Players hope broomball's popularity grows
On Saturday night, teams of men and women suited up in knee pads, gloves and helmets and took to the ice at Center Ice Arena in Delmont.
They were not chasing a puck, or even playing hockey. Instead, they chased an inflatable rubber ball with a piece of equipment that, by name, seemed at first more domestic than athletic.
Then, the players began running — and lunging, skidding and sliding on their knees — across the ice.
This is broomball, a game similar to hockey, except when it's not.
“I would say it's a nice combination of hockey, soccer and lacrosse,” said Katie Heckman, 31, of Mt. Lebanon.
Heckman, who plays with the Pittsburgh Broomball Club, learned about the game while playing with an adult softball team soon after graduating from college.
“It's competitive and silly at the same time. There is an extreme amount of sportsmanship as well,” she said.
Heckman introduced her husband, Jeremy Heckman, 35, to the game. The two are one of several married couples in the league.
Most of Pittsburgh Broomball's players are from Allegheny County, but player Mike Whalen hopes that will change.
In an effort to broaden exposure to the sport, the Pittsburgh Broomball Club will next spring host the USA Broomball National Championships, bringing 30 to 40 teams from across the country to the Delmont arena.
The April 7-9 event will mark the first time the 19th annual event has been held in Pennsylvania. Teams are expected from Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Michigan, Massachusetts and New York.
Whalen reached out to the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau for assistance with securing the bid and marketing the event.
“We expect to welcome 450 players, coaches, support staff and family members for the three-day tournament. It is estimated this event will have an economic impact (from hotel bookings, dining and shopping) of approximately $685,000 in the region,” Renee Seifert, bureau president and CEO, said in a release.
Whalen, Heckman, Dan Yost, Tyler McGuigan and E.J. Thorn are club board members and managers/directors.
Many of the club's members began playing broomball with the small-ice Pittsburgh Sports League.
An out-of-state tournament in 2013 introduced them to a larger playing rink and a higher net.
“There is more room to pass and maneuver. You can hit the ball harder,” said Whalen, 50, of Weirton, W.Va.
Thorn, 29, said he started playing while attending the University of Delaware.
“I was hooked through college,” the Lawrenceville resident said.
He discovered the Pittsburgh league when he came to the city to attend law school.
The league has about 60 regular players, Whalen said.
“Sometimes people Google ‘broomball' and ‘Pittsburgh' and just show up,” he said.
Broomball shoes have spongy bottoms and rubber soles to increase traction, but no cleats.
Instead of gripping L-shaped sticks to push their target across the ice, they “sweep” the ball with a long-handled stick capped with a triangular molded-rubber head. It's similar in shape to, well, a tiny broom.
According to USA Broomball, the sport was first played in Canada in the early 1900s by street car workers using a small soccer ball and corn brooms. The sport evolved and moved into the United States, where leagues began forming in the 1960s.
Two teams of six players each, a goalie, two defensemen and three forwards, guide the ball toward their opponent's net over two, 18-minute halves.
Ice preparation for broomball is different from that of hockey. It's more smooth and dry than slippery for better traction, Whalen said.
“Hockey can be pretty intimidating if you're not a good skater. This is more accessible — you can run or walk,” Whalen said.
Players landed on their backs and backsides, pushed off from the rink walls with their feet and ducked as balls went airborne.
Brooms and players sometimes collided as they rushed to push the ball toward or away from a net.
Whoops echoed off the ice with each score.
At the end of the first game, the Hahntown Highlanders beat Chico's Bail Bonds 3-2.
Whalen is confident the sport will continue to gain popularity.
“It will be in the Olympics one day,” he said.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or email@example.com.