Underwater hockey is an up-and-coming sport you can probably play at a nearby community pool. Really, it's quite simple. As in ice hockey, players push a puck into goals using sticks. You just wear fins, snorkels and have to hold your breath for a really long time.
Also known as Octopush, underwater hockey has actually been around since the early 1950s — America even hosted the World Championships in 1984 and 1998 — but America is only just starting to take the sport seriously. "When I tell people I play underwater hockey, the first thing they say is 'underwater what?'" Mike Opuszynski, the Northeast Regional Director of USA Underwater Hockey, told The Atlantic Wire in a phone interview.
The thing is, underwater hockey is pretty intense, but also surprisingly friendly. And with the 18th bi-annual World Championship live-streaming this week, this is as good a time as any to see what the fuss is about.
How do you play?
Rules may vary slightly regionally, but games played during international tournaments consist of two teams of six, with four additional players from each team waiting to be substituted in. Each game lasts 33 minutes, with two 15 minutes halves and a three minute break. Each game begins with the puck in the center of the pool (underwater, of course), and both teams rushing to the center at the buzzer, as seen on the right. Players score by hitting the puck all the way into the trough with a 12 inch stick. These are successful goals:
But this is not:
Am I fit enough to play?
"The great thing about this sport is that anyone can play, as long as they're comfortable swimming in the water," Opuszynski told The Wire. According to CNN, there's at least one 74-year-old underwater hockey player out there, and another in his 50s. If you're an able bodied person who doesn't mind swimming for 15 minutes straight (and holding your breath for long periods of time as you dart to the bottom of a swimming pool crowded with people), then go for it.
The nice thing about underwater hockey is that the teams try to welcome you. For instance, Opuszynski said that while teams usually use only black or white sticks, new players are given neon orange sticks. The "orange stick rule" basically translates into "don't be a jerk to the new guy" — let him score and give him an advantage so he figures out how the game works. Underwater hockey isn't widespread enough to have different leagues for different skill levels. Everyone swims in the same pool. "There are few sports where you can go to your local pool and be playing next to internationally champions," Opuszynski said. "You can't go to your local court and play next to Michael Jordan."
Overall, Opuszynski said teams look for people who are physically fit (swimming is hard work), are quick in the water and can stay submerged for a while.
Do people in other countries actually play this?
Underwater hockey is played in at least 36 countries spread across six continents. In countries like Australia and New Zealand, it's popular — and respected — too. According to Opuszynski, underwater hockey is as widespread in New Zealand high schools as football or baseball are in America. Which is maybe why they destroyed our men's team at the World Championship.
Is America any good?
You know how America is really great at basketball and our men's and women's teams always kill it at the Olympics? Well, this is nothing like that. If international underwater hockey were Olympic basketball, the U.S. would be Lithuania — good, but not great. So far, our women's team (as seen on the left) is doing well, with one loss, one tie and three wins, including a 17 point blowout against Argentina. Our men's team beat Portugal and Spain, but was destroyed by New Zealand (13-1), Australia and France. Yes, France.
To keep up with all the breath-holding, puck-sliding action, you can watch a livestream of the World Championships here. The women's and men's teams play today at 9:05 AM EST and 11:45 AM EST, respectively.
(Goal diagrams via the International Rules for Underwater Hockey.)