The Perks and Perils of Niche Sports

A look at the competitive world of ball hockey and the benefits (and bruises) that come with it.

It was love at first face-off, the rainy day in November when my seventh-grade PE teacher first introduced me to the sport that — two decades later — would become a saving grace in my otherwise mundane, corporate life. As he rolled out the industrial-grade trash cans filled not with grade-school garbage but instead with donated hockey sticks cut down to child-size, I was immediately enthralled. I picked a stick out of the bunch, side-eyeing the more athletic of my classmates to see if they knew what on God’s good Earth I was supposed to do with it.

For the next 25 minutes, I got my first taste of ball hockey (also known as floor hockey, dek hockey, and street hockey). But the sport was relegated to school gymnasiums at the time. It wasn’t until 15 years later that I would find my way into the sport that has gotten me into the best shape of my life — mentally and physically.

All sports can provide a much-needed escape in a world where we frequently struggle to find existence outside of our offices and smartphones. But ball hockey — a niche sport unknown to most people — is special. Sure, I may be biased, but as a former runner now living the life of a niche sport athlete, I can tell you, there is a difference.

Niche sports, no matter how competitive, are often shunned by the general public and athletes of more mainstream sports. They are the Kindergarten doodles in a world that respects only Rembrandts.

For those of us who put so much literal blood, sweat, and tears into our chosen game, a lack of acceptance into legitimate sport society is more painful than a high stick to the face. (Trust.) But half of the glory in playing ball hockey is the unique community that has grown around the sport.

Perhaps it would be better to keep the ball hockey world to ourselves, small and unique, untouched by the masses. Alas, I can’t help but shout about it with pride whenever I’m with the non-converted. I dream of the day I won’t get back blank stares or questions like, “Is it on ice?” or “Isn’t that field hockey?” when I try to explain my sport.

Photo by Becca Newman, Stanley Cupcakes. Shown: Tiffany Pfundt, Stanley Cupcakes and captain of the 2017 USA World’s team.

The Perks

The full value of this growing niche sport doesn’t end with the admittedly awesome fitness benefits of an hour of high intensity intervals. But instead of lecturing you about the reasons to pick up a stick and find your nearest rink, I’ll let some of the players speak for themselves.

Perk #1: Access

Joe Fruscione— DCHL player: “I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for 3+ years. Playing 2x/week has been #selfcare for my mind & body — plus the parenting breaks. The, extra, er, “fun” is that I’m 44 playing against people in their 20s and 30s.

Unlike ice hockey, ball hockey is inexpensive and has very few limitations to play (no ice required and no skating skills necessary), which has helped it grow in 53 countries across the globe, from Hong Kong to Lebanon.

Travel tournaments and local ball hockey leagues offer opportunities for players of all levels to compete, from novice to the US National Team.

Top ball hockey players even play internationally. This June, the Ball Hockey World Championships will be held in Slovakia, with teams from around the world competing. Last summer, Masters teams met up in Bermuda for their own tournament. There are also World Championships every other year for players under 20 years old.

Ball hockey hasn’t gone unnoticed by the NHL either. Over the last few years, teams have been using resources from the NHL’s Industry Growth Fund to contribute to the sport’s expansion. As a sample of the efforts, the Washington Capitals have been using funds to build and renovate rinks in the greater DC area, the Arizona Cardinals have worked to implement a street hockey PE curriculum with the goal of reaching 50,000 students by 2021, and the Pittsburgh Penguins announced a “Learn to Play Dek Hockey” program for 1,000 children this past February.

“With the amount of new rinks from NHL grant money, I’d love to be able to get youth street hockey leagues at each rink,” said Wayne Barrett, president of DC Street Hockey. “At that point youth teams could play games locally against each other to help everyone improve.”

Perk #2: Friendships

J. Mitchell Stiles — Night’s Watch men’s team, Philadelphia: “I have made friendships across the country that will last a lifetime, which is difficult once you hit your late twenties or early thirties. Everyone has responsibilities whether that’s work, family, children, but for a few hours a week and select tournament weekends you can be a kid again.”

Adulting is hard, and sometimes the hardest part of being an adult isn’t the responsibilities or the extra forehead wrinkles, but the struggle of making new friends.

When I first signed up for ball hockey after moving to DC in my late-20s, I was placed on a team with 14 others I didn’t know but who had been playing together for almost a decade. They immediately brought me into their random ball hockey crew, and suddenly, DC became home. I had found my people.

Ball hockey has given us all not just a team and a community, but a family of others who share a similar love for this unique sport. It’s a family away from family, and as anyone who lives far from their loved ones knows, that is something to be valued.

Perk #3: Confidence

Scott MacQuarrie — Head Coach, Stanley Cupcakes women’s team, Northern Virginia: “Team sports (in this case ball hockey) are an excellent way for players to gain confidence in a supportive environment and apply it to work and social settings. When players buy into the team concept, they absolutely use it in all areas of their life. As a result, their overall self-confidence improves.”

I was walking through BWI Airport, following my teammates to our gate, stick bags held high in the air with pride. We were ball hockey players, dammit, and we were about to compete against some of the best players in the country.

Internally, I feared I was about to get pulverized, but I copied the confident gait and exuberant laughter coming from my more experienced teammates as we strutted towards our fate.

We ended up losing the tournament in the finals, but it was a close loss and despite being devastating, I couldn’t stop smiling. We had been great, and I felt proud and confident in myself for the first time in months.

In life, confidence is key if you want to accomplish big things. In sports, confidence is often the differentiator between good and great. If you’re confident, you believe anything is possible, and you play knowing you’re going to dominate.

Imagine if we all went through life knowing we would dominate the experience? But most of us don’t — most of us go through life simply trying to get through each day.

We get in our own way so much, often our biggest opponents to success are ourselves.

But the good news is that even as adults, we can build this confidence. It is easier said than done, but it is also easier done with a team cheering for you and coaches working with you to build up your skills and make sure your blinders are on when necessary.

Perk #4: Camaraderie

Alyssa Stubbs — Stanley Cupcakes: “I gained a whole new community of women that supports and brings each other up through a sport I love to play.”

There are many opportunities to play sports socially as an adult, but there aren’t as many opportunities to play competitively unless you’re a professional athlete or Olympic-level competitor. Many people give up the dream of playing serious team sports after high school or college.

For lifelong athletes, giving up their sport is like losing a piece of themselves. But for most, it’s less about giving up that particular sport than about not being part of a team anymore. Sharing in the competitive drive to win by supporting each other builds a team relationship that is difficult to find in other places as an adult.

Gary Senecal, PhD, wrote in his study on Solidarity and camaraderie — A psychosocial examination of contact sport athletes’ career transitions, how difficult it was to recreate unique aspects of being a teammate — trust, sacrifice, resilience, fitting a specifically defined role, blunt honesty, and singular closeness — in their workplaces, life, and relationships after sport.”

With competitive niche sports like ball hockey, athletes can still play team sports seriously, benefitting from being part of something that gives them that camaraderie they crave.

Perk #5: Passion

Tyler Midwinter — Stars & Stripes co-ed and Phantoms men’s teams, Washington, DC: “The ball hockey community shares this passion for the game itself that is tough to find in most rec-league sports. In those settings, sometimes the “social hour” aspect of the get together seems to be held in higher regard than the actual playing of the game. [With ball hockey], games are competitive and intense, but not so much so that it sacrifices respect for one another. It’s the closest thing to college athletics that I have found since graduating in 2012.”

It always astounds me when I get to practice at 9AM on Saturdays and find the rink packed with my teammates and coaches, opting to work on their ball hockey skills instead of sleeping in and celebrating the weekend with brunch and Netflix like most normal 20–30 somethings.

The coaches — all of whom are volunteers — spend hours each week working through drills, building team strategy, and developing players while also ensuring the team stays focused on a higher-level goal: to have fun.

While the game is undoubtedly fun and being on a team is a great social outlet that builds friendships, camaraderie and confidence, it’s ultimately the passion the players have for the sport that brings everyone together.

Photo by Terri Milby.

The Perils

As I was sitting with my head in my hands following a recent tournament loss, I found myself questioning why I was playing this sport that made me feel ripped apart both physically and mentally. Was I a masochist? Was the pain worth the agony?

The fact that I am now anxiously awaiting the roster for the next tournament tells me it is, but this sport does not come without its fair share of perils.

Peril #1: A cult-like obsession

As with other niche sports such as curling, table tennis, arena football, dragon boating, roller derby (the list goes on…), playing can lead to an obsessive state much ridiculed by the general population.

Because of that common obsession and the team aura that is so enticing, ball hockey players seem to gravitate towards each other. Suddenly, life revolves around ball hockey seasons and schedules, outsiders have a harder time understanding the excited team talk, and social networks become primarily other players. Many of us have even learned the hard way how vital it is to include ball hockey right alongside religion, political leaning, and desire for children in our dating profiles. It’s an obsession that is not readily negotiated.

Peril #2: Playing through the pain

In areas up and down the east coast, ball hockey leagues can be found year-round practically any day of the week. For those with the obsession, it is easy to get wrapped up in the sport, playing every day, for any team that will have you. You will justify this with the aforementioned perks, but if you find yourself playing through sprained ankles, concussions, or torn ACLs, it may be time to take a breather.

Peril #3: Comparisons

Attempting to learn new skills over the age of 30 is not for the faint of heart. You will doubt yourself. You will question the sport. You will compare yourself to other players the way you used to compare yourself to the popular crowd in high school.

This is a dangerous game — and I don’t mean ball hockey. Learning not to compare yourself to others is one of the many skills we all need to develop in life as in sports.

Peril #4: Battle wounds

Have you ever been hit square on the thigh by a slapshot? Stomach? Face?

Bathing suit season is an especially difficult time for ball hockey players. I also highly recommend helmets for anyone approaching a wedding date.

Peril #5: Hopeless hope

Playing a non-traditional sport will lead you to develop hope that one day soon it will be recognized by the world as the great sport that it is — with an event at the Olympic Games. For most niche sports, this will never happen (for rink hockey, it has already failed).

But hope springs eternal…

Thinking About Playing?

If you enjoy the game of ice hockey but don’t feel like freezing your toosh off, you will love ball hockey, which can be played indoors or out, summer or winter, depending on where and when you can find a rink.

If you played field hockey, you will have to get used to the rules and strategies that are much more aligned with traditional ice hockey, but you’ll feel comfortable with the ball and will love being able to use both sides of your stick, kicking and hitting the ball, and being physical without fear of nonstop whistles.

If you played roller/inline hockey growing up, you will be running a lot more, but you’ll love how you feel after the game when you realize how many calories you’ve burned in just 45 minutes of play.

If you have never played any sport before, let alone hockey, that’s okay too! Perhaps the greatest perk of a niche sport like ball hockey is the opportunity available for anyone with an interest.

Video by ISBHF