Vancouver's underwater hockey players find community in the pool
Stand by the pool deck at the UBC Aquatic Centre on Sunday mornings, and all you can see are heads and occasional flippers. But take a deep dive and you'll find a spirited game of underwater hockey taking place.
Among the players are members of Canada's national women's underwater hockey team, which is heading to Australia in July for the 2023 Underwater Hockey World Championships.
Darryl Brambilla, coach of the Canadian masters women's squad, has been playing the sport for almost three decades. He describes it as a mix of water polo and ice hockey.
"Like ice hockey, we have forwards and defensive players," Brambilla said. "We don't necessarily have a dedicated goalie, but we have the defence players that go down and patrol the goal area and protect it."
Six players play on each side, he says, use a puck that is about the same size as an NHL hockey puck and is made of three pounds of lead encased in a hard plastic shell.
"That allows it to slide nicely on the top [and] bottom," he said. "You drive it up and down the pool, passing it back and forth to your teammates and hopefully put it in the net at the far end and get the goal."
Players wear a snorkel mask to help them breathe and fins to move quickly underwater, Brambilla says.
He says the game is all about timing.
"We might go down for 15 to 20 seconds at the most, do our duty and then get back and swim into position, get ready to go down again," he said.
Alita Krickan and Adamina Carden of Metro Vancouver are part of the women's elite team.
The team has 12 players, including five from B.C., all of whom are part of Nova, a local underwater hockey club where Brambilla also serves as a coach.
Krickan, who started playing underwater hockey in 2005 at UBC, says she loves the multidimensional nature of the sport.
"You can come in from above, you can come from beside," Krickan said. "It really feels like there's a lot of opportunities to make things happen from different angles."
B.C. has a long history of underwater hockey.
The sport held its first ever world championships in Vancouver in 1980.
Krickan played on the women's elite team in 2013 and 2018, and on the women's masters team in 2016. The championships have been on hold since 2018 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"That feeling when you step out on the pool deck representing Canada, it's a lot of butterflies, a lot of excitement, a lot of pride in wearing the Canadian uniform, wearing that maple leaf on your suit," Krickan said.
Carden, who will be playing on the elite team for the first time, says she is looking forward to the tournament.
"The feeling of playing together and the adrenaline that you get playing at a high level of sport competitions are just always so different to regular club hockey."
Carden says she's found community through underwater hockey.
"It's such a niche sport that I can go to any city in the world that plays hockey and someone will let me sleep on their couch and I just love that aspect of it," she said.
She says the sport makes her feel at home and newcomers are welcome.
"We play at the Vancouver Aquatic Centre on Tuesdays," she said. "Come try it."