Broomball team in Moscow finds its style is the Pits
FOR a few sterling moments, we leaped and dived with the grace of sea birds. Most of the time, however, we splatted about like bloated walruses. We were the Pits - an acronymn for a team Physically Inept but Trying to Score. The name of our game was broomball.
What? Broomball has somehow escaped your notice all these years?
It had also escaped mine until I moved to Moscow this winter and found diplomats, journalists, businessmen, and other foreigners here on many a winter morning locked in combat on the broomball court. I became a devotee quickly, finding that I had all the key assets for success in the sport: a minimum of physical prowess, a paucity of competitive spirit, and a serious lack of the self-preservation instinct.
Broomball may be one of the world's least-known sports. (Some would argue that it should stay that way.) It is played in Canada and some other northern climes, but the local variant appears unique to Moscow.
It starts with flooding a tennis court (shared by three embassies in town) to create a rink, then setting up nets, similar to hockey goals, at each end.
Teams consist of six people (in separate leagues for men and women). The object is to try to swat a child's rubber ball - about the size of a softball - into the goals, using a handmade straw broom, the kind that Russian babushki use for street-sweeping. The brooms are wrapped in layer upon layer of tape, until they become fairly rigid.
No skates are allowed on the ice. Instead, players wear a kind of tennis shoe with suction cups on the bottom. These shoes make the glassine court surface only slightly less treacherous. What ensues on the ice gives new meaning to the word ''pandemonium.''
The referee drops the ball at the center of the court (and, if wise, races for the safety of the sidelines) while players frantically whack the ball in the general direction of the opposing team's goal.
The rules allow what is euphemistically called ''body checking.'' In practice , that means careening into opponents and teammates alike, frequently stumbling over bodies prostrate on the ice, and often stumbling and sliding across the court.
Mercifully, armor is mandatory. It consists of shinguards, protective breeches, elbow pads, and helmets. To this basic outfit are added sundry layers of clothing to ward off the Moscow chill, which can drop to -20 degrees F. some mornings. Thus, even the trimmest, most fit players - and there are a few on our team - come to resemble Bib, the smiling trademark figure of Michelin tires.
In ''broomball chic,'' fashion rules are made to be broken. One player on our team, a suave BBC reporter, once sported protective breeches that appeared to be several sizes too small. He looked not unlike a medieval knight about to be tripped by his own girdle.
It is common practice to wear a balaclava, or knit cap, under the helmet to keep the ears warm. Once, when I forgot a cap, I stuffed my head into a large sock in desperation. But the foot protruded from out of the helmet.
My teammates averred that the look was rather fetching and entirely appropriate. After all, they pointed out, during the game I rarely stayed on my feet anyway and rarely appeared to know which end was up. Even a Pitsman has his pride, however. By the next game, the sock was replaced by a moth-eaten watch cap.
Some teams take things much more seriously, however, sporting spiffy matching uniforms and even appointing coaches. Not so the Pits. Good-natured anarchy on ice is the rule, and anyone who dares even propose a practice session is shouted down. According to oral history, our team was originally made up of would-be players rejected by other squads. They vowed that virtually anyone could wear the Pits colors (red and white), skill notwithstanding. Hence the Pits' dogged adherence to a noncompetitive ethic.
True to that ideal, the Pits have never won a game. But any game in which the defeat margin stays in the single digits is counted as a moral victory. The scoring of a single goal is cause for wild jubilation and embraces on the ice.
This is not to say, however, that we don't try. For example, we have one player who, although he works for an American newspaper, is Finnish. As it happens, our first game was against a team from the Finnish Embassy.
We drew up a plan whereby our own Finn, at crucial moments in the game, would shout conflicting instructions to the other team in their native tongue. Further , if we were to fall seriously behind, he was to mingle with the Finnish supernumeraries on the sideline and yell, ''OK, team, let's let the Pits score a few goals.''
Somehow, the stratagem failed. He shouted, but the Finns ignored him and the Pits were trounced. Next year, we plan to purchase a megaphone for him.
Even our official insignia has something of a hapless quality about it. A few years back, the team finagled a British travel agent to act as sponsor. In return, the company name could go underneath our insignia on the team jerseys.
The insignia depicts two broken brooms crossed at the hilts, with shreds of distended straw at the end - supposedly emblematic of the brute force with which we wield them. A drawing of the insignia was dispatched to a sporting-goods factory in Britain.
But something happened when the silk screen was made. The manufacturer - obviously unfamiliar with the sport - couldn't figure out what the brooms were supposed to represent.
It is unclear whether a well-meaning artist merely tried to improve on our insignia - or whether the travel agent saw a chance for subliminal advertising. At any rate, the two broken brooms became two palm trees with crossed trunks.
Somehow, it fits. Any true Pitsman would readily admit a preference for reclining under a palm tree instead of lying supinely on ice.
However, winter's hard grip on Moscow is easing. The ice on the Moscow River is breaking up. Soon, the broomball court will melt away, revealing the concrete tennis court underneath.
Let the diplomats have it for the summer and fall, we say. Let them cavort during the brief respite of warmth. Many of our team members will be in training , diligently building up body fat for the next broomball season. (It comes in handy for body checking, you know.)
And when winter comes again, we'll don our helmets and, like modern-day Cossacks, charge onto the ice once again.
It's a safe bet that we'll once again live up to our name.