Pool sharks

Armed with squids and pushers, Chico State takes hockey to the deepest depths

THIS IS A PUSHER!<br>Terry Decottignies offers Christine LaPado a pusher, the stick used by underwater hockey players to shuffle the puck across the bottom of the pool.

Terry Decottignies offers Christine LaPado a pusher, the stick used by underwater hockey players to shuffle the puck across the bottom of the pool.

Photo By Christine LaPado

“We hover like a shark and strike like an eel!” is how robust co-captain of Chico State’s underwater hockey team Terry Decottignies put it at a recent practice after popping out of the Acker Gym diving pool with a big grin on his face.

Decottignies, a construction worker and contractor by day, introduced fellow team member Leana Thompson, a twentysomething Butte College student and lifeguard, who was dangling her feet in the water outfitted in swim cap, mask, snorkel and hot pink swim fins.

Of Thompson’s underwater hockey prowess, Decottignies sassily announced, slightly out of earshot of most of the people assembled, “She’ll kick your fuckin’ ass!”

A lot of tough-sounding talk, but clearly done with a sense of humor and an obvious love for fellow players and for the game of underwater hockey, known in some quarters as “Octopush.”

Underwater hockey? Is that some kind of joke?

Andy Scheblein, a student at Butte College who’s been playing the sport at Chico State since August of 2005, has dealt with plenty of disbelievers.

“When I tell them I play underwater hockey, people always go, ‘Underwater basketweaving?'” Scheblein said, laughing. “[Underwater hockey] is the first three-dimensional sport I’ve ever played. I was a lifeguard and I love the water. If I could, I’d get gills!”

The Chico State underwater hockey team draws a definite sub-culture of people of all shapes and sizes ranging in age from 13 to 65, male and female, who share a peculiar love of being in the water—and an impressive ability to hold their breath for lengthy periods of time. But underwater hockey is not a new sport, and is hardly new to Chico.

Photo By Jeff Young

Originally called “Octopush” (and still referred to as so to this day in the United Kingdom), underwater hockey was invented in 1954 and was first played in Southsea, England, and it’s still widely popular in Europe, New Zealand and The Netherlands. Chico State’s team has been in action since 1993.

Most of the action occurs at the bottom of the pool, which in Chico State’s case is a challenging 10 feet deep at the ends and slopes 13 feet deep to the center, as opposed to a regulation 8-foot-deep pool. Underwater hockey is mostly a participant sport, and to be able to really see what’s going on, it’s best if you get in the pool, although it seems most spectators generally stand poolside.

There can be up to 10 players to a team, although Chico State plays five to a team—two backs, two forwards and a center—to allow for more frequent substitutions.

I donned my mask, snorkel and fins and slipped into the pool to see the 3-D action firsthand and watch the players, equipped with a heavy glove and a foot-long hockey stick (called pushers), face off against each other to maneuver the heavy 3-pound lead puck called a “squid” into the 9-foot-long PVC pipe goals on either end of the pool.

HOVER LIKE A SHARK <br>Players hover above, before diving down to assist other players in scoring a goal.

Photo By Christine LaPado

I spent a good amount of time under water as the players strategically took their turns hovering on the surface before diving to the bottom of the pool to help their team guide the orange, rubber-coated puck into the goal with a skillfully executed pass of several feet or more (10 to 15 feet being world-class passing).

It’s all about lungpower—no scuba gear allowed. And although the sport is very physically demanding, unlike ice hockey there’s no thrashing other players.

Poolside, two of the team’s players, local real estate agent Steve Lotti and Orland schoolteacher Marcy Snedeker (who wasn’t playing that evening because of a headache), briefed me on some of their teammates.

Lotti pointed out 6-foot-6 Forest Service employee Bruce Smith, who has played underwater hockey for nine years, propelling himself across the top of the water, waiting for his turn to swoop down on a play.

“That’s Bruce. He stays under water the longest, and he has a sweeping reach as a defender.” Lotti continued, before motioning to Snedeker, “Marcy here; she’s a fierce competitor.”

GEARING UP <br>Decottignies and teammate Leana Thompson suit up for the competition.

Photo By Christine LaPado

Lotti then motioned to 50-year-old Maura Briseno and Jeff Young, the team’s tireless co-captain who joined shortly after Briseno more than a decade ago.

“And Maura and Jeff, they are ramrodders!”

Briseno, who founded the Chico State underwater hockey program in 1993 after training with medal-winning Bay Area underwater hockey team Club Puck, is an avid abalone diver.

After the game, she explained one of the main challenges of getting into underwater hockey.

“This sport really expands lung capacity,” Briseno said. “The first time people play, they think they’re dying. It takes two or three times to get used to it.”

To help illustrate her point about the sport’s lung-expanding benefit, Briseno explained that her 54-year-old sister Annabel, an underwater hockey player turned deep diver who holds a number of U.S. freediving records, recently won a freedive (or “breath-hold dive") competition in Hawaii by diving down a mind-boggling 233 feet.

“Most of this group is abalone divers,” Briseno conceded of the current crop of underwater hockey players at Chico State. “That really helps.”

The tools of the trade include the aforementioned pushers, a glove for the stick hand and the puck, also called a “squid.”

Photo By Christine LaPado

There’s a type of person this [sport] draws,” Briseno explained. “Like Gene—tonight was his first night—he did really well. You could see he wanted it bad! Also, people who play games like soccer, and are used to anticipating plays [do well]. … Women are not at a disadvantage. I’m better at stealing than passing!”

Briseno said she’s never been involved in a sport that was as much fun or had such good-natured players.

“It’s like frolicking with dolphins,” said the self-proclaimed “wannabe mermaid” Briseno, with a content smile on her face. “That’s what this feels like.”