Having a (broom) ball

The sport with the air of a snowball fight may be the biggest thing to sweep college campuses since streaking.

Mike Eruzione played his college hockey in this hallowed rink before he skated to Olympic glory at Lake Placid, netting the game-winner against the Soviets to set up a gold-medal game and a triumph for true amateurs. If there's a miracle on ice here tonight it will involve someone – anyone – not falling down and then laughing about it.

With 2:24 left in the second period, a player from the FUBs (no one seems eager to decode the acronym) swats a regulation orange ball backward from between his shoes. On the bench, his teammates – even a student coach who had looked Pat Riley-serious in his suit – erupt in laughter. Seconds later a helmeted player from Poison Ivy heads the ball, soccer-style. All seven spectators in the cavernous rink go wild.

The game is broomball, a shoes-and-sticks variation on ice hockey with the general tenor of a snowball fight – mostly convivial but with moments of cold-eyed competitiveness. The venue: Boston University's Walter Brown Arena and this week's coed intramural championships. "It has that hockey feel, but you don't have to be skilled to stand out," says Scott Nalette, the school's intramural manager. "You don't ever hear 'Wow, that's a very skilled broomball player.' "

You haven't heard of the top-seeded teams at this tournament – among them Super Tools, Team Chuck Norris, and Justice League. You probably haven't heard of this game unless you have a good-humored child at a hockey-playing school, outdoorsy friends in Minnesota, or a penchant for Canadian cultural exports.

But broomball, a helter-skelter spectacle of shuffling, shouting, and no-brakes stops, has come of age at this and more advanced levels. In 1999, eight teams – all from Minnesota – played in the adult-league national championships run by USA Broomball, the American sport's governing body, in Bloomfield, Minn. "This year we had 42 teams from nine states," says Kevin Denesen, the group's president, who estimates that 25,000 people now play in organized US leagues.

A national hall of fame is planned for Cambridge, Minn., next year to celebrate the careers of adult-league Great Ones including Mick Sletten and Tom Thaden. (At some levels, clearly, skill does become a factor.) Mr. Denesen is working with broomball's international federation toward winning heritage-sport status for broomball at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

That would be a fitting world-stage debut. The game swept down into Minnesota from Canada like a cold-air mass in the 1930s. In the 1960s an adult-league boom took hold there. And in this decade, Denesen says, YouTube-type word of mouth has stirred national collegiate interest that has broomball proponents excited about the prospect of a feeder system.

Many schools across the northern US maintain old broomball traditions. At BU it was first played in 1975 – when a law school team and one from Shelton Hall paraded down Commonwealth Ave. behind the school marching band before their tilt.

It has since become the school's most popular intramural sport by far, topping 100 teams for the first time in 2004. Students come out in baggy sweats or cargo shorts and athletic shoes – often late at night, when the ice is free – to learn the intricacies of a game that looks like a hybrid of ice hockey, field hockey, and a run down a well-waxed bowling alley in socks.

Referees – it is at least formal enough to have referees – have been known to skate out and rough up the ice around the crease to improve playing conditions. Not that conditions are top-of-mind for some college players.

"When I was 7 you could have given me a tennis ball and a sweater, and in an hour I would have created a new sport and started a league. Broomball has that feel," says Lee Camp, a New York comedian and recent University of Virginia graduate who covered offbeat sports for his college newspaper and hears about broomball at his many campus gigs.

Denesen hopes that raising the profile of the college game will expose players to safe play. Last month at the national adult-league championships in Blaine, Minn., a college division was added for only the second time. Bethel College, from Minnesota, beat Iowa State in the final.

But don't expect the sport to acquire NCAA status – or a Zamboni sheen – anytime soon. The high-quirk, grass-roots feel endures even at the adult level and even in broomball's Minnesota hotbed. Some 500 teams play at one level or another in that state. "We had a team at nationals called the Fat Boys who practiced on a backyard pond," says Denesen.

Levity is inherent. "Nobody has a clear-cut advantage because you're running on ice," says Mike Delduke, a BU sophomore from Erial, N.J., who plays for the Dust Bunnies – a name the team agreed upon after Cinnamon Toast Lebowskis was discarded. "You end up laughing until your gut hurts."

You can also meet girls, he points out, echoing the first comment of several other male college players. Recruiting the requisite female component for a coed team calls for knocking on dorm-room doors. In that regard it's a better social mixer than hacky sack on the quad.

"It seems to be not particularly different from ultimate frisbee, lots of fun and very physical – quite coed," says Andrei Markovits, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who has written widely on sports in American culture. He recalls a night when a Michigan staff member he knows left a dinner party at 10 p.m. for a broomball game. "It's sort of the way villages played games: participatory, democratic, relatively noncompetitive," Dr. Markovits says, though an "imperative to win" attitude does creep in at some levels.

Some former high school hockey players go out for broomball, adjust to the no-checking environment, and take it easy. James Camarino, a physical-therapy major at BU who also enjoys roller hockey, says he joined Hero Squad purely for fun. "I played hockey all my life," he says. "[Now] it's just cool to be on my feet on the ice, watching people fall comically."

Others throw their weight around. Julie Camuso, a freshman at the University of Vermont, has known male players who targeted girls on the ice. It didn't happen often enough to dim her enthusiasm for broomball, which she says fulfills a need. "For a lot of students who can't play Division I [sports] or don't want to, but who played sports throughout high school, it's hard to come here and not have that in your life anymore," Ms. Camuso says. "I wasn't too sure what I got myself into at first, but I looked forward to [broomball] every week."

Tonight at BU, one of the refs calls a penalty on a player, who throws down his stick – a standard model with a molded-rubber end that's more ice-scraper than broom – on the way to the penalty box. He is ejected and storms off. "This isn't smash-'em-up league," says Mr.Nalette when he returns to rink-side after a brief face-off with the player in the corridor over interpretations of the event. "It's zero tolerance for stick throwing."

The genial mood is quickly restored. Poison Ivy wins, 2-0, having outshot their rivals 17-7. The team, in BU Terrier red, clomps out of the rink trading good-natured insults. "Dude," says one player, "it took you 40 minutes to get across the ice." You can tell they'll all be back.

Mike Delduke, whose team did not play today, is already thinking about next year's extracurriculars. He might play some volleyball, he says. "But I'll absolutely be going out for broomball." Delduke pauses, going over a mental roster. "Finding the girls will be the tough part," he says. "A bunch of them are going abroad."

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