Why you should care
If you like soccer, you’ll like bandy. If you like hockey, you’ll like bandy.
When the United States plays Russia in international ice hockey, there’s a rivalry that is so tense you could cut it with a dull butter knife. Then there’s the U.S. against Russia in an international bandy game. And all of that intense stuff still applies, except in bandy, there’s more action, more speed and more ice.
Bandy is known as soccer on ice. And, no, it’s not a bunch of guys in cleats slipping and sliding down an ice rink. Instead, imagine the aesthetics of hockey, with players skating on an ice surface (though this one is more than three times bigger than an NHL rink) and holding short rounded sticks. There is a goalie, but, like soccer, the goalie has no stick. And like soccer, there are 11 players on the ice per time. The net is about 7 feet by 11 feet, and the game is played with a small orange ball, not a puck. Oh, and the offside rule applies, and there are no subs — throughout a game, players skate an average of 10 miles each.
But despite being hugely popular in several countries, if you’re from North America, you likely haven’t heard of it. “Bandy is massive in Scandinavia and Russia; they sell out arenas with tens of thousands of fans,” says Mikael Lickteig, a veteran on the USA men’s national bandy team and a leading scorer of the Bandy Elite League. “I’ve scored two goals against Russia. … It was pretty unreal.” Lickteig says whenever he tells people he plays bandy, they start Googling it mid-conversation.
There is only one full-size outdoor bandy rink in North America.
But the sport is not a new phenomenon. It was invented in England more than 200 years ago, and more than a million people play it in Russia — in fact, it’s the country’s national sport. In North America, though, just a few hundred play (it’s hugely overshadowed by ice hockey). And here’s why: There is only one full-size outdoor bandy rink in North America. Yep, it’s almost as rare as a St. Louis Blues Stanley Cup victory.
That solo rink is the Guidant John Rose Minnesota Oval, which hosts the seven-team Bandy Elite League games, attracting players from around the world — although 99 percent of the players are from Minnesota’s Twin Cities. For less elite players, a recreational bandy league — the USA Rink Bandy League — plays on Sundays. “Most of us are former college and pro [ice] hockey players,” explains Lickteig, who played ice hockey at Michigan Tech and then professional bandy in Europe. “I bring my old college hockey buddies to play all the time. If you’re a good skater, you’ll love this because you have so much more freedom and room for creativity.”
More than 25 countries have bandy federations, so the sport is recognized by the International Olympic Committee. It was played as a demonstration sport at the Oslo 1952 Winter Olympics but hasn’t been on the Olympic agenda since, despite a hard push by the hosts of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Members of the Chinese Olympic Committee attended the 2017 Bandy World Championship; however, it’s since been decided that no new sports would be added to the 2022 Olympic program. This March, bandy will make its debut as an official sport at an international multisport event, the World University Games in Russia.
In terms of participation, bandy is the second-largest winter sport, says Knut Audun Sørensen, a member of the Federation of International Bandy and creator of the website bandyinolympics.com. “If all winter sports were marketable stock, I guess Warren Buffett would have called bandy the most underanalyzed, undervalued and underestimated stock,” he adds. According to the website, which has garnered more than 10,500 signatures for a petition to get bandy into the Olympic Games, bandy also has the sixth-highest female participation in the world.
“I’m positive that if it got on the world stage and people saw it on TV, they’d be inspired to go out and play,” says Lickteig. “It’s a crossover of two of the greatest sports of the world.”
And if you don’t live in the Twin Cities or Winnipeg, Canada — where they occasionally uncover a seasonal outdoor rink if the weather permits — getting together with 21 of your friends, throwing on your hockey equipment and shoveling off a football-field-size rink will do the job.