Saturday, 22 December 2007

Spongee Night In Winnipeg

In a little city on the cold Canadian prairies, there lives a game that encaptures thousands of people on any given night. This game is played by both men and women, young and old, and fills outdoor rinks with laughter on the coldest of Canadian winter nights. The game I am referring to called "sponge hockey" or, as its players call it, "spongee". Sponge hockey is a game that is almost exclusively known to Winnipeg. There is nowhere else in the world that features as many leagues, players, and games as the city affectionately called "Winterpeg". With a name like that, you know the city embraces its winter traditions. Let's take a closer look at this local phenomenon.

So what is "spongee"? Well, the name of the game is derived from the type of puck that is used. Sponge hockey players avoid the hard, vulcanized rubber pucks used in traditional ice hockey, instead opting for a puck made of a sponge-like material. The pucks are identical in size and shape. Their only differences are the hardness of the puck and the weight of the puck.

The only person on skates during the game is the referee. The players wear a soft-soled shoe that grips the ice. The best shoe choice actually comes from another sport: broomball. The broomball shoe has re-inforced toes and side panels to help protect the foot. The broomball shoe also has treads that allow for better grip on the ice, thus allowing the players to move with greater ease. The smaller circles act like suction cups, using the air in the hole to create a bit of a vacuum on the ice. The treads help with turning and stopping, both vitally important in spongee.

In terms of protection, only the goalies wear full equipment. Players normally wear hockey gloves for protection of the hands. Shin pads have become more and more common, especially outdoors where the puck can freeze solid and feel like a traditional puck. Jocks are common for male players for reasons that shouldn't need to be explained. The shoes come re-inforced, as mentioned above, so there is nothing else worn to protect the feet. Some players wear elbow pads. Another trend that is more commonly seen in spongee is the inclusion of wearing volleyball kneepads on the knees to help absorb some of the abuse that players take when they fall.

In terms of uniforms, teams create their own. There are literally thousands of jerseys out there that have been used in spongee. However, some of the more creative ones are rarely forgotten. The jerseys are worn over some sort of warm clothing. To play outdoors, you will certainly need a toque, a jacket or layers of sweaters, sweat pants, some sort of water-resistant pants, and possibly some woolen socks to keep your feet warm.

The game is organized on the ice like normal hockey. Most leagues play five-on-five with goalies, but there are some that play six-on-six with goalies. Coed leagues are common in spongee, and that scenario incorporates two females on the ice at all times, not counting the goalie. The goalie can be male or female, but the gender does not matter in terms of the number of females on the ice. In coed spongee, males are not allowed to take slapshots. The snapshot, where the stick doesn't rise above the knee on the back-swing, is allowed, though.

The gameplay is somewhat different than hockey. First off, there is no icing or offsides. Some leagues, however, incorporate a "no icing" rule in the last minute to encourage play. There is also a "key". Much like basketball, offensive players are only allowed to be in the key for three seconds at a time, unless the puck is inside the key. If a player is found to be in the key for more than three seconds, the play is stopped, and a faceoff outside the offensive zone takes place. There is absolutely no intentional body contact in spongee as well. Players are allowed to battle for the puck, but if there is too much contact in the referee's eyes, the play can be blown dead, and penalties may be assessed.

The rules of spongee are similar to that of hockey. Tripping, roughing, hooking, holding, and high-sticking are common infractions that are penalized. The only difference is that there is no bodychecking or fighting. Bodychecking will get you a trip to the sin bin. Fighting will get you a suspension. The "commissioner" of the league, also known as league management, determines the length of the suspension based upon the information gathered from the referee and the player's previous record in terms of suspensions. Penalty times differ for leagues, with some leagues going with two minutes and others opting for three minutes. Major penalties, double-minor penalties, and misconducts can be awarded at the referee's discretion.

Game misconducts and suspensions can also be handed out for illegal modifications to shoes. Any player who is found using tacks, staples, spikes or any other device on the bottom of his or her shoes that could pose a danger to both that player and others is automatically removed from the game, and will be subject to further punishment from the league. Some players have attempted to find ways to increase the stickiness of their shoes on the ice. This has led players to using WD40 lubricant on their shoes. The problem is that WD40 dissolves the bottom of the soft sole, leaving large shoe marks on the ice. Anyone caught using anything like WD40 on his or her shoes is also awarded a game misconduct and further league punishment.

Games ending in ties may be left as such and reflected in the standings as a tied result. Some leagues have incorporated the shootout to determine a winner. The normal shootout is similar to the NHL's shootout of three initial shooters followed by more if necessary. The rules for the shootout are identical to that of the professional ranks.

The CBC did a pseudo-mock documentary on sponge hockey during their 2004 Hockey Day In Canada. It was produced well by the CBC and directed by Gavin Adamson and Dougald Lamont. Here's the video, and I apologize that the audio and video don't quite sync. It's not my video, so don't kill me. It's an excellent introduction to the sport, though.

Besides the cold, it looks pretty fun!

Spongee Night In Winnipeg!

Honestly, the game is a lot of fun. I've played in several leagues, and it's a pile of fun with great competitiveness. If you live in a cold climate, get outdoors and have a little fun. Who knows? You might be the founding member of the local sponge hockey league in your area.

For more information, please refer to the Sponge Hockey Wikipedia page, or any of the these spongee-devoted pages: Westridge Sponge Hockey, Kildonan Spongee League, and the University of Manitoba Engineering Society Spongee Tournaments.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Artymous said...

We used to play with these kinds of pucks growing up in Central Alberta (Red Deer and Rocky Mtn. House to be exact). This would have been early to late 80s.

Of course, we didn't form leagues or rules centered around the use of said puck. We used normal every day hockey rules, and the use of skates was determined by how many people had a pair when we gathered to play.

Teebz said...

Hey, Art! Glad to see there are others. :o)

This phenomenon has been going on in Winnipeg for over 25 years. The largest league just closed up shop because management retired, but they had upwards of 400 teams playing out of their league. There are three leagues now that occupy the landscape, so it's still going strong.

Kirsten said...

I don't see how anyone can hate winter when it's so much fun!

Anonymous said...

Nice blog.
Thanks for crediting me and Dougald on the video. We shot and produced this ourselves and sold it to the CBC for a pittance after we sent it to a producer at Hockey Night, unsolicited. We paid off the Weakerthans and Sloan for one-time broadcast music rights and still had enough for a new pair of garbage mits.

Teebz said...

Thank you, Gavin!

Honestly, that video was really well done, and totally embraced the spirit and fun of spongee. You and Dougald did a fabulous job, and deserve the praise for showing off the spirit of Winnipeggers.

Well done, and a the biggest thumbs-up from this guy. :o)