Teams compete at Aquatic Center in underwater showdown

Eighteen teams competed as an estimated 200 people looked on in attendance.

Nick Gerhardt

The University hosts unusual events from time to time, but this weekend proved a bit more peculiar.

Even volunteers surrounding the affair poked fun at its obscurity by wearing T-shirts asking, “Underwater what?”

Below the University Aquatic Center’s pool surface, teams competed in the 2007 Underwater Hockey National Championships Friday through Sunday in a variation of hockey played on a pool’s floor.

The purpose is to score a goal by getting the three-pound puck into a trough at the end of the pool.

More than 200 people showed up to participate in the event, according to tournament director Ben Erickson. Sunday wrapped up the three-day event where 18 teams competed for a national title.

Club Puck, a San José-area team, won the A division of the tournament while San Diego won the B division and Cincinnati’s Roger Bacon High School took home the C division.

John Bischof, a University professor of mechanical engineering, said he fights off incredulous looks when he tells people about underwater hockey.

“Mostly people don’t believe me when I tell them, and then I have to explain it to them,” Bischof said. “Once they get that I’m not joking, they get very interested because it’s a very different sport.”

Different aptly describes the sport, considering Minnesota’s nickname the “State of Hockey” is normally used to describe ice hockey – not in a pool with a stick that resembles a kitchen utensil.

Underwater hockey consists of 10 members of a team, six of which play at a time. Substitutions take place on the fly just like ice hockey.

Participants wear a snorkel, goggles, swim cap and a glove that is actually nothing more than a workman’s glove covered in a silicon substance. The teams play two periods of 12 minutes.

“It’s sort of like competitive snorkeling because you dive down, hold your breath, play the puck, come back up, then go back down,” Erickson said.

The tournament featured underwater cameras that captured the action and displayed the images on the Jumbotron scoreboard. The cameras allowed spectators to revel in the ability of the players to twist, twirl and spin past opponents.

Underwater hockey started as a pushing game in England in the 1950s, Erickson said. A group of divers got together at a small diving club and would push a dive weight across the bottom of the pool, he said.

“Over the years the stick developed into a stick where you could throw the puck across the bottom of the pool,” Erickson said. “I can get a shot to go 10 feet and some guys can get it 15 feet.”

Although the sport has existed for decades, interest has leveled off in recent years. The result is club teams appealing to younger people.

“Within the last few months we started a development board,” said Terry Sutton, head coach of the two-time world champion open 35 men’s masters division. “We’re going to get a development director whose sole purpose is to get more people playing hockey so we’ll focus on the high school and college level.”

Erickson plays on the Minnesota Loon team, and his team practices from 6 to 7 p.m. Sundays at the University Aquatic Center.

“We actively recruit players, so we’re always looking for students,” Erickson said.

Bischof noted publicity would play a huge part in the growth of the sport.

“The ‘U’ has a great swimming and water sport tradition,” Bischof said. “If students could start to see this sport on campus, maybe we could get some more recruits.”