Players take a dive into underwater hockey
DULUTH, Minn.—In a state known for its water and hockey, Alan Newton is hoping a sport will take hold in Duluth that combines the two: underwater hockey.
On a recent night at Lincoln Park Middle School, Newton called out to six swimmers — "Ready, go!" — and the swimmers ducked underneath the water's surface, short hockey sticks in hand, to swim toward a puck in the middle of the pool.
After a team scored a goal by shooting the 3-pound puck into the underwater goal, the swimmers resurfaced to cheer. In the next play, Newton reached the puck first and swam along the bottom of the pool before losing the puck to another player. As the players played underwater using snorkels and fins, the surface of the pool was a commotion of flippers and bodies splashing and players' heads bobbing up to get a breath of air through their snorkel tube before going back underneath the water.
Although underwater hockey is a non-contact sport, the games can look like a "shark feeding frenzy," Newton explained afterward.
The scrimmage is part of an underwater hockey class taught by Newton through Duluth Community Education. Newton moved to Duluth more than a year ago from Seattle, where he played underwater hockey for more than 30 years, and he hopes to eventually create an underwater hockey club in Duluth. Newton will be teaching another seven-week underwater hockey class through Duluth Community Ed beginning March 29.
Underwater hockey is played in countries around the world — the Midwest has several clubs — and teams can compete in several age divisions. Anyone from children to older adults can play underwater hockey all year long, Newton explained, adding: "It's a great sport for all family members."
Teams typically are six players on a side, with four substitute players.
"You have to learn to play with your teammates. That's what I think is very enjoyable. Most of the clubs, they've had their teams together for 10, 15, 20 years. It's just the camaraderie," Newton said.
Duluth resident Cara Stromback said she decided to try underwater hockey because it looked fun. She took a one-day underwater hockey clinic taught by Newton in Duluth last year and is participating in his Community Ed class this winter. She's enjoying it so far, she said.
"It's a really good physical challenge that I think a lot of sports don't necessarily have," she explained.
Learning to breathe while playing is the most challenging part of learning the sport, she said; it took her three classes before she started to feel comfortable with the snorkel. But going after the puck underwater is the best part of the game.
"I like knowing when to go under, dive under to get to the puck," she said.
Timing in everything in underwater hockey and the equalizer among players of varying abilities is that everyone has to come up for air during plays in the game, Newton said.
Newton learned how to play underwater hockey through a scuba club in college. He's passed his interest in the sport on to his daughters, who have competed on U.S. underwater hockey teams, and he is now teaching his grandchildren.
Aidan Newton, his 11-year-old grandson who began learning underwater hockey last year, said he enjoys the game because — despite its chaotic nature — he finds it calming to play.
"The main thing is it's super fun. Just the rush of the game and how you have to move around in a certain way to get around everybody and all the parts to it make it really fun. Playing with my friends is my favorite," he said.
He usually has to explain underwater hockey to his friends. His friend Kareem Pulliam, 11, joined him in taking the Community Education underwater hockey class. Kareem said he likes playing ice hockey and has enjoyed learning underwater hockey.
Kareem said the hard part is that "you have to hold your breath for the amount of time to go under and try to get the puck and it's heavy — so you have to put a lot of force into it — then you have to try to get a goal without them taking it and you have to move it around while you're still swimming."
Moving the puck around is more difficult than it appears, Aidan said. He can move the puck only a few feet at a time underwater — something he's been working to improve.
"The challenging part is when you're down on the bottom, looking around, trying to find your teammates to pass to and if you do find them, trying to push the puck toward them. Since you're underwater and it's a weighted puck, you have to push really hard and sometimes you can't find your teammates," he said.