4. Here’s the tricky part: “Your body always wants to float, and it’s a real struggle to stay at the bottom of the pool,” says Jeff French, an underwater hockey player who co-organizes weekly games. “The key is to keep moving so you don’t lose the momentum.” And, of course, there’s also the challenge of playing hockey while holding your breath.
5. Don’t worry about an opposing player trying to drown you: While hockey is a sport strongly tied with brutality, its underwater version is a non-contact sport. Touching your opponents is regarded as a foul.
6. Restricted senses mean restricted communication: Players only have one method to alert teammates—tapping sticks on the tiles (and hoping their mate understands the intended message). Anything more requires intuition—the longer you play with your partners, the easier it is to predict their moves. Says French, “The sport is three-dimensional, because we have people coming from the left and from the right and from the front of you, but there are also players that are above you, potentially below you, and you’re constantly looking around in pretty much all directions to see where your teammates are and where the opposing team is.”
7. From the surface, it looks like a dance of derrières: For big games, there are underwater referees, bells, and video cameras to help spectators follow the action. At small matches, however, the audience has to watch from above the surface. Depending on the distance, they’re not guaranteed to leave the arena dry—games often resemble a fish-feeding frenzy, with water splashing everywhere as the players pop up for air.
8. You can try if you want to: Swimmers are welcome to join games at 9 p.m. on Mondays (rookie-to-intermediate level) at the Ryerson pool (50 Gould St.) or Wednesdays (intermediate level) at the Trinity Bellwoods pool (155 Crawford St.). Equipment is usually provided (with the exception of swimsuits). Get in touch with team organizers Jeff French and Emmanuel Caise through the club’s Facebook page.