The game of hockey has sunk to a whole new level, and I was right there with it.
In late November, I traded in pads and skates for a bathing suit and snorkel, and tried playing with the Ottawa Underwater Hockey team.
If you’re sick of cold arenas and Canadian winters, maybe you should try diving into this new sport.
On the surface, underwater hockey looks like a bad Discovery Channel special. But under the water, the game is a frenzy of passes, plays, and surprising intensity that puts traditional hockey to shame.
The object of the game is to move the “puck”, a round, lead disc covered in plastic, into the opposing team’s goal, a large, metal gutter that resembles a dustpan.
There are six players per team, and no goalies. Three referees control the game, two from under the water, and one from the surface.
Underwater hockey is the only sport where your opponent can come from above, behind, below or from the side, says team member Véronique Séguin. But to really understand the game, she says, you have to play.
In spite of my better judgement, I was persuaded to join the game. An ex-water polo player, I figured the sport would be a bit difficult, but nothing I couldn’t handle.
After donning a pair of fins, a mask, a snorkel and a cap, I felt like some sort of prehistoric fish. But I left my pride on deck, and decided to take the plunge.
I was able to swim through the water with relative ease. My only complaint was being in slightly uncomfortable equipment (my mask kept cutting into my face), and it was a bit awkward holding a stick while swimming front crawl.
I went through a brief warm-up of passing the puck along the bottom of the pool.
At this point, I was happy to be wearing what I nicknamed “the ugly glove”, a mesh gardening glove covered in hard plastic to protect my hand from the hard bottom.
I remember Véronique telling me underwater hockey was a “non-contact” sport, meaning you were not allowed to touch the other players.
But as I watched, players pushed against each other, jostled for the puck, and sometimes got kicked in the face. It was just like ice hockey.
While playing, I was able to get my hands and face near the bottom of the pool, but the other half of my body kept floating towards the surface. My teammates, on the other hand, had no problem staying down.
The hardest part was – don’t hold your breath – the breathing. Sometimes, I found myself in the middle of the play, only to feel the need to come up for air. When I surfaced, the play continued beneath me, causing me to interfere with the game.
After about 40 minutes (regulation time is two 15 minute halves), I hopped out.
I was pretty tired, and decided to hit the gym a few more times before I try again.
Underwater hockey is really all about the team. Because of the oxygen-dependent nature of the human body, no one person can control the play.
Team members also have to find non-verbal ways of communicating, as it is impossible to yell underwater.
Believe it or not, hockey is not the only underwater sport in Canada.
The Canadian Underwater Game Association also supports underwater rugby, target shooting, finswimming, and orienteering. All of these sports have competitions at the international level.
If the sport keeps growing, maybe one day we will be watching Underwater Hockey Night in Canada.
And who knows? Maybe Don Cherry will trade in his plaid suits for a new Speedo and some fins.