By Michel Langlois / Photography: Marc Brakels
A sport to discoverAt first glance, underwater hockey seems like it came out of nowhere. However, there are several clubs in Quebec. It is played across Canada, and in at least 30 countries spanning five continents. Although hockey is still not an Olympic sport, every two years since 1980 the World Championships sanctioned by the World Confederation of Underwater Activities have been held. In Canada, the Canadian Underwater Games Association has been given a mandate to develop this young sport. In Quebec, it is Quebec Underwater.
Since Canada’s gold medal in 1986 in Australia, hockey has grown tremendously in the country. Results like these were not the only ones for Canada. There was bronze in 1988, 1990 and 2000 for the men, and silver successively won in 2000 and 2002 for the women. Quebec athletes have always represented a large part of the Canadian contingent. From 1986 to 1990, almost 100%, since 1998 an average of 75%, if not more. On the Canadian scene, long dominated by British Columbia before 1986, Quebec is undoubtedly the most medal-winning province in the country. Quebec, like the rest of Canada, also has its share of local competitions. The John F. Kennedy Aquatic Club of Montreal has been holding an unmissable annual tournament since 1993, while Quebec City is in its 8th edition this year. On the recreational side, hockey is played in Montreal, Quebec City, Rimouski, Sherbrooke, in universities, CEGEPs, local high schools and even in some diving clubs.
To enjoy this sport, you must participateIf there is so much of it, then how is it that underwater hockey is so little known to the general public? The answer is simple. When playing the game, hockey is not a fiction. Once you've got your head in the water, you appreciate all the dynamics of this sport. For the viewer, it is perhaps closer to a virtual reality because of its unorthodox accessibility. Let's say you don't go to the pool like you go to the arena to watch a hockey game. To discover this sport, you must participate in it or have access to it by video. On the other hand, it is unheard of because there is little TV or radio coverage devoted to the sport. In fact, isn’t amateur sport in Quebec a poor relative of the sports media? We instead prefer to discuss the stories of professional sports millionaires.
Where does hockey come from?Invented in England in 1954 by the late Mr. Alan Blake who died on August 14, 2000, underwater hockey first took hold in the Commonwealth. Hockey was born out of the need of diving enthusiasts to keep fit during the winter. Long before the appearance of its first official regulations in the mid-1960s, there were friendly meetings between clubs. At the very beginning, the game, very rudimentary, consisted of simply pushing a brass puck with a small wooden pitchfork.
After twenty years of puck pushing and arm wrestling along pool walls, a new style of stick came to revolutionize the practice of hockey. Since then, times have changed a lot with the advent of improved diving products, polyethylene coated pucks and especially the democratization of the shape of the stick. In Quebec, Mr. Rodrigue Sarrazin was the one who imported hockey in the province following a diving trip to the United States some thirty years ago. Who knows what diving can bring?
How do we play?Often, there is a misconception as many people imagine us in a vertical position with an ice hockey stick, while on the contrary we are in a horizontal position, moving parallel to the bottom of the pool equipped with fins, mask, snorkel, a gloved hand and a 30-centimeter stick. But don't look for a stick, glove or puck in sports shops. Apart from the standard scuba gear, hockey enthusiasts create their own equipment. The pucks are imported from France, England and especially Australia. In fact, the puck, remaining at the bottom, weighs 1.5 kg. Placed at each end of the pool, the goals shaped like a dustpan are three meters long. Identified by the color of the water polo cap and stick, each team is made up of ten players: six on the water and four substitutes. Supervision of a game is under the care of three referees. There are two in the water who ensure compliance with the rules, and one outside the water who leads with an audible signal for interruptions or stoppages of play according to the signals of the referees in the water. In regulation time, a match lasts 33 minutes, or two fifteen-minute periods separated by a three-minute half-time during which the teams change sides.
The comparisons with water polo and sometimes even with scuba diving are numerous, but false. In underwater hockey, there is no ball, weight belt, long snorkel, or air cylinder. Hockey is practiced holding the breath at a depth of approximately two meters. The playing surface is 25 by 15 meters, and has a median line, two elliptical areas of six and three meters in front of each goal.
Tactical play is much like ice hockey. However, the players play very close together, as a pass averages three meters. There is no goalkeeper posted at the net. Rather, he goes forth with the rest of the team. The regulations issued by CMAS prohibit any physical contact against an opponent, and any rigid equipment. The rules of the game are based on the idea that only the stick can contact the puck. Checking is forbidden (due to water resistance), and no fighting is tolerated. Underwater hockey is not an extreme sport.