By Susan Kessler
Ever want to get crazy with a broom? Becoming a street sweeper may not be the best way to go. Instead, you can join dozens of other expats, who brave the biting cold and take to the streets wielding their brooms, when the real Russian winter sets in. What may sound like a strange sweepers’ cult is actually a contact sport called broomball, which has become something of an establishment for Moscow’s expatriates, much like brunch at Starlight Diner or cocktails at Scandinavia Restaurant.
“It’s a game that catches you,” says David Breese, the Broomball League’s organizer, who has been playing broomball in Moscow for nearly a decade. Breese, who has not heard of the sport before coming to Russia, says that having played rugby helped him learn to “be aware of other people” on the field. Somewhat similar to hockey, the object of this team sport is to score a goal against the other team, but players use odd-looking sticks made of brooms and wear rubber-soled shoes instead of skates on the ice. Many believe that this winter sport originated in Canada, where records of broomball games date back to the early 1900s. Other, more exotic theories claim that Knattleikr, a similar game described in centuries-old Viking sagas, is broomball’s predecessor.
Despite broomball’s long history, however, few people know the game before joining the Broomball League, so a lack of experience is not a huge disadvantage for taking up the sport. “You have to get out there and learn how to play,” says Breese, adding that playing broomball is not only a good workout, but also a great way to meet other people. “There is very much a social side to it,” since teams organize lunches and parties, in addition to a major black tie ball at the end of each season, he says. There are 14 men’s teams and 7 women’s teams this year, so the season, which begins once enough ice has formed, ends after about 14 games – once around for men and twice around for women – are played.
Struggling not to fall on the ice, as steam comes out of your mouth and nostrils and you grasp the stick and lunge for the ball is, actually, a clever networking technique. Broomballers keep in touch after their clunky gear, custom ordered from Canada, comes off. The league provides a social network, which often produces useful business contacts, well worth the upwards of $70 each player pays in fees, which vary from team to team in the league. The top three teams get awards at the end of the season during the Broomball Ball, a rare broomball event, where Russians are welcome. Even though the Swedes, Germans, Americans, Canadians, Finns and other expats play broomball, Russians are not allowed into the league, according to Breese, an Englishman.
Whether Russians should be allowed to play is a “contentious issue”, on which broomballers vote every year, Breese says. However, despite a handful of players, who were born in Russia and lived abroad most of their lives, no locals are encouraged to join. Embassy workers started the broomball tradition in Russia in the 1960s, making the sport a kind of an exclusive club for expats, who were stationed in Moscow at the time. Then and now the games are played at various embassies, with the German, British and Swedish embassies having been especially generous to allow broomballers onto their territories.
There were security concerns about allowing Russians inside embassy compounds. These worries have melted away with the end of the Cold War, but the league’s membership rules stayed the same. “The nature of the game would change” if Russian players were welcomed onto the field because they would dominate the league, Breese says. Most broomballers are stationed in Moscow for just a few years, which means there is a lot of movement in and out of the teams. New ones appear and old teams fall by the wayside, as the players move onto new work assignments outside of Russia.
Expats living in Moscow still have a chance to join, provided they are not afraid to play a team of broom-wielding U.S. marines. Unseasonably warm weather gave the broomball season a late start this year, so the bulk of the games will be played after January 1. Go crazy with the brooms!
For more information on broomball, see: www.moscowbroomball.4t.com