They swim, they score

Sure, it's obscure, but underwater hockey is just like real hockey - well, sort of.

By
Friday, February 20, 2009

“Underwater WHAT?”

The Rhode Island Reds – a team of underwater hockey enthusiasts – often hear this when they tell friends what sport they play.

And on the surface, their unusual pastime merits the confused response they receive.

On Thursday, the club team’s flippered players lined up along the walls of the Care New England Wellness Center in Warwick. At a teammate’s signal, the players dove frantically toward the center of the rectangular swimming pool, splashing loudly.

Suddenly, the splashing stopped. The surface became deceptively calm while, underwater, eight fin- and snorkel-clad players swam and flicked small, one-foot sticks. They pushed a lead puck around on the pool floor.

Their goal? A rectangular hole at the end of one wall, similar to a giant air hockey goal.

But something else is just as important as shooting the puck in the hole – remembering to breathe.

Every few seconds, the underwater hockey players bobbed to the surface for air, disturbing the water’s surface and hinting at the frantic and competitive game that raged just a meter below.

“You go down, you push the puck a certain distance … but you have got to come back up and breathe,” said Gabriel Matthias, a University of Rhode Island sophomore who has been playing underwater hockey for nearly five years. “When you’re breathing, you’re kind of out of the game. It’s hard to look down and watch the other team take the puck.”

“But you have to learn that you just can’t go right back down and keep playing,” he added.

Joe Klinger, northeast regional director of USA Underwater Hockey, agreed.

“No one can hold their breath for an unlimited amount of time,” he said. “The hardest thing is coordinating with your teammates to take advantage of everyone’s individual skills.”

Many water lovers have splashed eagerly into the little-known sport.

Matthias said underwater hockey keeps him in shape for the spearfishing season. Many spearfishers get hooked on the sport during the offseason as a way to train and stay in shape, he said.

“About 80 percent of the guys who play are spearfishermen, and they play in the winter when there’s no diving to be done,” Matthias said.

Klinger said many divers seeking entertainment in the winter months become involved with underwater hockey as well. In fact, the game was invented by a British diver in 1954.

But that’s not to say that it is a sport only for those with underwater experience.

“Water is a great equalizer,” Klinger said. “Anyone can play.”

According to Klinger, underwater hockey is even played in physical education classes elsewhere in the world and is gaining popularity in the United States. USA Underwater Hockey sends men’s and women’s teams every two years to the world tournament.

The Northeast Region boasts at least 10 underwater hockey clubs that meet weekly. They compete in several regional tournaments and an annual national tournament, Klinger said.

About two weeks ago, players from the Turkish national underwater hockey team were on hand at a Connecticut tournament to provide expert assistance to local teams.

“We talked strategy. There’s not a lot of reference around here, since it’s not as popular,” Matthias said. “Getting taught things is a real treat.”

Recently, the Ocean State has been swept up in the current of underwater hockey’s popularity. According to Klinger, the number of Rhode Island underwater hockey players has surged, especially when compared to other Northeastern states.

URI recently recognized an underwater hockey team that Matthias founded on campus.

“There’s a lot of interest when you explain (the sport),” he said. “It took me less than a day to get the eight names required for a club. I now have 60 names of people interested in playing.”

Currently, the Rhode Island Reds play weekly in Warwick. Some members of the team travel throughout New England, competing in smaller regional tournaments.

The Reds’ weekly pickup games are largely informal. They call their own fouls and use weights to mark the goals on the swimming pool’s walls. New players learn right alongside the sport’s seasoned veterans. The game moves quickly, as each side quickly racks up goals. If one team becomes more dominant, the group reorganizes the teams to ensure that they are evenly matched.

But the sport is constantly looking for new stars. Klinger said high school clubs are emerging across the nation, and he hopes that players will get involved at a younger age. He said he even sees a future for underwater hockey on College Hill.

“Brown needs to get something going!” he said.