When Roy Hulli climbs out of the pool, it takes him a few seconds before he notices a couple of scrapes he recently incurred while playing underwater hockey, one on his right knee and the other on his left thumb. As he finally does, he lets out a bit of a laugh and simply says, “Yeah, that tends to happen.”
Toronto hockey fans are all too familiar with sinking flagship franchises and titanic come-from-behind losses, but many are still wet behind the ears when it comes the concept and sport of underwater hockey. Emmanuel Caisse, an organizer for the Toronto Underwater Hockey Club, has gone to great depths (end of obligatory water puns) to change that.
After watching a demonstration of underwater hockey while attending university in Montreal, Caisse decided to give the sport a go, and has now been giving it a go for 17 years—including for Canada’s national team, which competes every two years at the World Championships in Hungary.
According to Caisse, underwater hockey was created in 1950s Great Britain by a couple of divers looking to keep themselves fit and occupied during the winter months, not unlike how basketball was invented. And not unlike basketball, the initial phase of the sport was fairly rudimentary. For example, players at the time used scuba gear and could only push the puck with shuffleboard sticks.
Today, underwater hockey is played with equipment designed specifically for the sport—snorkels, and tiny, handheld sticks—and with two teams of six, consisting of three forwards, three backs, no goalie, and up to four substitutes on the bench. At the beginning of a match, the teams line up on opposite ends of the pool and rush for the three-pound puck located at the centre. The objective of the game is to push the puck into the opposing team’s three-metre-long net, coming up for air as necessary. Each match is played in two 15-minute halves with an interval in between.
“Underwater hockey is a three-dimensional game,” says Caisse. Players can approach from the side, from below, or from up top, creating a dynamic experience and opportunities for unique strategies and teamwork.
He also says that underwater hockey is low impact on the joints, works out all key muscles in the body, and helps players to better manage their breathing underwater.
Caisse came to Toronto last year to promote the sport and even resuscitated a league that existed but died out 15 or 20 years ago. Through online exposure, word of mouth, and good ol’ fashioned recruitment, the club has grown to a contingent of about 20, meeting Monday and Wednesday nights at the Trinity Community Recreation Centre.
Recently, Torontoist was invited to take in a rare Sunday-afternoon scrimmage, and to talk with some of the players about the sport.
“[Underwater hockey] is fascinating,” says Marc Porter, a Greek statue of a forward who joined only five weeks ago, after seeing a flyer for the sport posted in the changing room of Wallace-Emerson Community Centre, where he exercises.
An ice hockey player himself, Porter says that passing underwater, controlling his breathing, and the unexpected physicality of the sport are the most difficult aspects for a rookie, but he’s quick to insist that underwater hockey has improved his cardio, elevated his endurance, and made him “a better [ice] hockey player.”
When on a breakaway and almost out of breath, “it’s really gratifying when you use your 100 per cent and you score,” says Porter. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Jun Cheng has been a part of the Toronto Underwater Hockey Club since its rebirth last year. She came to know about it when Caisse did a workshop on the sport at her scuba diving club. But she contends the two activities are very different.
“[Underwater hockey] is more competitive,” says Cheng, still wearing her goggles as she’s swapped out for a substitute. “In scuba diving, the goal is to challenge yourself. Here, you have to focus more on teamwork and positional play.”
Cheng also says the breathing constraints of underwater hockey have helped her distance apnea “improve a lot.” She claims she can now swim two and a half lengths in a 25-yard pool on a single breath.
Cheng then adds, with a sly smile, that her involvement in the sport is becoming “more serious.”
“Before, it was more or less recreational,” she says, but now, in addition to being a regular for the club’s weekly Monday and Wednesday games, she sometimes invites friends over to her condo, where there’s a pool, for spontaneous practice sessions.
She even participates in swimming and training programs organized by Caisse, all in the hopes of becoming a stronger player.
“[Underwater hockey] is starting to take up a lot more time,” she admits, before subbing back into the game.
Roy Hulli was first introduced to underwater hockey through someone he played soccer with. He’s been coming to Trinity Community Recreation Centre for six months now, and has even introduced 10 other players to the sport. But, according to Hulli, most dropped out because of how physically demanding the sport is.
“You either stop complaining or start enjoying it,” Hulli chuckles. He checks that his scrapes are no longer bleeding and hops back in the pool.
Corbin Smith, Torontoist photographer and a lifetime ice hockey player, decides to put down the camera for a while and join the game. Five minutes later, he emerges from the pool, exhausted and grinning.
“I fancy myself an athletic person but…” he trails off. “My brain is overwhelmed. I see a play develop and forget to breathe…it adds a whole other dimension [to ice hockey].”
“It’s like piranhas swimming around a piece of meat,” he adds, referring to the opening rush for the puck, and as he walks off, he mutters, “fucking intense.”
The Sunday session lasts for an hour and a half. Some play the entire duration while a handful sub off for short intervals before diving back in. After each goal, players are too out of breath to celebrate.
It’s a demanding and tough sport, one that even Don Cherry would likely approve of. Just don’t tell him about the mandatory visors.
CORRECTION: June 10, 2013, 3:45 PM This post originally misspelled the last name of Jun Cheng. It has since been corrected.