On a blustery morning at a suburban outdoor skating rink a couple of weeks ago, the top bandy players in the country were vying for the national title. They were all relatively inexperienced players in an unfamiliar sport, but some would soon be going up against the best teams around at the world championships. ``It's not even David and Goliath,'' player Chris Middlebrook said of the Americans competing against the Soviets, Finns, Swedes, and Norwegians this week in Sweden. ``It's more like the amoeba and the elephant.''
Bandy is a sport that came to Minnesota only six years ago, like most Minnesotans a century before, from Scandinavia. It looks like a descendant of soccer, ice hockey, and field hockey, but all those games actually descended from bandy, which was played on frozen English fens and Scandinavian lakes as early as the 16th century. Its name comes from the stick, called a bandy, and its authority as an ancient form of hockey is retained in such old English expressions as ``bandylegged'' and ``to bandy about,'' which is what bandy players do with the little orange ball.
In 1979 a group of Swedish bandy players came to the United States to play exhibition games in several Northern cities. When they returned home, taking American-style softball with them, they left behind the inspiration for a new sports movement in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Since then, interest has mushroomed. Seven hundred players divided among 35 teams skate a six-week season on several suburban ice rinks. So far, however, it has not caught on anywhere else.
``The only bandy played in the United States is here,'' says Middlebrook, who, besides being a Minneapolis lawyer, is director of the Minnesota Bandy Federation, a representative to the sport's international organization, and assistant coach and captain for the US team. ``In most other parts of the country it's just too warm.''
The players, mostly college-educated, professional men between the ages of 25 and 32, raise their own money, provide their own gear, and pay their own way to tournaments abroad. Many quit their jobs or take leaves from work to travel with the team. ``There will be plenty of time for work later,'' says Middlebrook, who passed the bar the day before he left for his first season of training in Sweden.
Like hockey, bandy is played on skates with sticks, but with a 2-inch-diameter cork ball instead of a puck, and on an ice surface the size of a soccer field instead of a rink. The goalies, as in soccer, have no sticks.
On a playing area that large, the game moves rapidly. Soviet players wear long-bladed speed skates. Americans use skates similar to those used in hockey, but with flatter blades. They all wear protective gear, but nothing like the bulky armor worn for hockey.
``We're a non-contact sport,'' Middlebrook says. ``But sometimes we regress to the hockey mentality and play a rough game. It used to be that the Swedes hated to play us. They were much better than us and we'd bump or use our sticks where we weren't allowed to. Now we're progressing, and at least we're qualified to go over and play them.''
In the Twin Cities, where youngsters play hockey from the time they can wear skates, the absence of roughhousing seems to be one of the sport's top draws. Nearly all the bandy players are former high school and college hockey players who still love to skate and compete, but no longer want to risk as much contact.
Bandy rules prohibit playing the ball above the shoulders, and there is no checking, holding, hooking, or tackling. What injuries do occur are usually ascribed to undeveloped skill.
But as in any game, of course, there are differences of style. And while American bandy players may seem tame compared with their hockey counterparts, they still look pretty aggressive to European opponents.
``I know what it was like when the Swedes played against us four years ago,'' says Middlebrook, who spent last winter playing on the Swedish team. ``The same thing happened to me when I came home. It's not that Americans are mean or aggressive people, it's just the hockey mentality ... that's hard to lose. They don't have the skills developed to do it any better.''
The Americans' skills are improving, though, thanks to player exchanges with the Swedes. Each year several Minnesota men spend the winter skating on Swedish teams as part of an exchange program. They return to share what they've learned with their teammates at home, which ultimately results in a higher level of competition.
Two Minnesotans playing in Sweden this year have switched back temporarily to compete for the United States in the world championships. The tournament, which began Saturday, consists of games in a number of cities throughout the week, concluding with the title contest in Stockholm on Sunday.
Though they don't yet pose much of a threat to the best of the international bandy teams, the Americans think they have a chance this year against the Norwegians. Eventually, they believe, they'll have the skill to take the championship. ``No doubt about it, we're getting better all the time,'' says Middlebrook.