Underwater hockey a long-time tradition at UI

Members of the underwater hockey team pose for a portrait before practice at the Freer Pool in Urbana on Thursday night. Beck Diefenbach

Members of the underwater hockey team pose for a portrait before practice at the Freer Pool in Urbana on Thursday night. Beck Diefenbach

By Jim Vorel

Jennifer Gall pushes a shot towards the goal, but it’s deflected by another player, who intercepts the puck and bursts off in the opposite direction. Gall begins to pursue, but, realizing another player on her team has a lead on the puck, she chooses to address another important concern, surfacing for air. She blows a spurt of water out of her snorkel, takes in a deep breath of air and dives again to attack the puck, which is currently sliding along the pool bottom.

Even though it may sound like some sort of surrealistic dream sport, it is simply underwater hockey.

Gall, a junior in Engineering, is just one of many students on campus who meet three times a week to play this unique game, preserving a tradition and a sport that have survived in relative obscurity at the University for more than 40 years.

“I started playing the first open practice my freshman year,” Gall said. “I was looking for water polo, but they didn’t start until October. I was looking for something to do, and this looked pretty cool, so I went to the first practice. I was totally hooked right away.”

Looking to get even more involved in the sport, she became the president of the University’s women’s underwater hockey team. There are currently both co-ed and women’s teams participating in the sport at the University.

The game itself is fairly straightforward. Two teams of six players are in the water at one time. Goals are at either end of the pool with no dedicated goalies. The puck is a hefty three-pound piece of lead, coated in plastic, and, though fairly heavy, it slides easily along the ground when pushed or slapped forward. The objective is simple – put the puck into the opponent’s goal.

But factor in the players’ need to constantly return to the surface to catch their breath and it becomes much more complex.

Experienced players are able to shoot the puck multiple-lane lengths and even out of the water, and the snorkels that the players wear allow them to always be observing the action, even while getting a breath at the surface.

Despite it sounding intimidating, Gall stressed how easy the game was to pick up.

“Anyone can play,” she said. “You put on a pair of fins, and, if you learn to kick, you can swim really well and be a good player. It’s not about the speed, it’s about puck handling, breath control, timing and positioning, and those are things that you don’t have to be a good swimmer to pick up.”

Underwater hockey, like most water sports, is also great exercise and helps its players maintain a high level of cardio-fitness.

“I was walking around on Quad Day looking for the boxing booth, and I somehow ended up here,” said Dan Kurtz, sophomore in Engineering. “I was pretty far off, but I’m glad I was. You really don’t have to know anything about the sport to start playing right away, the first practice you come to.”

Kurtz, who was never a swimmer before starting to play underwater hockey, has even been to several of the school’s competitions.

The University’s underwater hockey club competes with clubs from other colleges, such as the University of North Carolina, Missouri State University and George Mason University, as well as teams of adult underwater hockey players from Chicago and Minnesota. Teams comprised solely of University underwater hockey alums also come back to play the school’s current squad.

“The competitions are so much fun,” Gall said. “We can play wherever we want, and wherever we go, someone from the other teams always offers us a place to stay. That’s definitely my favorite part about the sport , the community. I’ve met so many really awesome people through this sport.”

Even people who just started playing the sport get in on the action.

“I just started playing this last semester,” said Henry Chan, freshman in LAS, who had never heard of the sport in his home city of Hong Kong. “But I’ve already been to several tournaments. You really get used to it quickly.”

The club provides free use of equipment to all players interested in the sport.

“Show up to a practice,” Gall said. “We will acclimate you to the equipment and help you start playing right away. I really love this sport – enough to be hoping to try out for the 2008 World Team of underwater hockey.”

If selected, Gall would join other United States players to duke it out with the world’s best teams. Last year’s tournament was held in the country that invented the sport, England, in the city of Sheffield.

Underwater hockey is just another one of the wide array of club sports that flourish at the University and give students exciting ways to compete.

Even the lifeguards enjoy underwater hockey.

“I really enjoy watching them while I watch the pool,” said Andi Lusha, a lifeguard and senior in Aviation. “This is the best day of my week. They are definitely something entertaining to look at.”

For more information about underwater hockey, visit their Web site at https://netfiles.uiuc.edu/ro/www/UnderwaterHockey/.