By Brion O’Connor
Last fall, I caught my first glimpse of underwater hockey at MIT’s Zesiger Center pool. So this, I thought, is what hockey would look like if the ice melted. But that image, funny as it might be, doesn’t do the sport justice.
The splashing at the surface resembled a feeding frenzy, with players bobbing up for air. The real action, however, was underwater, along the bottom of the pool, as players fought for the puck.
“My first impression was, ‘This is crazy. And it’s a sport. And it’s really crazy,’ ” said Peabody’s Andrew Najjar, 22, who first started playing five years ago as a freshman at University Massachusetts Lowell. “I stumbled upon a club called Underwater Hockey, went to the first meeting, and [have] enjoyed it ever since.
“The attraction has changed into a calming competitiveness,” said Najjar, now a graduate student. “You can’t talk underwater, so you have to just play and trust your teammates to make the right moves and have the correct timing.”
Like ice hockey, the underwater version has all the elements of controlled chaos. Teams feature six players aside, men and women, divided into forwards and defenders. Players are equipped with goggles and a snorkel, water polo headgear for protection, fins, a 10- to 12-inch “stick” — basically a blade and a handle, similar to a sled hockey stick — and padded gloves to protect their hands from scraping the bottom of the pool.
“I’ve been playing about 20 years and am still competing,” said Randolph’s Lawrence Colson, 67, a retired state trooper who learned about the sport in the mid-1990s through a mutual friend at the Metro West Dive Club. “It’s challenging in ways that are startling.
Christopher Niezrecki, a mechanical engineering professor and department chairman at UMass Lowell, oversees the school’s underwater hockey club and a public program at Westwood High School.
“I love the sport because it’s unique,” said Niezrecki, 49, who starting playing as a Virginia Tech graduate student. “It involves teamwork, strategy. And while you’re underwater, it’s silent. The sport allows you to forget about all the problems in your life and just focus on scoring and putting the puck into the goal. It’s an outstanding workout, and has enabled me to have aquatic finesse. No matter how good a swimmer you think you are, after you start playing underwater hockey, your swimming ability and underwater finesse elevates several levels.”
The object of the game is simply to score more goals than the other team. Shots on goal typically result from passing the puck – called “flicking” – between teammates along the bottom of the pool. To be successful, players must find a balance between competing for the puck and getting to the surface to catch their breath. During Westwood’s Monday night games, teams switch sides after every three goals to adjust for the different depths at each end of the pool.
“The challenge is that the puck is on the bottom of the pool and the air is on the top,” Niezrecki. “You have to hold your breath while trying to swim fast. Opponents can come at you from all sides and above, which makes the sport three-dimensional, unlike regular hockey. People are surprised at how fast it is.”
Recent Westwood High School graduate Alexa Zonderman, who works at the Westwood pool, picked up underwater hockey at the suggestion of a friend and plans to continue playing at University of California San Diego.
“In the beginning, the attraction was definitely the unfamiliarity of the sport,” said Zonderman, 18. “But as I learned more, I started to really enjoy the challenge of learning more complicated skills and staying in shape for the game.”
Though being in good shape provides a distinct advantage, everyone is welcome to join in the Monday games at Westwood.
“Some players want to play at a high level,’’ said Billerica’s Diana Madden, 25, an elementary school teacher who started playing at UMass Lowell, “but some players just want a weekly stress relieve, and that’s OK.”
Colson, like other players, said the best part of the game is, without question, the people.
“We’re competitive and play hard, but everyone is treated with respect regardless his or her skill level,” he said. “Some players are bears and just go full steam through other team players. Others are graceful, fast, and remarkable stick handlers. They’ll take the puck off my stick without me having a chance to prevent it.”
Injuries do happen — typically the result of a flailing elbow or fin, or errant stick — but are rare.
“The occasional injury will occur, but they’re minimal,’’ said Madden, who is training for a spot on the Women’s Elite USA team. “If anything, I usually leave practice with a few bruises from getting kicked.”
But for Madden and others, the occasional black-and-blue mark is a small price to pay for the camaraderie and competition of underwater hockey.
For more details on the underwater hockey sessions at Westwood High School, contact Chris Niezrecki at email@example.com.