Want to try a new sport? Seattle has a nationally ranking sports team that wants you on their team roster. All you need is a bathing suit and the desire to play hockey at the bottom of a swimming pool.
Not familiar with underwater hockey? You’re not alone. Imagine a hockey team. Then, take away the players’ helmets and padding. Outfit them in snorkels and Speedos. Trade in their ice skates for flippers. Then, throw them into a swimming pool with short sticks and a heavy lead puck. There you have it: underwater hockey. It’s a sport that began in England in the 1950s.
“It was originally called Octopush,” said underwater hockey enthusiast Pat Carboneau. “The story is a group of divers invented it to stay in shape in the off-season.” Now, underwater hockey is an international sport with thousands of players worldwide.
Carboneau first heard about underwater hockey as a student at Western Washington University. Around 1988, he founded a team in Seattle called the Seahammers. Carboneau and his teammates are heading to Milwaukee compete in the US National Underwater Hockey Championships from July 12-14. The Seahammers have brought home gold three times, but not since 2004. “Seattle is well-known as a strong club,” Carboneau said. “I think we’re on the rise again.”
The goal of the game is similar to ice hockey. Players use sticks to push the puck along a flat surface – in this case the bottom of a pool, and try to shoot it into their opponent’s goal. But finding the right pool hasn’t been easy for the Seahammers.
The perfect pool would be six to 10 feet deep with a smooth tile and flat bottom. But, pools like that are rare. The Seahammers currently practice at Seattle University’s Connolly Center. The pool there does have a tile bottom, but it’s not flat. It slopes from four feet at one end to 12 feet at the other.
The depth adds an extra level of challenge to a sport that depends so much on breath control. The whole game is played between gulps of air.
Players take a quick breath at the surface, then dive down and skirmish for the puck at the bottom. Carboneau compares it to sprinting 100 yards and then holding your breath for 15 seconds. Many new players take all of their energy just swimming down 12 feet and don’t have enough air left over to actually maneuver the puck and try to score.
Then, there’s another challenge: finding fans. From the pool deck, there’s simply no good way to see the action. “From the surface, it looks like the most boring sport in the world,” admitted Seahammer player Alan Newton.
Lifeguard Eliana Olais described it this way: “To me it kind of like seems like they’re whales resurfacing.”
Unless a pool has an underground viewing window, which is rare, or an underwater camera capable of projecting the game onto a screen, then the only option for fans who really want to watch the game is to get in the water themselves.
The lack of a large fan base does have one advantage though: It helps make underwater hockey a tight-knit community. Almost everyone who plays becomes close friends. That’s something Jacky Chua loves about the sport. She grew up playing underwater hockey in the Philippines. When she took a job at Microsoft and moved to Seattle, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep playing. Then, she discovered the Seahammers.
“They pretty much all welcome me with open arms. It’s such a small sport that once you find somebody who loves the same thing as you, it’s pretty rare, and you get really passionate about it,” Chua said.
Everyone on this team seems to radiate an infectious enthusiasm for the sport. They’re always trying to recruit new players. As they dip into the water right before practice, one player swims over to the side of the pool and pulls the snorkel out of his mouth.
“Are you going to come out and play?” he asks. His name is Luther Norberg. I explain I’m four months pregnant. Apparently, it’s not a valid excuse. “You know, there are actually a lot of pregnant women who play. My sister-in-law, she was still playing right until she was eight months pregnant,” Norberg says.
In fact, the Seahammers are so excited to get new players that they bring extra gear to loan out at every practice. Just in case someone, anyone, wants to get in the water.
Want to give it try? You can find information on the Seahammer’s practice schedule. All you need to do is show up with a swimsuit.
Watch a video of the Seahammers in action