06/13/2011 09:24 am ET Updated 6 days ago

Hockey Fans: Drop Your Skates And Pick Up Your Broom

Listen up sports fans, hockey isn't the only team sport played on ice. And curling isn't the only sport that uses brooms.

Far from the spotlight surrounding the Stanley Cup Finals, a growing number of amateur athletes are hitting the ice to play broomball -- a game that merges the strategy of hockey with the equipment of housecleaning.

The sport puts teams on ice, sans skates. Wearing special-made sneakers that offer a bit of traction, but much less speed compared to blades, players smack a rubber ball past goalies using sticks with triangular heads evolved from brooms.

It's a quirky game that's slower-moving, easier to play and less physical than hockey -- making it the softball to hockey's baseball.

Broomball has grown to become an international sport with tens of thousands of recreational athletes, "elite" teams and Olympic aspirations. But in parts of the world where winter sports don't have a huge following, the word "broomball" has more to do with the magical flying game from "Harry Potter" than this real-life Canadian sport.

"It's slowly starting to change, but if you're not from a northern area with a lot of ice, you'll never hear about it," said Pittsburgh, Pa., broomball player E.J. Thorn.

Thorn -- like many broomball aficionados -- is trying to spread the word. The second-year law student at the University of Pittsburgh is attempting to start the Broomball Club of Pittsburgh, an association for lovers of the sport that would offer pick-up games and perhaps a traveling team made-up the city's best players.

"When I tell my friends that I'm in this league playing broomball, they say, 'Well, what the heck is that?'"

Conflicting stories about the history of broomball trace the game's origins back to indigenous Canadians in the early 1800s or residents of Saskatchewan or Saskatoon who took household brooms onto the ice in the early 1900s.

The sport spread across Canada in the following years, gaining popularity as it hopped from frozen pond to frozen pond and famously (at least for members of the broomball community) won fans among Montreal's railway workers.

"The game started on its own -- hockey had no impact on it whatsoever," said Rick Przybysz, president of the International Federation of Broomball Associations and the Broomball Canada Federation.

In the 1950s, Canada saw broomball transform from a recreational game into a competitive sport with leagues and clubs. In the following decades, the game won fans in the United States as an intramural sport at cold-weather campuses and among athletes in Minneapolis, Minn., which has emerged as the sport's American capital.

Playing a casual version of the game that's more welcoming to beginners than hockey, broomball's weekend warriors brought the game to rinks across the continent -- and eventually, across the globe.

Meanwhile, the sport's "elite" athletes grew increasingly serious about the game. Still comprised of unpaid players, these "elite" teams began traveling for fiercely competitive six-on-six matches complete with offensive cycling and full checking, like hockey.

As the sport matured, so did its equipment. Players now take the ice in pads and broomball-specific sneakers that make walking on ice feel like walking on a gym floor in socks. Instead of using household brooms with bristles hardened with tar or tape, athletes pass and shoot with sticks featuring rubber heads and wooden or aluminum shafts.

"The old straw brooms littered the ice. Hockey players would come on afterwards and it would be dangerous for them," said Przybysz. "And mothers would just smack the hell out of the kids for taking their brooms all the time."

Today, broomball boasts more than 20,000 registered players and an estimated 50,000 non-registered players in Canada alone -- not counting the 26,000 Canadian students who have been taught the game in a government-sponsored heritage sports program, according to Przybysz.

Since 1991, teams from countries including Italy, Australia, Switzerland, Slovenia Japan and Germany have taken part in the World Broomball Championships.

The sport is recognized as a non-voting member of the Canadian Olympic Committee, though even broomball's biggest boosters doubt they'll find a place on the world's biggest stage anytime soon.

Broomball advocates say the key to the sport's growth is its accessibility.

"It's a lot easier than hockey -- you don't need to learn the skating part," said Thorn. "You can just get out on the ice and play in your shoes. That's what I did, especially early on. We'd just go out, with our tennis shoes on -- we'd be falling on our butts all the time."

Considering that the game is less expensive than hockey and easy for participants of all ages, broomball supporters see the potential for mass appeal.

"The fact that [beginners] can go up on the ice without falling gives them the confidence that they can actually do something," said Przybysz. "When they start running, they see that they are no different than anyone else on the ice."

Przybysz has been encouraged by the sport's growth, but for broomball to become the next big thing, he believes it needs a poster boy -- preferably one with multiple Stanley Cup championships.

As kids in Canada's youth hockey system, many hockey players give broomball a try. But no NHL star, at least to Przybysz's knowledge, has openly endorsed the game.

"You need to get somebody to champion the sport -- a role model like Wayne Gretsky. It would be an overnight success."

While endorsements from NHLers like Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin are wishful thinking for now, some NHL executives have actually embraced broomball.

Mark Tamar, vice president of entertainment and event marketing for the St. Louis Blues, organized a broomball demonstration between periods at a Blues game this season.

"The hockey community is pretty aware of other games that take place on ice, whether it's curling or something else," said Tamar. "What they weren't aware of is the fact there are actual leagues and this is an organized sport."

So Tamar decided to put together a short broomball match, introducing hockey fans to a sport that Tamar grew up playing on the frozen ponds of Indiana.

The demo wasn't the greatest show on ice, but judging by the cheers from the stands -- and the lack of nasty letters he received about it afterward -- Tamar is confident that many of the hockey fans left the stadium with a positive impression of broomball.

"I heard a lot of great responses from the crowd," he said. "There was lots of cheering, but there was not much scoring -- maybe one goal in the entire thing. That's less than our youth hockey leagues. We were hoping for a higher score, but that was the only disappointment."

The NHL appearance was a huge opportunity for broomball to win more fans -- and a rare instance in which a hockey organization helped broomball players find time on the ice. In fact, broomball players say that thanks to hockey, one of their biggest challenges is getting a place to play.

"The issue that we have with hockey right now is that it's so big, it's difficult to get venues to play broomball," said Przybysz. "Hockey came in and took all the good ice away."

Kevin Deneson, a broomball player for 15 years and coordinator of USA Broomball, acknowledges that it can be a struggle competing for ice time with better-funded youth hockey leagues and amateur hockey leagues.

Though he considers broomball "an alternative recreational sport" that "will never compete with hockey," he acknowledges there are questions of respect between the hockey players and broomball players.

"There's not as much respect for the game until somebody tries it and realizes, 'Oh, it is a little harder than I thought,'" Deneson said.