Diving into the world of underwater hockey
Groton — It's a shame that underwater hockey does not make for a more practical spectator sport.
Watching involves floating face-down on the pool's surface, as players dive toward the weighted puck and form a temporary tangle of bodies. Like a colony of cormorants, they wait for the opportune moment to dive for their prey.
But compared to the notorious aggression of street or ice hockey, it's a serene sport to watch, with the only sounds coming from the gurgling of water and sticks making contact with the puck.
"If the team is working well, it's a like a conveyor belt," said Peter Papathanasiou, organizer of the weekly Sunday night games in the UConn Avery Point pool. Papathanasiou, a Waterford engineer originally from Long Island, has been playing for 27 years.
The team, called the Killer Bees, is preparing for a tournament in Montreal this month.
According to the Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques, the international federation for underwater activities, Alan Blake created underwater hockey in the U.K. in 1954 as a way for scuba-divers to stay fit in the winter.
Papathanasiou said that those stationed at the Navy base here learned underwater hockey from English divers, and Navy diver Norm Tetrault started the local group in 1980. They have been playing at Avery Point for about 30 years, having previously played at the former Naval Underwater Sound Lab in New London.
The eastern part of Connecticut used to compete against the western part — SECONN versus the Barnacles, Papathanasiou said. But with the internet, the popularity of the sport rose, and the teams stopped feuding so they could work together and compete on a national scale.
Players drive to Groton every Sunday night from as far away as Danbury, Trumbull, Narragansett and Newport.
Some players are diligent in attending every Sunday evening practice at Avery Point, while others drop in when they can make it. Sometimes a dozen or more people show up.
On Aug. 26, a laminated sheet delineated exercises to do before the scrimmage. The warm-up involves swimming without fins, and then arms-only laps and normal laps with fins.
The underwater exercises include duck dive, hunting run No. 1, and divide and suffer No. 1 — not to be confused with divide and suffer No. 3, which involves greater swimming speeds but also more rest.
Players then divide into two teams and make their way to either end of the pool. On one player's call, the game begins and they swim toward the center of the pool, diving down at the last second toward the weighed puck.
Success in underwater hockey largely is dependent on the strategy of knowing when to surface and breathe.
"Newer players, they stay underwater for too long," Deryl Gage said. But then they're out of breath and need more surface time to recover, whereas "if I stay down for 30 seconds, I can come up and catch one or two breaths and go back down."
Then there's the moves you learn.
A player might maneuver the puck around his or her back. There's an inside curl or an outside curl, which a player does to keep control of the puck when an opponent is coming from the opposite direction. There's the jinx, which Pat Hanrahan described as the equivalent of a sidestep, in which you maneuver the puck around someone's hand.
"I trained (in) underwater hockey until my maneuvers are reflexes," he said. "I can play with my reflexes, and a reflex motion will always beat a planned motion."
All of this is done using a curved stick that is 10 or 11 inches long. Some people buy theirs from underwater-hockey gear manufacturer CanAm, while Papathanasiou makes his with a laser cutter.
Newer players use sticks with orange tape wrapped around them, which means that if they get the puck, the other players will allow them to score without interference. Gage occasionally brings his 16-year-old daughter, Amanda, and in September she played without orange tape for the first time.
The team only has referees during official tournaments; otherwise a player calls a foul by slapping the stick on the floor.
There are no goalies, and the time between starting and scoring is often around two minutes. The teams switch sides, to make the game fair in a pool that ranges from 4 to 10 feet deep.
One thing that's striking about the Avery Point players is the diversity of their experiences.
The group includes players who originally hail from South Africa, Tunisia, Puerto Rico and France. It includes a farmer, engineer, chef, high school teacher and research associate. It includes people who might be 16 or 75.
"As I'm getting a little older, I play more of a defensive game," said Joe Berardy, a Montville resident who has been playing since about 1975.
"You play this 'til you die," Papathanasiou said.
The players at Avery Point tend to get into underwater hockey from a combination of a background in spear-fishing and the "that looks interesting" mentality.
"I used to go for the octopus; I might as well go for the puck," said Skander Benayed, originally from Tunisia.
New London resident Javier Cruz used to do a lot of spearfishing in his native Puerto Rico, so he had the mask and the snorkel and the fins when he saw a flier for underwater hockey at the Norwich YMCA a while back.
Pat Hanrahan came to the U.S. in 2001 from South Africa, where he coached and played for the underwater hockey club at the former University of Port Elizabeth.
Guillaume Delaviel-Anger played for 13 years in his native France and was determined to continue when he and his wife moved to Connecticut in February to work at Yale.
"In other countries, like France and New Zealand, it's more recognized, so they play it in school," Gage said. He played underwater hockey in high school in Wyoming, and came to Connecticut after joining the Navy.
Like Cruz, he came upon underwater hockey in Connecticut after seeing a flier at the YMCA, only this one was in Stratford.
Tracy LaPietra, one of the few women in the group, started playing in 2003, when she was a synchronized swimmer at the University of Rhode Island and working on her scuba certificate. LaPietra teaches biology at Fitch High School.
Some of the players convene every week after practice at Sneekers Café, to eat, drink and joke around with the server they have gotten to know.
"We play a game underwater where you can't breathe, you can't talk to anybody, but we just end up being really close to each other," Gage said. "All the people I play hockey with, I would believe that they would be there for me for anything I needed them for."
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