Team depth

Underwater hockey is making a big splash with club at UMass Lowell, in a sport that leaves players breathless

Members of the UMass Lowell underwater hockey team are making a splash in a relatively new sport - underwater hockey. Members of the UMass Lowell underwater hockey team are making a splash in a relatively new sport - underwater hockey. (Mark Wilson/Globe Staff)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / January 13, 2011

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First, turbulence — arms, legs, flippers, snorkel tubes, splashing, dashing, fluttering.

Then, a collective plunge and sudden quiet; chaotic water slowly settling.

Curiosity pulls observers to the pool’s edge. Lean over and squint and, among blue ripples, a Hawaiian-trunk-wearing swimmer slowly and silently guides a fluorescent orange puck along the bottom with a stick.

Other swimmers circulate like feeding fish; the water gets choppy, dense with bodies in slow motion, until the churning makes it impossible to see below the surface.

But just what is going on in the turquoise depths of this University of Massachusetts Lowell pool?

A fierce, competitive underwater hockey game.

“Everybody, when they first hear about it, says, ‘underwater what?’ ’’ said Christopher Niezrecki, an associate professor in the mechanical engineering department at UMass Lowell.

Niezrecki, the founder and faculty adviser of the college’s underwater hockey club — which attracts eight to 15 players weekly and is one of just four in the state — admits that many “are surprised that it is a real sport.’’

It is an athletic challenge that requires strong swimming skills, dexterity with a puck, good lung capacity, good reflexes while weightless; the ability to propel oneself using flippers, and a willingness to negotiate defensive and offensive tactics while floating.

“It’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever heard of,’’ said 20-year-old Mike Trapani, a UMass Lowell junior, Lowell native, and an avid subaquatic strategist in the club.

But, Trapani added, before changing from a T-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops to swim trunks and a bathing cap for a recent Wednesday night practice, “it’s also one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.’’

The submersible sport doesn’t stray too far from traditional hockey. On its pool-bottom court, it observes roughly the same rules and makes use of similar positions.

The main differences: There’s no goalie (consider the breath-holding implications of that); it’s noncontact (save for the inadver tent fin kick); and the pace is notably slower than the ice version.

Coed teams of typically six players try to shoot weighted fluorescent pucks — appearing like watery streaks of highlighter — into trough-like goals that are settled on the bottom at each end of the pool.

Equipment includes snorkels, masks, fins, bathing caps, coated gloves, and foot-long sticks.

“When you watch the Discovery Channel and you see a feeding frenzy with sharks — that’s the closest analogy I can think of,’’ said Jared DeFoe, a 21-year-old junior from Becket who is president of the UMass Lowell club.

“It’s people and fins and the water’s all turbid.’’

The most obvious challenge?

“The puck’s on the bottom of the pool, and the air’s on the surface,’’ said Niezrecki.

Teamwork isn’t a warm-and-fuzzy, camaraderie-building concept — it’s crucial. The game can’t succeed without it. Staying underwater for as long as their lungs will allow — typically five to 15 seconds — players negotiate, pass, and intercept the puck, sliding it like an air hockey disc and sometimes even flicking it off the bottom. As they cycle between fresh air and watery depths, they constantly switch between offense and defense.

“The whole team works together all the time; you have to learn to cooperate,’’ said Niezrecki. “One outstanding player can’t carry an entire team.’’

In 1954, Englishman Alan Blake developed “octopush’’ — a creative title still used in its founding country — as a winter activity for his diving club.

Fifty-six years later, the watery pastime is practiced in 223 known groups in 35 countries, according to the website Underwater Hockey Tourist.

Scattered across the United States are roughly 50 clubs — from Wisconsin to Texas to North Carolina, and bearing playful names like Micro Lungs, Barnacles, and Bottom Dwellers — according to Joe Klinger, Northeast regional director of USA Underwater Hockey, a governing body for the sport.

There are also national women’s, men’s, and junior teams that compete in biennial international championships, as well as regional and national tournaments.

Fourteen clubs dot the Northeast, with four in Massachusetts — at UMass Lowell, Sandwich High School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in Westwood/Framingham, according to Klinger, who is president of a group in Groton, Conn.

Given their scarcity, clubs have no dedicated competition schedules or rankings. Instead club members typically scrimmage one another at regular practices, and take the occasional opportunity to flex their fins in regional tournaments.

Often, players are former swim team stars or simply “addicted to water,’’ as 21-year-old UMass Lowell player Nichole Rosa of Somerville described herself.

“It’s an alternative way to be creative in the water,’’ said her fellow player, 25-year-old Tiffany Keyes of Reading.

“It’s the only three-dimensional sport,’’ said Joseph Benoit, a 19-year-old sophomore, noting how swimmers can sneak up on each other from above, below, or either side.

But despite the enthusiasm of players, underwater hockey has a sizable barrier that may keep it from becoming mainstream: “It’s really not a spectator sport,’’ DeFoe said.

“Above water you can’t really see anything,’’ agreed Niezrecki.

That becomes apparent to anyone attempting to watch a weekly practice in UMass Lowell’s Costello Gym.

In several five-on-five scrimmages over an hour, it is nearly impossible to tell who’s guarding who or to keep track of the action or the score.

At the start of each match, pucks are set center-pool and players assemble at opposite ends, clutching white, chlorine-faded sticks in caulk-layered gloves.

With the go signal, they kick off, their red, yellow, and black fins flicking as they butterfly, crawl, and undulate like dolphins.

Then they disappear, leaving just stirring water.

While action continues in the depths, players take turns popping back up to suck in fresh air, briefly tread face-down to keep their eyes on the game, then slip under again.

Throughout play, they exhibit a quiet grace, like a pack of feeding dolphins or fish circulating in an aquarium.

Players dip and lift, pirouette, and somersault around the puck, with their fins sending occasional arcs of water across the surface.

“When it’s working right, it’s a cycle of people,’’ 18-year-old freshman Doug Baker, towel draped around his neck, said after players sloshed out of the pool, eyes made red by the chlorine.

Unlike others in the club, Baker never played hockey or swam competitively. Still he couldn’t resist the allure of the peculiar sport.

“It just sounded so bizarre I had to try it out.’’