Hockey fans in Toronto immediately think of the Leafs and often those thoughts are fraught with disappointment of the ongoing legacy of having not made it to the Stanley Cup in almost 50 years. But there’s another breed of hockey that is happening in the city and it’s not happening on frozen water but rather under the climate controlled waters of pools. Toronto Underwater Hockey is working hard to save the city from its legacy of losing.
Emmanuel Caisse is the organizer for the sport in Toronto and has been playing underwater hockey for 17 years. He first caught the bug for the game when he was a student in Montreal and tried it out for his first time. Now he has played as a part of Canada’s National Underwater Hockey team and has attended World Championship competitions around the globe including the 2013 event in Hungary.
The history of the game goes back a ways and was created to keep divers fit in the off-season during the winter. The sport requires a great deal of stamina and breathing control and it is a great workout for divers that need to remain calm and in control while submerged for extended periods of time. Early games incorporated scuba gear and player manipulated the puck with shuffleboard sticks. Now, the game has evolved and has its own specific set of gear including special sticks and pucks and gloves that are designed particularly for the game. Teams play with 3 forwards and 3 backs but they do not use a goalie. They can have 4 other players available to substitute through a game but teams often consist of more available players on the roster. They just can’t suit up for every game.
Instead of puck drop, it sits in the centre at the start of a game and players must swim toward it from either end of the pool trying to reach it first. Both teams then push the puck around and try to drop it into the opponents net which is 9 feet long and being blocked by their backs or defensemen. Games play for two 15 minute halves.
The game is described by those involved as “3 dimensional” as players can approach from the above, below or the sides seeing as they are suspended in water. This makes for a very busy and dynamic experience. Caisse says the game is low impact and an amazing full body workout and the challenge is in the breathing and the endurance.
Caisse has been in Toronto trying to revive a team that kind of petered out about 15 years ago working to help them and the sport gain greater exposure by using online tools, talking to the sports minded and the press when possible and recruiting players to grow the community. There are now about 20 people now regularly involved and they get together to scrimmage whenever possible, usually on Sunday afternoons. Generally everyone gets together to play on and off for about an hour and a half. Many of the players can manage to withstand the entire timeframe while others just sub in for quick intervals and then rest.
Underwater hockey is that kind of game. It doesn’t matter how well you can play. As humans, you can’t possible hold your breath for the entire length of a game or for that matter, even a half.