Snowball fighting is now an international sport — Team Canada tells us how to play at home

Saskatoon’s Tyler Maltman and Nathan Thoen are ‘honoured and stoked to be part of the Yukigassen family.’

Saskatoon’s Tyler Maltman and Nathan Thoen are ‘honoured and stoked to be part of the Yukigassen family.’

(Source: Yukigassen Team Canada)

Snowball fighting is a time-honoured Canadian tradition which can run from the impromptu raid on passing pedestrians, to an all-out guerre des tuques. It's also an international sport. Yukigassen, a Japanese word for "snow battle", takes a schoolyard snowball fight, and adds precision, professionalism, and competition. The result, says Nathan Thoen, is "absolute evidence that the world is a magical place…. It keeps the wonder we felt as children alive, while adding professionalism and intensity." 

Thoen is captain of Team Canada, one of the first Canadian sides to compete in world championships of Yukigassen in Hokkaido, Japan. Tyler Maltman is the coach. They are, in their words, "honoured and stoked to be part of the Yukigassen family." We asked them to explain how the sport works and how we can safely play our own version here at home. 

Nathan Thoen, Yukigassen Team Canada captain (Submitted by Yukigassen Team Canada)
Tyler Maltman, Yukigassen Team Canada coach (Source: Yukigassen Team Canada)

What is Yukigassen?

Coach Maltman describes Yukigassen as "a combination of dodge ball and paintball. A high intensity sport that requires skill and team work. A form of moving chess." Competitive Yukigassen originated in the late 1980's in the town of Sobetsu, Japan, at the foot of a smouldering volcano on the northern island of Hokkaido. Gradually, the sport has spread across the snowier parts of the globe, with tournaments and recreational play popping up across Scandinavia, in Armenia and, of course, in Canada.

Team Canada got their start in 2011, winning the first Canadian Yukigassen championships in Edmonton. However, it wasn't until 2016 that the team was able to put together funding to actually travel to the tournament along with the Edmonton Snowbattlers, subsequent Canadian champions. Their journey to Hokkaido is the subject of an as-yet-unreleased documentary film

Although Yukigassen is still mostly unknown here, the pair is optimistic about the future of the sport in Canada. "It's growing," says Maltman, "there are events in Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta. And of course, in Saskatoon."

Yukigassen is played on a 36x10 m court with seven obstacles or "bunkers" and a flag at each end. Each game has two teams of seven players face-off for three sets of three minutes each. Each team can use up to 90 snowballs which are pre-made to spherical perfection using a specially-designed press. A team wins a set by eliminating all the players on the opposing team by hitting them with snowballs, having more players remaining when the time runs out, or by capturing the opposing flag. The first team to win two rounds takes the match.

The world is your Yukigassen court

The official rules and regulations of Yukigassen can be found on the Yukigassen International website. However, it's easy to improvise a game even without measuring out a court, ordering a specialized snowball press, and constructing bunkers. It's a snowball fight, and you can take that anywhere.

"The world's your oyster," says Thoen, "you could set up in a playground where you have pre-set obstacles, or do it the old-fashioned way in an open field with no bunkers. Or you could set up bunkers from snow or whatever you have around you. If you're on a farm, take advantage of the hay bales." Basically, you want to set out the terrain and divide it in two and place your flags at the opposite ends of the court.

You can also roll your snowballs on-the-go instead of ahead of time, all at once. This will change the pace of the game, but won't make it less fun.

Rolling and throwing the perfect snowball

Ideal snowballing weather is around -5 to -10 degrees Celsius. "Too warm and you get mushy slush," says Thoen, "too cold and the snow gets too crystallized." Once you've got a handful of good snow, "Give it an even firm pack and oscillate the ball in your hand: compress, turn, compress, turn… until you have a perfect sphere." The rounder your ball, the straighter and more consistently it'll fly. Aim for about baseball size. If you're going all-out, you can order an official snowball-press from Yukigassen International.

When it's time to throw the snowball, Coach Maltman says you'll need a variety of throwing techniques: "You got your standard fastball heater but you also need a lob shot to catch people hiding behind the bunkers. An underarm shot can also really throw people off." The key to good aim is practice and consistency.

Safety and gear

The key to dressing for a snowball fight is to stay warm enough without overheating or compromising mobility. Maltman recommends wearing "what you'd hike a mountain in: a thin sweat-wicking base layer and something light and mobile overtop of that, like our Team Canada onesies."

Gloves are also a key consideration. Cold bare hands are slippery and painful, but thick mittens can make it harder to make and aim snowballs. The ideal gloves, which are used by the players in the championships, are thin with little rubber grips on the fingers and palms. These help balance warmth and performance.

The dangers of snow battle are many and real. Maltman, who is also the team doctor, says that "the most common injury is lacerations to the face. But people also knock out teeth, and bruise knees and elbows diving out of the way and over the bunkers." 

Knee pads can come in handy, since a lot of the game is played kneeling behind obstacles. Slipping is also a danger, so a lot of the pros wear soft cleats to help with traction. But the biggest danger is probably the tightly-packed pre-made snowballs that are used in competitive play. These can turn quickly into ice in cold weather and hit hard, which is why players in the championship wear helmets and masks. However, if you are hand-rolling your snowballs, says Thoen, "You can probably get away with a toque."

Thoen's biggest safety tip is, "Respect the snowballs: they have the power to injure." But he doesn't think that respecting risk means you should avoid it. "We appreciate the danger involved in snowball fighting...the fear is part of the fun. The fear is our friend. You need to feel it and master it to become a snowball fighting ninja."

The team captain also offered this advice to prospective snowballers: "Follow your dreams. If you wake up in the morning and feel like you're breathing snowball excellence, then you have to make that snowball dream a reality."

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.