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Hockey moves into pool

Local underwater hockey club provides opportunity to play sport

Posted: June 12, 2009 8:38 p.m.
Updated: June 12, 2009 8:34 p.m.
 
Ben Jarvis stood on the side of the pool.

It was the winter of 2005, and steam was rising off the water.

With the temperature sitting at just above freezing, Jarvis dove in, effectively bringing underwater hockey to the Santa Clarita Valley.

Underwater what?

Believe it or not, the sport of underwater hockey — or “octopush” as it was originally called — dates back nearly 60 years.

“People basically just want to know why,” Jarvis said. “The answer is because it is fun.”

Averaging 12-15 participants per week — with approximately 50 total throughout the Los Angeles area forming Los Angeles Underwater Hockey — the local contingent plays regularly on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. at the Santa Clarita Aquatic Center.

“It is not much to watch from the top, but drop the puck and watch the fish feed,” said Weston Monroe, who turned to the sport after nearly 40 years of playing soccer.

Teams comprised of six people each wear a mask, snorkel, protective glove and swimming cap with ear protection. They then grab a stick and fins and head below the surface for two 15-minute halves.

While holding their breath, players dive to the bottom of the pool and push the three-pound puck with a short stick toward paydirt, coming up periodically for air.

But don’t get the wrong impression, because the name “hockey” can be misleading.

“The sticks are different — 10-12 inches long with a slight hook,” Monroe said. “The puck is pushed, not hit, and it is a non-trauma swimming sport that is non-contact by nature.

“It is very co-ed friendly,” he adds. “Water is a great equalizer. My 13-year-old niece plays with us every Tuesday. She even played in the tournament.”

On May 16, LAUH’s first underwater hockey tournament was held at SCAC.

Participants were divided into six balanced teams for the “potluck” or “scramble” (designed to generate interest in the sport) they and competed in a round-robin and playoff series, according to Monroe.

While there are other locations for underwater hockey, including Lynwood and Pierce College, SCAC’s flat surface and 7 1/2-foot deep water make the facility the ideal location, said Jarvis.

Considering the fact that participants must hold their breath and dive to the bottom, Lynwood’s 12-foot-deep pool is less advantageous.

It was this type of free diving that built interest the sport.

“Divers wanted to keep their diving skill current during the offseason,” Jarvis said. “That’s where it had its genesis back in the day, and it has grown slowly over time. It is essentially like water polo, played on the bottom of the pool. It is all breath-hold diving.”

In fact, Monroe said improving fitness and lung capacity were goals for the British Navy when the sport was invented back in the 1950s.

“Believe or not, we are actually hockey central here in the Santa Clarita Valley,” Jarvis said.

So much so that LAUH is the reigning national champion, an honor the team won nearly a year ago in Florida.

The team will defend its title in Minneapolis at the end of the month.

However, competition is not limited to the national level.

The biennial World Championship was most recently held in Durban, South Africa, in 2008, and will be in Medellin, Columbia, in 2010.

The U.S. national team has fielded four players from LAUH, including Nate Rust, a Santa Clarita resident.

Rust said he remembers the exact day he started playing underwater hockey — July 3, 2001, — and said you will like the sport, “if you like water and are competitive.”

Monroe, 47, also hopes to join the national ranks but said the chances are slim.

Instead, he hopes to make the Masters team for competitors 35 years old and up.

“It is great cardio, great for muscles and you learn to control your breathing,” Monroe said. “When you play, a common thing to hear from many people the first time you come is that you will be completely confused, not like a fish out of water, but a human in it.”

With yearly dues paid to the Underwater Society of America, underwater hockey is even a sport recognized by the Olympics, said Monroe.

Dubbed as “MacGyver” by his LAUH cohorts, Monroe builds most of the equipment himself, including sticks, pucks, walls, boxes, and goals.

But even more impressive than the team’s drive in the pool is its camaraderie.

“Most people become regulars,” Jarvis said. “People show up and try it for a week or two. I’m one of the people that tried it once and I was addicted. Once people get into the group they tend to come back.”

While preparing for Tuesday’s session, Willem Rietveld, a resident of Canoga Park who travels to Santa Clarita to play, approached Jarvis.

“Oh great, you’re here,” Jarvis joked to Rietveld. “Nice to know I’ll be fouled all night.”

Rietveld’s response came quick and fluid.

“Water keeps you clean, so I’m not a dirty player,” he said with a laugh.

pputignano@the-signal.com

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