NORTH PARK — These hockey players have ditched skates for snorkels.
The Speedo and flipper-clad members of the Chicago Underwater Hockey Club play eight feet below the surface, using the bottom of the pool instead of ice to pass and shoot the puck. Instead of regulation-size hockey sticks, the players use tiny foot-long hockey sticks.
From above, the game looks like a fish frenzy, with gasping players continually breaking the surface to catch a breath. The same applies to two in-water referees, who must come up for air to signal calls to a poolside official who triggers an underwater buzzer that stops action.
The game, founded in England in the 1950s, features a 30-minute, two-half match. Each team includes six players with no goalie.
“It’s a pretty simple game,” said Maria deCausin, the president of Chicago Underwater Hockey Club and a firefighter since 1997. “Yes, you hold your breath for a really long time. That’s the biggest challenge — holding it until you score.”
Using the sticks, players attempt to push a three-pound lead puck into the opponent’s goal area across the pool wall. The puck travels only a few feet with each shot because of water resistance.
“It’s a great sport because it requires intense teamwork [and] strong individual skills,” said Ben Tolsky, 32, who has been a club member for 16 years.
The Chicago Underwater Hockey Club plays at Northeastern Illinois University during the school year and at Chicago State University year-round, and members mostly plays matches against themselves. The club has roughly 40 members, from teenagers to 72-year-old Wayne Parsons, who began playing the sport at the Hyde Park YMCA in the early 1970s.
"It's a great way to stay in shape and it's fun, too," Parsons said.
The club always is looking for new members, and about five rookies a year try out. Prospective players are encouraged to come the first Sunday of each month.
“We want people to come out and try it,” deCausin, 53, said. “You have to do it to know the feeling you get when you’re playing.
“I’m very passionate about it. It’s a very creative and unique sport. I just love it.”