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On The Town with Jason Downs

| Entertainment | October 31, 2019

Greetings fellow Santa Claritans, and welcome to a column that’s all about having fun around town! We’re fortunate enough to live in one of the great entertainment meccas of the world. Join me as we celebrate all the area has to offer!

Here’s what I got up to this week: The Pacific Coast Underwater Hockey Championships…yes, I said underwater hockey. That’s hockey, except with snorkel gear, a twelve inch stick and a three pound puck that’s pushed along the bottom of a pool!

A friend of mine from the Rotary Club, Glenn Terry, asked if I would be interested in commentating for a big sporting event he was organizing at the Santa Clarita Aquatic Center. He said it was a sport that most folks hadn’t heard of yet but it was a lot of fun, growing in popularity and goaling to become an Olympic event.

“What is this mysterious sport?” I asked; my curiosity piqued.

When his response was “underwater hockey” my brain took a moment to compute the words. Once the synapses finished attempting their connections and came up short I was finally compelled to ask, “Underwater, what?”

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“Hockey.”

Okay, so I had heard correctly. Now a series of new questions arose in my mind: How in the world does that work? How in the world did this sport come into existence? And how do the players keep from drowning?

In all my years I’d never heard of underwater hockey but I was about to get a full education, my friends. In preparation for my duties as a sportscaster, I dove into research (pun intended). The first thing that became clear was that this is a real sport and the players are real athletes. No scuba gear is used. The players wear nothing but a bathing suit, a single glove to protect the hand holding the hockey stick and water polo caps to protect their ears. Otherwise it’s just the flippers on their feet and a snorkel mask allowing players to break the surface for a quick breath before plunging back to the bottom of the pool. The game is a constant whir of spins and flips and kicks and dives. Talk about a good work out!

The game was conceived in 1954 by an Englishman who called it octopush. For fun, say the word “octopus” while impersonating Sean Connery and you’re right on the money. The first World Championship took place in 1980. Think about that. That simple fact will tell you a lot about the passion driving this sport. It only took 26 years for octopush to go from eight guys saying “How bloody marvelous would it be to have something sporting to do during the winter months?” in England, to worldwide underwater hockey championships involving teams from dozens of countries across the globe.

Sean Connery saying “octopush.”

Since 1954, the game has evolved to include six players on each team with four extra waiting on the sidelines to sub in for their worn out compadres. Even though games only last for half an hour, there are two halves lasting no more than 15 minutes, each of the players take a much needed rest at some point during the game. Like most contact sports, there are fouls called by one of the three refs in the water, and sometimes, if the foul is especially egregious, it will count as an obstruction resulting in the penalty box for one minute. During this time the offending team is left with only five players on the field (or rather, in the pool…or rather, at the bottom of the pool…or rather, both at the bottom of the pool and at the surface intermittently, because the players can only hold their breath for so long until that pesky little thing we call oxygen calls for attention).

All of this lends to the excitement and intensity of underwater hockey, which I was fully immersed in on Saturday and Sunday at the Pacific Coast Championships. Nineteen teams showed up at the Santa Clarita Aquatic Center including four from Canada and one from Colombia (yes, the country in South America), totaling about 250 participants! They had names like the LA Kraken, the Sea Dragons, the Rocky Mountain Oysters, Club Puck, the Corgi Sharks and Las Maquinas (The Machines). I got to conduct interviews with many of the players and learned that a few of the best in the world were present, including Tyera Eulberg of Colorado and Jessie Hawking of New Zealand, to name a couple. Those two were not a romantic couple; however, many of the players I spoke to met their boyfriends or girlfriends through playing the sport…a few going back to 1979…so if you’re looking for a love connection underwater hockey might just be a good place to start!

I discovered octopush has spawned a lot of romance, symbolized by this puck locked in a lover’s embrace between two underwater hockey sticks.

There were men and women competing of all ages, shapes and sizes, and in some cases, playing right alongside each other. If you’re good in the water and can push a puck then this sport will welcome you with eight open arms! I was especially impressed with the number of college-aged women involved. They hailed from all different parts of the state but were coming together to qualify for the women’s elite team at the World Champs in Australia next year. They were a fierce bunch of ninjas in the water and thus the two teams were aptly named Wax On and Wax Off respectively.

I have to say, watching all these folks play was truly a beautiful thing to behold. With the help of an underwater camera the action was happening up close and personal. The players looked like mermaids and mermen in a graceful dance, and then at times the mingled bodies looked like a school of fish in a feeding frenzy around the puck. One thing’s for sure, their skill, stamina, strength and agility were undeniable, as well as their sportsmanship and camaraderie. I walked away from the weekend an official fan of underwater hockey. And what’s more, I decided to give the sport a try myself! If you’d like to join me, the club meets every Tuesday at 6pm at the Santa Clarita Aquatic Center. Grab some flippers, bring your best Sean Connery impression and come on down!

So, there it is for this week, friends. Always feel free to let me know what you like doing around town so I can check it out and write it up. (reachjasondowns@santaclaritagazette.com)

Until next time, bon voyage, break a leg, and bon appétit!

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