It’s a familiar sound in Minnesota: ice hockey sticks click-clacking as two players face off in pursuit of the puck. But in this game, the players don’t skate on blades. They glide around on a single wheel.
Enter the world of unicycle hockey — a fast-paced game that draws a small band of intergenerational, one-wheeled wonders to a church basement gym to practice their riding skills while putting a new, er, spin on a quintessential Minnesota sport.
Every other Sunday, members of the Twin Cities Unicycle Club — the largest club of its kind in the country — hold hockey scrimmages at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Columbia Heights.
There are two main objectives:
Put the puck in the net.
And smile. You’re on a unicycle, after all.
Each team has five players, balancing on unicycles and leaning slightly forward in their seats. With hockey sticks in hand, they pedal furiously from one end of the court to the other.
Sometimes they fall. But injuries are rare, and there is no fighting. No checking, either.
“It’s happy hockey,” said Julie Kovacic, a unicycle hockey mom who drove in from Hudson, Wis., on a recent Sunday with her daughter, Shelley, who played goalie much of the night.
Goalies have the toughest job. They must idle the whole game, rolling back and forth to stay up while guarding the net.
Shelley Kovacic, 17, kept her balance by hopping up and down on her unicycle. Soon, she faced an attack by the opposing team, whose members were passing to one another as they headed full speed toward her. She blocked a shot, and the puck — technically, a tennis ball — rolled into a corner. The players rolled after it, jostling with one another.
Nearby, a little girl on a pink unicycle kept time. Staring at her smartphone, she counted down the final seconds of the seven-minute game. “5-4-3-2-1. Eeeeh!” she yelled, mimicking the sound of a buzzer.
A fresh line of unicyclists entered the court for the next game. In all, they played for two hours.
Origins of the game
Just how long the sport has been around is anybody’s guess.
The earliest record of people tooling around on unicycles while playing hockey comes from a silent film clip made in 1925, according to the HockeyGods website. Another early reference to the game appears in a 1960 Bicycle Journal article about a New Mexico unicycling club.
National unicycle hockey competitions are a more recent phenomenon. The first one was held in London in 1988.
Minnesota was the epicenter of the unicycling world in 1994, when it hosted the World Unicycling Championships. This also marked the first time that unicycle hockey was a championship event, the folks at HockeyGods say.
The sport is gaining traction in Europe, where there are national leagues in Germany, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.
On this side of the unfrozen pond, unicycling has been paired with other popular sports — football and basketball, to name a few. But in the Land of 10,000 Ice Rinks, it’s unicycle hockey that rules.
“The club used to play unicycle basketball, but that died off,” said Mike Schatz, president of the local club and an avid unicycle hockey fan.
“This is my favorite workout,” he said, sweating on the sidelines between games. “It’s fast-paced. It’s a challenge. You’re riding all the time.”
He started unicycling at 42. It took him about 50 to 100 hours to master it. “It’s the hardest thing I ever learned to do,” he said.
But unicycling is something everyone can learn, insisted Connie Cotter, who has been involved with the Twin Cities club since it started about 30 years ago. What’s the secret?
“Perseverance,” she said, smiling.
Sure, she fell lots of times when she started, but the good thing, she said, is that, unlike with a bicycle, when you fall, you tend to land on your feet because you’re falling forward.
The Twin Cities club counts among its members some of the best riders in the world. Cotter once held the world record for jump-roping on a unicycle. (She logged 169 skips in one minute.)
For Cotter and other members, the club is a family affair. Although she doesn’t play unicycle hockey, she was there on a recent Sunday to cheer on her brother, Andy, and sister-in-law, Irene Genelin.
Andy Cotter has been all over the world with his unicycle and even met his wife through the club. Genelin has attained the equivalent of black belt status as a unicyclist — the only Twin Cities rider to reach the highest skill level. (There are 10 skill levels.)
The hockey nights attract players with a mix of skill levels and ages. Eleven-year-old Will Hugo was the youngest rider in this game. His brother, Ben, 18, also plays.
“I was born into it,” Will said of his entry into the unicycling world. He especially enjoys playing hockey on one wheel. “It’s really fun. You get to see your friends,” he said.
As with ice hockey, speed is a valued skill. That, and a good command of the unicycle.
“You have to be able to ride without thinking about it,” said Garrett Macey of St. Paul, another regular player.
Toward the end of the night, the intensity level kicked up as the puck rolled toward one end of the court. Five riders chased after it at full speed. One of them skidded to a stop, crashing into another rider and setting off a massive pileup near the net.
“Ohhh,” a collective groan echoed in the gym.
A rider who had crashed into the net picked up his fallen unicycle, hopped back on it and resumed play. You might say he rolled with it.