Underwater hockey gets overdue praise on Page 2

Mon, Oct 11

NEWPORT, Wales -- At first glance, you see a piranha-like feeding frenzy.

Below the surface, swimmers armed with short sticks and snorkels fight savagely for a puck.

Underwater hockey is played in more than 20 nations around the world, and as a service to the readers of Page 2, I find myself here learning the sport and asking, "Why don't they just use scuba tanks?"

A match lasts for 30 grueling minutes, during which you start to wonder who would create such a bizarre sport. It was the British, of course, who also chase cheese down a hill every year and compete in shin-kicking contests.

Underwater hockey
Courtesy of Kristy Barry Underwater hockey was invented in 1954, but we're disappointed it wasn't created in a melted ice rink.

In 1954, Alan Blake invented underwater hockey (originally called Octopush) to train and entertain deep-sea divers in winter months. Two teams of six (with up to four substitutions) slide the three-pound puck along the bottom of the pool and score at opposite ends. It's a physical game with plenty of kicking. Rachael Miles, 36, tore a ligament competing and now plays in a hand cast.

Miles is a member of the British women's squad that defeated the Netherlands, Spain, South Africa, France, Czech Republic and Colombia for the 2010 world championship in Portugal.

What's one of her favorite things about the sport?

"No one can talk underwater," Miles said. "Just the occasional squeal or someone screaming [expletive] through their snorkel."

Players wear snorkels, swim caps, flippers and a plastic protective glove.

Seemingly, by the time you elbow your way into a play, steal the puck and charge for the goal, you're out of oxygen. Time to surrender the puck and swim up for air, which is like running track and stopping between hurdles to tie your shoes.

Steve Blundell is a 20-year veteran of the sport. He says breathing is "an elastic concept -- you can find the extra breath; it's just about brainpower."

Underwater hockey enthusiasts hope the sport will someday be part of the Olympics -- even if it's not the most user-friendly spectator sport.

[Editor's Note: Kristy and Katie Barry are touring Europe and competing in offbeat sports. Look for a report each day this week in the Page 2 blog.]