Underwater hockey draws in players since 1969 as ‘kinda crazy’ sport

Underwater hockey, despite its unique gameplay and intriguing premise, is not a spectator’s sport. That’s not to say the game itself is not a spectacle.

For the same reasons that shark racing isn’t as popular as horse racing, underwater hockey has a low ceiling on audience appeal because it is, well, underwater.

At first above-water glance, the game seems to be nothing more than 12 individuals who keep diving down into the water like they’re scouring the floor of the pool for a lost contact lens. In fact, it’s difficult to tell which players are on which team from the view above the surface. The scrum of swimmers moves from one end of the pool to the other, until, at last, the players surface and it is deemed that a goal has been scored.

However, what’s really going on is more intense than it would appear from a casual glance.

Below the surface are 12 athletes engaging in the tenacious submarine struggle to gain control of the puck, a three-pound polyester-coated chunk of lead. They are passing and defending while treading through the water, trying to matriculate the puck down the pool to put in a game-changing goal. And they do all this without breathing.

Amid the struggle to gain the advantage and put points on the scoreboard is the frantic side-quest of surviving. Needless to say, it’s not a routine that’s easy to jump right into.

“You have to be willing to try something that sounds kinda crazy,” club president Carrie Desmond said.

Underwater hockey is one of the University’s only co-ed sports. Desmond is a junior in her third year of underwater hockey and has just taken over as the club’s president this year.

“Anyone can play it, as long as they’re willing to try it and willing to listen to the advice we give them,” Desmond said.

The game of underwater hockey is rarely ever played at a high school level, and thus nearly all team members are starting the game from scratch when they arrive on campus. A common misconception of the sport is that it is dangerous, and playing underwater is a serious health risk, but the only injuries that occur are because of incidental contact below the surface, not shortness of breath.

Neither hockey experience nor swimming experience are required to learn the sport.

“I went snorkeling in Hawaii once, and I really loved it. I saw (the team) on Quad Day and I asked ‘Is this a snorkeling team?’ and it wasn’t. But I tried it,” freshman Kelly Tang said.

Tang is sticking with the craft, and her lung capacity has improved in the short time she has been part of the team.

“The first few practices, I barely went underwater, but now I go down a lot,” Tang said.

Since the club doesn’t enlist the services of a head coach, veteran players are relied upon to teach the game’s fundamentals to newcomers. It isn’t required that all players attend the University, so players with even more than four years of experience litter the team roster. One of these players is 11-year veteran Chris Needham, who has evolved into quite the player-coach.

“I slowly became a coach. It’s kind of been a thing that I’ve fallen into,” Needham said. “You try and be as welcoming as possible to people. You don’t want to criticize people real hard, you want to correct them when they’re wrong but encourage them when they do well.”

While Needham started playing when he was a student, others have come to the game at later periods in life.

“I saw it online and I thought to myself, ‘I’ve gotta play this,’ said 54-year old Kurt VanDeursem, a two-year veteran of the sport.

“They’re a very fun, welcoming group. They’ve been very good to me,” VanDeursem said.

The players are equipped with snorkels and goggles, along with flippers for their feet to help them speedily glide through the water. On their dominant hand is a thick rubber glove, used for holding their sticks — wooden curved tools that usually measure slightly more than a foot in length. Players battle it out underwater, periodically surfacing for a quick breath before heading back down to exert themselves for another brief period.

“In the right situation, I can hold my breath for 45 seconds to a minute, but if I’m right in the action it can be around 30 seconds,” Needham said.

But Needham also claims holding your breath isn’t the main key to success in underwater hockey.

“It’s not about being able to hold your breath for the longest amount of time,” he said. “It’s more about the timing and knowing when to go into the action.”

One might not think of underwater hockey as a sport likely to house a deep tradition, but the sport has been at the University for quite some time.

“I know for sure we’ve had a team since 1969,” Desmond said. “We’re one of the three oldest teams in the country.”

Desmond doesn’t mean collegiate teams, either — she means UI has one of the oldest teams, period. The game started in England in the 1950s and spread to the U.S. a short time later.

The game is played in two halves, which, depending on the tournament, can be anywhere between eight and 15 minutes long. Scoring is moderate, as according to Desmond, the average total of goals scored in an underwater hockey contest is similar to that of an NHL game. There are no goalies and typically no coaches. There are six players on each squad, three of which play forward, and the other three play back.

The sport is not wildly popular in the Midwest, and other competitive teams are few and far between. However, there is quite a silver lining to this lack of local competition.

“We make one to two trips up to Michigan State (per year), we go to Canada twice a year, we go to D.C., and nationals float between Minneapolis in Minnesota and Gainesville in Florida,” Desmond said. “We’ve been everywhere from Hawaii to Victoria, British Columbia to Atlanta, Ga.”

Members of the team traveled to San Diego on Oct. 1-3 and collaborated with other players from around the country to compete in the Pacific Coast Championships. The team will travel to London, Ontario, on Oct. 30 to compete in the city’s Annual Halloween Tournament.

The competition in these tournaments consists of teams from Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, the University of Guelph (in Canada), Michigan State University, George Mason University and the University of Florida, to give some examples. Michigan State is the only other Big Ten school with an underwater hockey team.

Those with interest in the team can try to catch a glimpse of the action on Nov. 6-7, when the team will host the UIUC Annual Fall Tournament at the ARC.