Schenectady County

For Union College broomball players, the game is no laughing matter

t’s nearing midnight on a weekday and the only sound echoing through Union College’s Messa Rink i


t’s nearing midnight on a weekday and the only sound echoing through Union College’s Messa Rink is the shuffling of shoes on the ice.

There’s no crowd in the stands, there are no hockey players on the bench. In their place is a group of about a dozen students furiously chasing a Day-Glo orange ball across the rink with what appear to be lacrosse sticks.

For the uninitiated onlooker, the action seems almost like a comedy skit. Or maybe a sideshow between periods at a hockey game.

But for the players, this game is no laughing matter. This is broomball, and it’s serious.

“Broomball is epic,” quips Ben Macmillan-Bell, a senior who has played the peculiar sport since arriving at Union four years ago.

At least, it’s serious when it gets down to Union’s intramural finals. The sport was a bit more relaxed prior to the body-thumping, hip-checking action during the season finale last week.

“They’re pretty intense,” said sophomore Laura Swanson, proudly nursing a bruised left knee after playing her first broomball game as a last-minute fill-in.

In its rules, broomball is a close cousin to ice hockey. There are five players and a goalie on each side, and the object is to sink the ball — something that looks akin to a shrunken soccer ball — into a net that is supposed to be slightly larger than a regulation hockey goal.

The more serious players wear specialized foot gear that grips the ice surface. Yet most of the Union players wear sneakers or boots.

Other equipment, such as helmets and gloves, appears to be cultivated from hockey and lacrosse equipment stashes. Each player carries a three-foot-long stick with a rubber-molded triangular head called a broom, which is used to swat the ball toward the net or tap it to a teammate.

The sometimes ragtag appearance of the players doesn’t mean they’re not serious about competing. Broomball is among the most popular intramural sports at Union and routinely draws scores of student groups, even though the games are typically scheduled for the late evening after all other groups are done using the rink,

“That doesn’t affect participation at all,” said Mike Polsinelli, Union’s assistant director of Intramural Sports and Wellness. “It is, without a doubt, one of our most popular intramural sports.”

Broomball’s origins are a bit of a mystery. Some suggest it was started by early 20th century Canadian streetcar workers, who would used corn brooms to swat around small soccer balls.

Others trace back the sport to knattleikr, a somewhat mysterious game played by 10th century Icelandic Vikings. All that is known about the ancient sport is that it involved a stick, a ball and a degree of physical contact that would leave its players severely battered or even dead.

Broomball isn’t exactly that competitive. But when you get a dozen hyper players scrapping on the ice, it can get a bit aggressive, admitted Macmillan-Bell.

“Men’s intramural is intense,” he said. “There are hits, some fights here and there — it’s real.”

Sometimes it’s just what the students need to blow off steam at a competitive college like Union. Senior Molly Maguire said her freshman year resident assistant urged her to give it a try, and she’s played ever since.

“We get to get physical, but nobody really gets hurt,” she said. “And if you do, it’s just bruises, which heal.”

New York is among eight states with governing bodies recognized by USA Broomball, the organization that hosts a national Broomball championship each year. There are recognized broomball leagues in Queensbury, Syracuse, Rochester and New York City.

There had been some talk that Broomball would be showcased as an exhibition sport at the 2010 Olympics, speculation that was fomented by the 2008 World Broomball Championship being hosted in Vancouver. But the calls for a demonstration never came to fruition, largely because the International Olympic Committee didn’t believe the sport had spread to enough nations.

That doesn’t bother Union’s intramural players, many of whom are drawn to the sport without knowing anything about it. Maguire, a former hockey player, said she had no idea how to play when she first took to the ice with broom in hand.

“I thought we played with real brooms,” she recalled.

But to someone with a hockey background, the sport comes naturally. Like Maguire, senior Greg Karamian made the natural transition to the sport after hanging up his skates.

He said he was drawn to the playful-yet-aggressive atmosphere of the sport.

“It’s a real fun game,” he said.

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