Peculiar Play: Underwater Hockey

Welcome back to Peculiar Play, our occasional series highlighting the best and weirdest sports in the world. Today, we dive into underwater hockey, a game that trades skates for fins and challenges lung capacity on a whole new level. The objective remains the same: to score and have fun.

February 15, 2018 | by

The history of underwater hockey begins on a UK naval base in the 1950s. Two groups of sailors—ten on one team and ten on the other—swim underwater, attempting to push a diving brick to the opposite side of the pool. They don’t have fins, snorkels, masks, sticks, or gloves. Just their will, their wits, and their teamwork. Underwater hockey has a start.

Back then they called it Octopush. Since that time, it’s evolved dramatically. The game is now played with six players in a pool, a traditional puck, and sticks (also called pushers). Players wear fins, masks, and a snorkel. They swim underwater, chasing the puck, controlling it with a pusher. Players dive below the surface, and frequently return topside for air. It’s fast-paced and physically demanding, yes, but also mentally demanding, too, since players can’t speak underwater. It’s all about wordless cooperation.

And having a good time. Aaron Schwartz-Duval is president of the University of Illinois club team, the longest-running university team in the United States. “There are no goalies, no oxygen tanks, and you don’t have to hold your breath super long,” he says. “In fact the only thing you need to become a world class underwater hockey player is enthusiasm for the sport.”

“It attracts people who want to try new things, who don’t really stick to convention, and don’t really take themselves too seriously,” Schwartz-Duval continues. “So there’s a lot of immediate camaraderie across clubs, countries.”

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Underwater hockey is popular in countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Netherlands, and Canada, but it’s gaining traction in the United States where there are between 30 and 50 active clubs, depending on the year.

Karen Thullner, the current U.S. national director, is one of the sport’s most outspoken advocates. “The key to underwater hockey is relaxing in the water and having fun,” she says. “If you are anxious or nervous, trying to hold your breath gets to be more of a challenge. It is successful because it is truly a team sport. No one player can be down all the time. You have to rely on teammates to pass and receive the puck. Underwater hockey players have a unique bond because it is such a strange and unique sport.”

This strange and unique sport has some excellent terminology. A flutter kick involves swimming with one leg kicking up and one down, which creates acceleration and maneuverability. A curl is a way to protect the puck from the opposition by curls one’s body around it. If you’re looking to train for underwater hockey, one typical drill is known as SASD for “strike and stay down.” It involves swimming as fast as you can to the middle of the pool, staying on the surface of the water, then slowly finishing the lap underwater. The BOGDAT (breathe once, go down and touch) is a drill where participants take a breathe, touch the bottom of the pool, return to the surface, take a single breathe, then descend again, repeating until they reach the end of the pool.

If you’re interested in checking out an underwater hockey game near you, Thullner suggests searching for local clubs through The Underwater Hockey Tourist.

Those crazy Brits were onto something.

Photo Credit: Wouss at Dutch Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons

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