THE WRITING ON (AND OFF) THE WALL HOCKEY TAKES PLUNGE.
One night in the Valley last week, an engineer from a radio station got together with a group that included a teacher, a cabinetry maker, a property management executive, a college student majoring in marine biology and an insurance broker. They fought the rush-hour traffic from their homes or offices in places such as Pasadena, Norwalk, Camarillo, El Segundo, Santa Monica and Huntington Beach to meet up on a chilly November evening at the swimming pool on Pierce College's Woodland Hills campus, just so they could have their regular bi-weekly pick up game.
Of underwater hockey.
``The laughs are common; everyone thinks it's a joke,'' said Steve Herbert, who answers to the title of president of the Greater Los Angeles Underwater Hockey group, as he put a towel around his waist so he could discretely change into his Speedo.
``We like to think of it as one of the most popular unknown sports.''
Don't hold your breath if you're thinking this water-logged activity might someday replace the currently inactive pro ice hockey as the most misunderstood sport on the continent. But, if you dare to dream about grabbing a snorkel, mask, fins and short stick to push a three-pound puck across the bottom of the pool, you'll definitely have to show proficiency in breath-holding.
A bizarre three-dimensional merger of shuffleboard, rugby, basketball and scuba diving might be the right way to conceptualize this, especially from a participant's point of view. From outside the pool looking down into the eight-to-10-feet deep of playing area, it's like watching a silent underwater ballet or a Zen exercise. Or a synchronized swimming routine gone wrong.
``The first few times I did this, I was dead tired and couldn't score, but I loved the workout,'' said Manny Koch, who teaches and operates a dive boat out of San Pedro.
So why bother coming back?
``You really meet a lot of interesting people who are totally different from other athletes you'd find,'' he admitted. ``We're a little crazier and weird, but in a good way.''
Considering how American-goofy it may look, the U.S. is playing catch up to the rest of the world in the growth of this sport, which is also known in some circles as ``octopush.''
Historians pinpoint the start of underwater hockey 50 years ago in England, a country that continues to have the largest contingent of players in excess of 7,000 of all ages. It's played in at least 28 countries around the world, from Australia to Serbia to Zimbabwe, with championships taking place on a regular basis.
The Underwater Society of America is the sport's national governing body for about 50 club teams. San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose, which hosted the Pacific Coast Championships last month, established local teams before Los Angeles. Most of the pool of about 150 players in Southern California dove in during the last eight years, and many belong to the Greater Los Angeles Council of Divers. There's also a recent push to form a squad in Santa Barbara.
While the regular spring-through-fall players congregate at the Lynwood Natatorium, the Pierce College site has been picked as the new L.A. home to rent during the winter.
Many recreational scuba divers are drawn to it as a way to stay in shape and build lung capacity, but the body types of those who play are all different. The twisting, finessing, coming up for air, flapping of fins and pushing the puck with a stick that looks no bigger than an oversized butter knife during the six-on-a-side matches with no goalies force the participants to almost be underwater gymnasts. There's little body contact or obstructing other players, and passing the puck more than a few feet is difficult for any participant.
All of which allows someone like 5-foot-2 Cynthia De La Pena, a native of the Philippines who is probably the most experienced player of this particular group, to compete against some of the men who appear to be twice her weight and strength.
``I definitely think size matters,'' said De La Pena, who adds that it's her dream to somehow recruit enough women to form an all-gender team for L.A.
But reeling in friends and family can be a slow process. Almost as tough as finding a chlorine pool with a flat bottom to play in.
``The problem we have is no one really builds a pool for it, so you do what you can find,'' Herbert said. ``And the recruiting process is the tiring part. In the last six years, we've had a lot of false starts in terms of growing it here. A lot of people you'd think would be perfect for it either don't take to it or aren't interested.
``It seems to take a good sense of humor to play.''
Just don't laugh too hard while you're under water.
6 photos, box
(1) Pushing a weighted puck across the bottom of a pool is half the battle in underwater hockey. Holding your breath long enough is the other.
Photo provided by GLAUH
(2) no caption (Vladimir Guerrero and Arte Moreno)
(3) BEN ROETHLISBERGER
(4) MICHAEL PHELPS
(5) MAURICE CLARETT
(6) - Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor, on the announcement that coach Dave Wannstedt (pictured) had resigned.
- Tom Hoffarth