'Anybody can play': All about spongee, the 'cult' sport of Winnipeg
To John Robertson, spongee is a Winnipeg "cult."
"There's a lot of people out there that don't play ice hockey, a lot of poor families, a lot of disadvantaged kids," the grandfather of 12 said, seated at a table in the basement of the Lord Roberts Community Centre, where he runs a spongee, or sponge hockey, league every weekend.
He's dedicated more than 40 years of his life to growing the sport, which he says is cheaper and more accessible than regular hockey. It's not widely played outside of Manitoba, but in Winnipeg the sport draws hundreds of players every year, many of whom have been playing since childhood.
Bobby St. Laurent, who runs the upwards of 1,200-player-strong Kildonan Spongee League, credits the birth of the sport in the city to Robertson, who founded the first league in 1978. He calls him the "godfather of sponge hockey" in Winnipeg.
"I guess I kind of owe [my league] to him. He set out with a lot of the rules that are still in place today," St. Laurent said.
If he had to guess what made the sport catch on here, St. Laurent said he'd point to the chilly climate — long winters allow for long-lasting ice, and the sport is a good way to make winter days enjoyable, he said. The sport is non-contact, and can be played by men and women of all ages.
"Winters are horrible in Winnipeg, so it's a great way to spend a winter day and pass the time and get some exercise and have some fun," he said.
Many of his players have been playing for a lifetime, he added.
So... what's sponge hockey?
Robertson won't take credit for creating sponge hockey — his dad and uncles played it before he did, and he says the sport has been played for decades in one form or another.
He and his brothers first started in the mid-60s, he said, looking for something to do on a Saturday morning. The family didn't have money for ice hockey, but they had a raggedy sponge ball they whittled into a puck and snuck onto rinks in the community.
"It was just a passion for us. We'd go out in the morning, we'd be gone for hours and just keep on playing and playing," Robertson said.
Decades later, he became the first person in the city to formalize the rules and start up a league, the Canford league, after running a successful tournament in 1975.
As its name suggests, the sport is a lot like hockey, but with a few essential tweaks.
The most obvious is that it's not played on skates. Instead, players wear thickly padded spongee shoes, similar to broomball shoes. In Winnipeg, you buy them at Royal Sports on Pembina Highway.
Look a little closer and you'll notice it's also played with a sponge puck, not a regular puck, although St. Laurent says it can still smart to be hit with one when the temperatures drop.
The sport is a cheaper and more accessible alternative to hockey, St. Laurent and Robertson said — Robertson calls it the "pleasant alternative."
You don't need to know how to skate, for one thing, St. Laurent said. A single referee in place of multiple officials and the absence of pricey padding and gear all bring down the price tag compared to regular hockey.
There are a few other big differences: there are no offside violations, for instance, and the key around the goalie is much larger than a traditional hockey key. Players can't stay in it for more than three seconds unless the puck is in there, too.
In Winnipeg, the game is also usually played outside, which also brings down the cost, St. Laurent said.
"We could do indoors if we wanted, but we'd have really late time slots and it would be a lot more expensive," St. Laurent said. "And it's actually not as fun playing inside — the ice is actually too sticky and you get really tired."
Leagues are often co-ed, and players' age range from their late teens well into their 60s. St. Laurent said some of his best teams are the older ones, because the sport is more about passing and teamwork than being the fastest player on the ice.
Many of the teams have been playing together for years, he added.
"The winter goes by quickly … this is one heck of a sport," said Corey Toyne, 46. Toyne started playing in 1989 in Robertson's league, and now plays Saturdays in St. Laurent's league.
"It's a lot different from ice hockey — lot of camaraderie between all the teams. It's all the same guys been playing for years, so everybody knows everybody."
Family, friends and sponge hockey
Robertson is hoping to run a world championship tournament of spongee in 2021, and has travelled to Saskatchewan to try and foster the sport there.
He already organized a tournament he dubbed the world sponge hockey championships in 1982. The tournament drew roughly 3,000 players — including the Winnipeg Robertsons, a team made entirely of his immediate family.
More than 30 years later, his grandchildren are all spongee players, too, he said.
"Anybody can play. It's a safe sport, it's an alternative," he said. "And here's the best part about it: you can play as family and friends."