Earlier this fall, a group of Seattle’s best ball hockey players traveled across the country to compete in the first-ever tournament of the National Ball Hockey League.
The team, dubbed the Seattle Cold Snacks, is made up of players of varying experience levels and ages, from former ice hockey players to ball hockey rookies, aged 20 to 62.
The team played well at the NBHL’s Mylec Cup in Marlton, New Jersey, but went 1-3 against the teams in its division.
Ball hockey, also known as street hockey, is an iteration of off-ice hockey played on foot rather than on ice or in-line skates. It is a huge part of hockey culture on the East Coast, in the Midwest and in Canada, and is often seen as an accessible gateway into ice hockey. The sport has slowly made its way to Seattle over the years — largely from East Coast and Canadian transplants who wanted to meet like-minded people in their new city.
While there has been a quiet, loyal following of passionate players in the city for nearly 20 years, barriers such as a lack of resources, facility space and public interest have kept them from gaining mainstream popularity.
Now that the arrival of the Seattle Kraken has put a spotlight on hockey in Seattle, local off-ice hockey players are hopeful it will bolster interest and lead to the creation of a stronger culture in the community, and more pathways for new players.
“It’s a pretty blank canvas,” said Salvatore Ippolito, a Cold Snacks player and founder of Emerald City Floorball. (Floorball is the European iteration of ball hockey, which is less aggressive and physical, and more focused on technique and skill, Ippolito said.)
“Right now the culture is not much of a culture yet, because there’s not enough people playing the sport,” Ippolito said. “With the arrival of the Kraken, we hope that [it] opens doors for everybody to enjoy the sport, whether they play it on the ice or off the ice.”
It started with pickup games
While the Seattle Cold Snacks was formed in 2019, the team came out of Seattle Street Hockey, a group of ball hockey players that has met most Saturdays for nearly 20 years to play pickup ball hockey games at local parks. The group’s current hangout is Judkins Park.
“We’ve got a pretty ragtag, haphazard group of skilled players, but we also like to have fun,” longtime player Cam Green said. “It’s really just a collection of people that really love the game.”
Vincent Payette was born and raised playing hockey in Canada, and he helped create SSH back in the early 2000s. He’d just moved to Seattle and started playing street hockey with others from the Canadian consulate as a way to meet new people.
“Basically, I just showed up and … it just clicked. It was a great group of people,” Payette said. “It’s not just about hockey, it’s about camaraderie, socializing after the game and so on.”
Over the years, he assumed an unofficial leadership role for the group, sending out email invitations to players and later helping to create a website. The group started playing in tournaments across the country, though the games were never organized into a formal league until the National Ball Hockey League was developed in 2020.
In 2019, Anthony Sanrocco, a travel nurse from New Jersey, moved to Seattle while he was working to launch the National Ball Hockey League. After he started coming to Judkins Park to play pickup games with SSH, he encouraged the group to form a team to compete in the National Ball Hockey League.
Accessible gateway to hockey
Off-ice hockey is largely touted as a gateway to ice hockey, as it requires less equipment and training, and no need for access to ice time.
Ball hockey is just like ice hockey, except you play in sneakers instead of skates; on a plastic “dek” instead of ice (in official competitions); and with a round plastic ball instead of a flat rubber puck. The standard rink size is the same for both sports, and each team plays with five players and a goalie.
Ippolito said it is also one of the more affordable sports for kids to play — especially in comparison with ice hockey, where ice skates alone can cost $500 a pair.
“That was one of the things that drew me to it, it’s very inclusive for boys, girls of all ages, backgrounds, economic levels — you name it. It’s truly designated as a sport for everybody,” Ippolito said.
However, both ice hockey and off-ice hockey are largely male-dominated sports. While some women play with the Seattle Street Hockey group, the space is largely occupied by men.
Jennifer Wood, president of the Western Washington Female Hockey Association, said creating a space for girls and women to play the sport is essential, especially among youth leagues. Wood said the WWFHA is the only all-girls ice hockey league in the state of Washington.
“To have a place where girls can express that type of leadership and be encouraged to have that kind of experience is incredibly important,” Wood said. “Giving them a place to develop that, and they see strong women role models, and they see girls ahead of them, especially at the older ages, is hugely important.”
Hockey is a huge part of the East Coast culture, Ippolito said. There is a level of camaraderie and friendship tied to the sport where players often make lifelong friendships.
“I think that’s something that hasn’t been created here yet in Seattle,” Ippolito said. “With all the people we have in the Greater Seattle area, and all the kids we have in the area, I believe that culture can easily be created, and have something similar to what the culture is like on the East Coast.”
Ippolito is also working on creating a children’s floorball league in the region. The first step to getting a youth league up and running is finding a consistent space to play, he said.
“That has definitely been a challenge to do,” Ippolito said. “We need a place to play first, then it would be marketing from there and planning something several months out.”
He’s hosted a few community events, workshops and birthday parties, and started introducing the sport in schools, Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCAs and Seattle Parks and Recreation to cultivate interest and gain momentum locally.
Adult players also said one of the biggest obstacles for off-ice hockey’s local growth is the lack of facilities. Ball hockey requires an enclosed rink with boards around the edges, making other sporting facilities like basketball courts not viable options to practice in.
“Without boards, it’s not a hockey game,” Payette said. “The ball bounces off the boards so it’s part of the game. Without that, the ball just dies in the fence and it doesn’t create the game we want to play.”
Payette said he met with Seattle Parks and Recreation around five years ago to create a ball hockey rink in the city, but found the process was lengthy, tedious and slow.
“We’ve tried many, many times with the city and just got nowhere,” Payette said. “Seattle Parks has this process that’s extremely involved to creating any facilities, even if it’s privately funded.”
Seattle Parks and Recreation communications manager Rachel Schulkin said her department has opportunities for residents provide input on future projects.
The city launched a Strategic Plan Implementation survey where residents can pitch ideas for future projects — such as ball hockey facilities — at a virtual town hall. The online open house ends Oct. 13.
Across the board, recreational hockey players say they anticipate an increase in local interest after the introduction of the new NHL franchise in Seattle.
Western markets such as Las Vegas — which welcomed the NHL expansion Golden Knights team in 2017 — that traditionally didn’t have a hockey culture were soon inundated with interest from locals to form teams, recreational leagues and pathways for youths to get in the game.
ESPN reported that after the Knights came to Las Vegas, youth hockey registration shot up 227% from 2014 to 2019, compared with the usual annual increase of 7.6%. From the 2017-18 to 2018-19 season alone, youth registration rose 100%.
While the anticipated growth is promising, Payette said the city needs to dedicate more facilities and spaces for people to practice off-ice hockey.
“Our fear is obviously that there’s not enough facilities,” Payette said. “That will potentially create some problems where there’s more demand than there is supply.”
Still, leaders are optimistic that the interest will drive facility growth and accommodate the new players.
“In Seattle, I think we’re about to see a huge change in the hockey culture here, a huge number of people are about to discover how great hockey is,” said Wood, the WWFHA president. “I’m really excited to see how that changes and see how it’s going to grow over the next few years. I think it’s going to be very different and I think we’re all along for the ride.”