Smile Politely

Taking a deep dive into the sport of underwater hockey

A group of people playing hockey underwater. They are wearing swimsuits, masks, snorkels, and holding small handheld sticks
Illinois Underwater Hockey Facebook

Underwater hockey is a sport that may fly under the radar for even the most dedicated sports fans. I sat down with the president of the University of Illinois’ Underwater Hockey Club, Luka Bettich, to learn more about the sport, the community, and the camaraderie that the members of the club enjoy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A group of young men and women stand together with an orange 3rd place pennant
Luka Bettich

Smile Politely: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got started with the Underwater Hockey Club at the University of Illinois?

Luka Bettich: I’m a senior in Urban Planning at U of I and am minoring in Architecture. I am from Atlanta, Georgia and came here for college in 2020. I came to Illinois because I have extended family up in the Rockford area. My freshman year started in August 2020, so they didn’t have Quad Day as usual. I knew as an out of state student that I had to reach out to other people to make friends, especially that year. So, I tried to get involved with clubs and they had virtual Quad Day, which was even less fun than it sounds! I went to the list of clubs on the university’s website and just scrolled. I found the ones that I thought were interesting and I saw underwater hockey club and I’m like, “what the hell is this?” There was not even a description attached to it. And so, I just signed-up and thought, sure why not? I thought it might have been some kind of joke. But it was for real. 

It was 2020, which is very important for context, so not a lot of clubs were allowed to meet. I think there was some rule that allowed us to meet because we were underwater and we were not breathing on each other. That was one of the things that made me want to go. I was also a swimmer in high school, not a very good one, but I was a swimmer. I personally have a physical disability, so I find a lot of traditional sports difficult. I’m not really able to run. I’m not able to walk for a huge amount of time and I’ve been in and out of wheelchairs. I thought that water-based sports would be better for me just due to the way that my disability works — it’s easier for me to do things in the water. I knew that I wanted to do something swimming-related at Illinois, but I had no idea what underwater hockey was. I went to their first meeting at the ARC and it was just me, four other freshmen, and two upperclassmen. That was the whole club — that’s a pretty small club. It was really just two people teaching the five of us freshmen how to play. I found that it was surprisingly fun and that it was in fact real, and I just kept coming. And then more people joined the club year after year. Eventually I became the treasurer and then the vice president. This year, I’m the president.

SP: That’s remarkable to have five new students and then two returners who are responsible for showing the newcomers the ropes. What’s the size of the club today?

Bettich: I’d say we have about 20 active members today. 

Three people stand back to back underwater. They are wearing swimsuits, masks, and flippers.
Luka Bettich

SP: Are most of the members people like you who had swam or done some sort of water-related sport in the past? Are there people that came in with a familiarity of underwater hockey?

Bettich: The only commonality is that very few of us knew what it was. Our club was founded in 1970, and there is a claim that I’ve heard from older members that we are the oldest continually run club sport at the University. I’d be surprised if we were actually the first, but I do know that we have been around for over 50 years at the University without interruption. 

A group of young men and women stand in swimsuits and towels next to the side of the pool. They are wearing medals around their necks with orange ribbons.
Luka Bettich

SP: That’s awesome — and you made it through COVID, no less.

Bettich: Yeah, we did. Another thing that appealed to me, was that as a freshman, we were all kind of very unique individuals. Some of us were athletic, and some weren’t at all. Those are the kind of people that I want to know.

SP: What makes the club unique and attractive at U of I?

Bettich: That this is actually a really interesting question. As I kind of alluded to earlier, we do know for sure the club’s been around since the 70s. Underwater hockey as a sport is a pretty new. According to the most commonly accepted view, it was invented by a group of British scuba diving enthusiasts immediately after World War II in the South of England. A few years after the end of the war in the UK, people were getting leisure time again and recreational divers ran out of things to do with their diving equipment in in the winter. They started playing underwater hockey, and it evolved from there. We don’t use diving equipment anymore, but they did at the time. 

The first American club was founded in 1960 in Chicago, so Chicago is the origin of underwater hockey in the US. To this day, there are probably more underwater hockey teams in the Midwest than in other parts of the country. There are there are clubs in almost all of the major cities. A lot of smaller towns in the Midwest have them too. The U of I, I believe, was actually only the second or third club founded in the US. We were certainly the first University club for underwater hockey in the United States. 

The ARC pool is kind of a weird pool, dimension wise. It is divided into thirds and so you have the deep diving well and at either end you have shallower sides. It looks kind of like a plus sign. That’s not regulation for underwater hockey. Our playing field is four feet deep, seven feet deep, and then four feet deep, whereas the norm would be around seven feet deep everywhere. We have a really unique pool to play underwater hockey. Almost everybody else plays in flat pools, so people really enjoy playing at our pool, in particular when they come visit from other underwater hockey clubs.

A big group of young men and women are together in a pool, wearing masks and caps smiling at the camera.
Luka Bettich

SP: From a strategic perspective, how does that factor in? I’m a total novice on underwater hockey strategy — would this be an advantage or a disadvantage to the team?

Bettich: I think there are definitely both solid upsides and downsides to having what we call the “trench.” I think they kind of weigh out evenly, honestly. On the one hand, I think that playing with the trench is significantly more fun than playing without it because it just adds a new kind of “third dimension” to play, in addition to the already third dimension that you’re underwater. It’s more fun because you have to think of strategy differently than you would in a flat pool, for sure. If you’re playing in a flat pool, a lot of the sport is going as far forward or diagonally to the goal as you can and then passing it to your teammate. It’s a lot about having the ability to swim at a decent pace and bringing the puck forward toward the opposing goal. Whereas if you’re on the trench, you can just kind of camp on the top the lip of the trench. If you’re on the top, you can just shoot the puck over the side and not have to manually carry it since it will just roll on its own. I think the downside is that it can make you lazy skill-wise because if you’re playing defense, you kind of get used to the idea of sitting and waiting at the top of the of the lip of the slope and stopping people who are already tired.

SP: What does your practice and game schedule look like? From a competitive standpoint, who are you competing against?

Bettich: We practice twice a week, every week during the school year. Currently, it’s Tuesdays and Thursdays in the evening and changes per semester based on what the ARC gives us hours-wise. It’s about a two-hour practice on each of those days. Our current coach is a professor in the Computer Science department. He’s also a long-time underwater hockey player. I think he’s been with our club since at least the early 2000s. 

In terms of games, there are quite a few other underwater hockey clubs. We have what we consider to be sister clubs, one of which is the Chicago Shorgis. They’ve worked with us since we were founded and are a very professional team. They help us a lot with like training and stuff like that. We’re also close with Michigan State University’s team.

We know all the MSU players, we know all the Chicago players — we’re buddies. There are tons of other clubs across the midwest and nationally, as well. Usually, each club that we compete against will host one tournament a year. If you have one per club per year, that adds up to a lot of tournaments every year. Usually, they’re just open to any team who wants to attend.

We tend to focus on midwestern underwater hockey tournaments because they’re easier to get to and because we’re students, so we don’t have all that much money for airfare. We also occasionally try to go farther afield, maybe once per academic year. Our big trip this year was Toronto. We drove to a suburb of Toronto and saw Niagara Falls as a side trip. So that was really fun and was kind of our stretch trip this year. 

Our club has also been getting a lot better in recent years in terms of play quality and our competitiveness, especially so in the last two years. This year we’re going to the National Championship tournament in Denver. That always takes place in the summer. We’re fielding a team in the C-division for that. Additionally — and, this hasn’t happened in a long time — but we are sending four of our best players to the World Championships in Kuala Lumpur this summer, and they’re playing as part of the American under-24 team. We’re sending three men and one woman to Malaysia as part of the US team.

A group of young men and women sit together at a long picnic table with food and drinks on the table.
Luka Bettich

SP: I know you mentioned what attracted you at Quad Day, but how can folks who are interested in joining the club get in contact with you to learn more?

Bettich: Quad Day is usually a big thing for us. That’s where we get the majority of our new members every year. It’s been great to have it in person in the last three years, of course. We have a website; we have social media accounts. We have an Instagram, Twitter, and a TikTok, as well as a Facebook page. So those are ways you can get in touch with us. Anybody is welcome to join. No experience required. Obviously, none of us had any. It’s not a difficult sport to learn as long as you give it a few weeks. Beyond it just being a fun sport, my closest friends in college have all come from this team. Lifelong friends. Beyond the opportunity to play a fun sport, you get to meet some really incredible people.

Again, anybody is welcome to join, and we’ll provide the gear. There are maybe 500 players in the country, maybe a little more. Most people know each other, people get married in this community, people make lifelong friends. We have dinners and socials besides playing, so it’s a good community. 

SP: That’s awesome, and that’s what clubs are all about.

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