Who needs ice hockey?
Many frustrated National Hockey League fans were asking themselves that question before the NHL settled its recent labor woes and resumed play this weekend. That sentiment remains true, however, for a growing group of players of a lesser-known winter sport who are flocking to local ice rinks for the sheer, skate-free fun of it.
They are broomball players. And like Elinor Mason, a 27-year-old Beacon Hill resident who works for a biotech start-up, they get their kicks running up and down the ice — that’s right: running, and in sneakers, no less — while whacking a miniature soccer ball with what looks like an elongated windshield scraper.
The object? To shoot the ball past the opposing goalie, preferably without pinwheeling nose-first onto the ice or into the boards — which is hard to do in your Nikes.
If that sounds like a sport made for broom-wielding college kids standing on a frozen pond with an ample cache of Bud Lights, you’re on the right track. Invented in Canada a century ago and now played in numerous countries throughout the world, from Europe to Australia to Japan, the quirky coed game first landed in the Midwest sometime in the 1950s. It has since spread to college campuses and to leagues catering to 20-somethings in urban areas like Greater Boston, many of whom got hooked on the game as undergrads.
Part of the reason for the sport’s rising popularity is its simplicity. In broomball, traditional hockey skills like passing and shooting are useful to have. Staying upright, though, is job one. The race up-ice is not always to the swift; more often it goes to the surest-footed.
“When you’re in tennis shoes on ice, that’s an equalizing factor because nobody is good at that,” says Mason, a former collegiate ice hockey player who now plays for the Broomers, a 10-person squad competing in the Social Boston Sports (SBS) club’s winter broomball league.
Broomball may be one of the few sports, Mason adds, where players gather for a team-bonding brew before the game as well as after.
If nothing else, agrees Dan Rees, 29, a consultant from Allston who recently began his first season of recreational broomball, “It’s a good workout. And a good excuse to drink beer on a Monday night — before and after” the contest.
Locally, broomball is played as an intramural sport on a number of college campuses (Northeastern, Harvard, Boston University) and in late-night leagues like the one run by SBS, which meets weeknights at the Reilly Memorial Rink in Brighton. Games last from 10 to 11 p.m., when ice time is easier to get, and are played five-on-five, plus a goalie. Each contest consists of two 20-minute periods and a brief intermission.
The ice is not regroomed after all the skaters have left for the night. In fact, broomballers point out that roughed-up ice offers a lot more traction than a glass-smooth surface. As 28-year-old Kyle Davidson of Boston, a former St. Lawrence University broomballer, puts it, “It’s hockey for people who can’t skate.”
SBS favors the half-ice version of broomball, in which four teams compete cross-ice at the same time. Two sets of goals are placed across the rink’s width, rather than a lone goal at each end. Playing zones are marked off by plastic cones. Refereeing the games are SBS officials on skates, so they can maneuver around more easily.
Contact is incidental, if not infrequent, in social broomball. Dangerous play (high-sticking, tripping, slashing) may draw a whistle, resulting in a change of possession. But its more lasting sting may come from other players who don’t appreciate chippy play.
“You don’t want to be the guy sitting at the bar after a game that nobody wants to talk to,” says SBS cofounder Matt Rubin, whose sports club began offering broomball three years ago.
Rubin and his partners launched SBS six years ago. In addition to sponsoring skiing and white-water rafting trips, it offers organized, coed play in sports such as dodgeball, indoor soccer, volleyball, and inner-tube water polo (talk about quirky). Broomball made the list after SBS execs noted the sport’s popularity on college campuses.
“It’s easier to run a social league if they’ve already been doing it in college,” explains Rubin. Broomballers in the club’s target demographic (21-35) tend to come from the Northeast, where they don’t mind being chilled, he adds, and are drawn to wackier sports “where you might slip and land on your [rear end], and nobody laughs.”
More demanding, at least aerobically, is the full-ice version as played in a Sunday night pickup league at Cambridge’s Simoni Ice Rink. Organized by former BU broomballer Amy Barnett, it began two years ago; like most leagues, it welcomes players of both sexes and all abilities and encourages newcomers to join, even those who don’t know a broomball stick from a swizzle stick.
Because conditioning is more of a factor in the full-ice version, according to Barnett, it’s ideal when 20 to 24 players show up, allowing for frequent substitutions. Games are self-policed and run for about 75 minutes, with no stoppages.
Jessie Frick, a Brighton social worker, played rugby (and broomball) at Colby College, and both her foot speed and balance stood out during a recent game at Reilly. Frick tied the score at 1-1 after sprinting the length of the ice and receiving a teammate’s pass near the goal mouth, which she hammered over the opposing goalie’s shoulder.
As she caught a breather, Frick commented that broomball “has that rugby feel to it, where you’re going as fast as you can. There’s a little recklessness, and a lot of accidental collisions. I like that.”
Teammate Alex Wayne, 25, of Brighton, said he enjoyed broomball enough, both socially and athletically, to play both versions in two different leagues. Unlike most casual broomballers, Wayne, who works in the film industry, also wears special broomball shoes that come with molded, soft-rubber soles. He’s been playing broomball for about a year and also competes in soccer and Ultimate Frisbee.
“It’s just a fun way to be active, running around on the ice,” he says during an off-ice break. “Everyone is very friendly. There’s just the right amount of competitiveness — you dust yourself off, shake hands, and go right back to it.”
According to Kevin Denesen, a board member affiliated with the Minnesota-based USA Broomball organization, broomball was first played by Canadian streetcar workers in the early 1900s. Lacking hockey equipment, they grabbed frozen brooms and balls and began playing in nearby fields and on frozen ponds.
“It’s fun to watch it grow from college campuses to organized leagues now,” says Denesen. “In the last 15 years, it’s really taken off. There’s a lot of buzz around broomball now. It’s a lifetime, all-inclusive sport, and the number of states outside the Midwest where it’s being played has grown immensely.”
By USA Broomball’s count, approximately 35,000 players compete nationally in organized broomball and another 10,000 in more informal leagues scattered throughout 38 states. The first national championship indoor tournament was held in 1999. This year’s tournament will be held in Oxford, Ohio, in March and is expected to draw at least 30 teams.
Played outdoors as well as indoors, broomball may even qualify for the Winter Olympics someday; the International Federation of Broomball Associations (IFBA), based in Canada, is considering lobbying for its inclusion. Organized broomball, coed and single-sex, is currently played in a dozen countries, including the United States. For most local broomballers, though, it’s not about chasing dreams of Olympic medals. It’s about 60 minutes of thigh-burning fun, followed by a postgame beer or two.
Elinor Mason, who scored a pair of goals in her team’s season-opening 5-2 victory, was all smiles when she walked off the ice. “It might actually be an advantage,” she said, tugging off her knee and elbow pads, “to go to the bar first.”Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.