A new club is forming in Milwaukee to play a unique and exciting sport of which you’ve probably never heard. Underwater hockey is coming to town, and that begs two questions: What is underwater hockey, and why should you care about it being here?
A relatively simple but fast-paced sport that originated in England in the 1950s, underwater hockey is pretty self-explanatory: it’s like hockey, but underwater. It’s a limited-contact game in which two teams of 10 – six players per side at a time – compete to maneuver a weighted puck with a one-handed stick across the bottom of a swimming pool and into the opponent’s goal.
While media and public exposure is limited, underwater hockey is played around the world – on a small scale and not as an Olympic sport – with two dozen countries under its governing body, the Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques. The 20th World Championship/6th CMAS World Games will be held next July in Quebec, Canada.
While the sport is not entirely new to the area, the first underwater hockey club will launch here next month, organizer Damir Djidic told OnMilwaukee on Thursday. The local club is planning to host an open house event Nov. 7, followed by weekly practices on Tuesday evenings and eventually competitions.
Here are five reasons to check it out:
1. Anyone can play
One of the coolest things about underwater hockey is how open it is. Anyone – literally, anyone – can play the sport, which is fully coed and open to people of all ages, sizes, backgrounds and abilities. While the international game has age and gender divisions and real tryouts, at the lower club and recreational level, men and women compete together, with players as old, young and skilled as are able to participate.
"The water truly makes for a great equalizer," said Djidic, a 31-year-old social worker for Milwaukee County who recently moved up from the Windy City and has been playing underwater hockey for about a decade. His old club in Chicago had high schoolers playing with people as old as 70 – "that guy has been playing for 30-plus years and is amazing," he said.
Leading the local club’s creation, along with Djidic, are John Rothe and Bryna Nielsen, two other underwater hockey players also living in Milwaukee. Nielsen has competed internationally, playing on a women’s elite team at a tournament in South Africa in 2016. How many other sports teams comprise males and females, teenagers and geezers, newbies and international players? (For a beginner's guide to the game, click here.)
Partly because of how nonrestrictive it is and partly because it’s such a niche sport, underwater hockey is a close, tight-knit community.
"I just love the sport," Djidic said. "Underwater hockey for me has always been very recreational, with once to twice-per-week scrimmage practices and traveling tournaments about six times per year. Every tournament is like a huge family reunion, an always-growing family that enjoys healthy competition and lots of fun. Tournaments tend to include themed banquets that are always a blast."
A totally self-funded sport with no paid professionals and little media attention, underwater hockey players compete purely for the love of the game. And because of how unique it is, participants share a special bond of solidarity and common interest. "You get to meet lots of new friends," Djidic said.
3. Great fun, great exercise
Hey, swimming is a fantastic workout, and so is hockey, but let’s be honest: doing laps in a pool is dull, and the physical toll of ice hockey is hard on the aging body. But underwater hockey combines fierce competition with cardiovascular activity that’s good for the heart and easy on the joints. Since the sport doesn’t allow intentional contact – though, of course, players do brush and bump into each other often during play – the risk of injury is very low.
"Underwater hockey breaks up the boring monotony of swimming laps and staring at the pool bottom tile," Djidic said.
Players wear masks and snorkels and use fins that help them swim faster and move more easily in the water. The snorkel allows players to watch the game below when they come up for air, but otherwise they’re holding their breath – usually for about eight seconds at a time – during the action. You get in the pool, get in shape, hold your breath and have some fun.
4. Local connections
Believe it or not, though the club is just starting, Milwaukee is not new to the sport. The Walter Schroeder Aquatic Center in Brown Deer has underwater hockey courts and has hosted more than 20 tournaments over the last seven years, including an international competition called America’s Cup in 2012, the U.S. Nationals in 2013 and the CanAm Midwestern Underwater Hockey tournament in 2015.
Elsewhere in Wisconsin, the game already has an established presence. Over the summer, three female members of the Door County Sturgeons underwater hockey team represented the United States in the Youth World Underwater Hockey Tournament in Tasmania. And there’s also another club based in Green Bay.
With impressive state squads to the north and a (surely soon-to-be rival) club in Chicago, Milwaukee underwater hockey players will have plenty of motivation to learn the game and improve.
5. It’s starting soon!
An open house for the Milwaukee Club is scheduled for Nov. 7 at 6 p.m. at the Schroeder Aquatic Center. Djidic said the plan is to socialize, get to know each other, talk about underwater hockey and then jump in the water. After that, the club will practice once a week, on Tuesdays from 7:15 to 8:15 p.m., before hopefully adding more weekly practices and inter-squad scrimmages.
"When I say practice, I mean literally that," Djidic said. "In the beginning, we will do some dry skill training and discussion, but the nature of this sport is to get in and try it. People tend to need some time to get used to the snorkeling gear and the rules."
The first couple of practices, Djidic said, will be free for everyone. Those who enjoy it and decide they want to continue to play regularly will be asked to pay $25 per month. According to Djidic, at some point, the club will try to add a second pool that’s closer to Milwaukee, so that players don’t always have to go out to Brown Deer.
Djidic, Rothe and Nielsen have been working to collect gear for new players, and Djidic said they’ve received "lots of donations from other clubs," as well as spent some of their own money to purchase equipment. At least for the first practice, just bring your swimsuit, big lungs and a desire to try something new and have a good time.
For more information on the new Milwaukee Underwater Hockey Club, and for details on the open house event, contact Djidic by phone (630-345-0491) or email at DDjidic@gmail.com.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.