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Kayak polo players hit the pool for 20th season

When referees get a little lackadaisical enforcing rules at kayak polo tournaments outside the territory, players like to quip they’re playing by “Yukon rules.”
Tom Patrick/Yukon News

When referees get a little lackadaisical enforcing rules at kayak polo tournaments outside the territory, players like to quip they’re playing by “Yukon rules.”

Apparently Yukon paddlers have a reputation for being more concerned with having fun than carping over the rules. That does seem to be the case.

“We don’t really play with a lot of rules,” said Derrick Law. “There are far too many rules. So in the spirit of enjoying the game we kind of play without any real referees and just police ourselves for the more egregious infractions.

“We’re all friends, we all know each other, we all paddle with each other all summer long, and have for years. So even though there are rivalries, we all play safe and play hard to maximize the amount of fun we have.”

Whitehorse kayak polo paddlers, along with their devil-may-care attitudes, were back in the pool on Friday at the Lions Aquatic Centre in the Canada Games Centre.

Unbeknownst to all, they were reaching a significant milestone. The kayak polo league, organized by the Yukon Canoe and Kayak Club (YCKC), began its 20th season on Friday. The first season took place in the fall of 1997 at the old Lions swimming pool, now the Yukon Convention Centre, in downtown Whitehorse.

“We played in there for years, but we didn’t really know what we were doing,” said Law, a YCKC board member. “But then we got a CDF (Community Development Fund) grant from the government and we brought up a national team member from Calgary and he did a clinic over a weekend with us. That’s when we first got exposed to rules and started to use them. Eventually they kind of fell off.”

Kayak polo, also known as “canoe polo,” is technically a fringe sport, but it’s neither new nor arcane. The current form of the sport was first played in 1970 and there are world championships held every two years. (Canada’s best result at this year’s worlds, held in Italy, was sixth in the women under-21 division.)

There is also a Canadian championship held annually. Yukon hasn’t yet entered a territorial team in the national championships, but the idea hasn’t been ruled out.

“We’ve got some high-level talent, we just haven’t broken into the national kayak polo scene yet,” said Law.

The talent Law refers to, to name just a couple, are regulars like Pelly Vincent-Braun, a two-time Team Canada paddler at the junior canoe slalom worlds, and Joel Brennan, who represented Canada at the 2011 Junior World Freestyle Kayak Championships.

“Most of all, I really enjoy being able to get in the water during the winter, not in ice-cold conditions, and you can keep some of your boating body underneath you,” said Brennan. “It’s a really great sport because people of all ages and skill levels are able to play it. It’s fast paced and a great way to learn how to kayak.”

Brennan has been playing in the league for five or six years, he said. He was surprised to hear this season is the 20th.

“I would have been four at the time (that it started),” said Brennan. “That’s really phenomenal. I’m really impressed by that. I’m glad there have been enough paddlers in the Yukon over that 20-year period to keep it going.”

Kayak polo shares characteristics with regular water polo: the goal being to put the ball in the opposing team’s net. But in kayak polo the net is suspended about two metres above the water, giving it a likeness to basketball. If the ball goes out of bounds there are throw-ins similar to corner kicks in soccer.

Though players in the Whitehorse league may not be overly obsessed with every rule in the book, they are when it comes to safety.

“If someone is reaching for the ball, you’re not allowed to bring your paddle and try to take the ball away. We don’t want any paddle-to-hand contact,” said Law. “You’re not allowed to swing your paddle to try and knock the ball out of the air. You’re allowed to block it, but no grand slam, knock it out of the park kind of swings with your paddle.”

One detail that seems to set it apart from all other paddling sports is that players can actually try to push over and capsize opposing players who possess the ball. It’s called a “tackle” in kayak polo circles. New players are identified with coloured tape on their helmet so they don’t have to worry too much about getting dunked.

“Players with tape on their helmets don’t have a solid roll, so they’re not allowed to push people over, nor is it allowed to push them over,” said Law.

The Whitehorse league, which is played with short, stubby freestyle kayaks, used to have set teams, keep track of scores and win-loss records, but eventually dispensed with such formalities in favour of a drop-in format.

“It’s more economical — we don’t have to rent to the pool — we just pay the Canada Games Centre drop-in fee, and we just make teams, kind of ad hoc like you would with pick-up hockey,” said Law. “We know everybody, so we know what their skills are, so we do a pretty good job of balancing the teams out.”

The club usually sees about 25 participants during the fall, a little less during the winter as some paddlers turn their attention to other sports.

Kayak polo takes place every Friday 8-10 p.m. at the Games Centre.

“This is a drop-in, so anybody who wants to come out and try it, you’re totally welcome. Just pay your Canada Games Centre fee, we’ll show you how to get in and out of the boat, we’ll put you on a team with some tape on your helmet so you don’t get pushed over, and come and play,” said Law.

“All the boats in here, some are owned by the individual players, but most of the boats in here are club boats and are stored up top (upstairs from the pool). We basically have all the gear to play and play safely.”

Contact Tom Patrick at