By Maya Shlayen
When Jeff French moved to Toronto from his native Alberta, he was consumed by one desire: to find a local underwater hockey team.
“It’s a really intimate sport,” says French. “You can’t talk to anyone [underwater], so you have to learn to connect with body language and positioning. The fact that it’s so unique is a point of pride, too.”
French has been a member of Toronto’s Underwater Hockey Club since its inception three years ago. The club meets weekly at the Ryerson Athletic Centre (RAC) pool for training and many of the members participate in tournaments.
“Here in Canada, there’s a competition almost every month,” says Matthew Mihatov, an Australian living in Toronto. “In Australia, we had maybe two a year.”
And yet, it is estimated that there are no more than a thousand underwater hockey players in all of Canada. In a country obsessed with ice hockey, the underwater version of the sport has not ignited a spark.
Underwater hockey was invented in the U.K. in 1954 by Alan Blake. He promoted the sport to his diving team to discourage them from giving up during winter, when it was too cold to dive in the sea.
Since then, underwater hockey has gained popularity in Canada, the U.K., New Zealand, South Africa and many other countries. It is officially regulated by the Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques (CMAS), also known as the World Underwater Federation, but is not yet an Olympic sport.
“In Australia, it’s part of the high school curriculum,” French says.
“It was really popular [in Australia] about 20 years, then things kind of died down for a while,” Mihatov adds. “But now it’s becoming popular again.”
Players wear snorkeling gear, a cap with ear-guards (to protect their ears underwater), fins and a glove on their “user” hand. Sticks can be no longer than 35 cm (as per CMAS regulations), and are always black or white to distinguish the player’s team.
“The gear is simple,” says French. “You could get all of this stuff for less than $100, though we always have extras on hand for people who want to drop-in.”
The pucks are similar in size to those used in ice hockey, but are made of lead or other heavy materials so that they will sink to the bottom of the pool.
As the practice begins, six people line up on each side of the pool. There are three forwards, three backs and no goalie on each team. As the puck is dropped in the middle of the pool, the two teams race toward it.
With the variety of colours in fins, swimsuits and gear, the players look like brightly coloured fish dancing eloquently in the water. And while it can be hard to follow things meticulously from above, viewers can get a sense of where the puck is going by looking at where the players are swimming.
Practices at the RAC are different from official games or tournaments. Official games are played in a flat pool that is consistently 2.5 metres deep, with no deep or shallow end, and there is a net placed at each end of the pool where teams must score. Instead, practices at the RAC see the two teams taking turns playing on each side (shallow or deep) of the pool, and teams score by getting the puck to any part of the opposing team’s wall.
In official games, there are two halves of thirty minutes each, and penalties can be awarded for hitting an opponent (with a stick or with one’s body) or using one’s body to advance the puck.
“It can be so hard,” says an out-of-breath Barbara Huang, a former Guelph student who discovered the sport through Guelph’s team but who hasn’t practiced in a while. “A lot of it is conditioning, so if you don’t swim for a while it can be hard.”
John Wyatt, a RAC lifeguard, says that he has never seen a single injury or problem since he started watching the club in September.
“It’s a cool bunch of people. I’ve seen [Ryerson] students dropping by and they’re always really welcoming,” he says.
The desire to welcome more Ryerson students is echoed among the club members.
“We encourage people to try it out,” says Roy Hully, another player. “If more people join, we could start an official Ryerson team, and then a league, and then… who knows. The possibilities are endless.”