January 07, 2016

Table Hockey Dreams

All the record books say that Wayne Gretzky scored 62 goals and 183 points in the 1986-87 season. Not in my record books though. My unofficial stats have The Great One equalling that production during the Christmas school break alone.

Of course, Jari Kurri scored more goals, because I had to pad Gretzky’s assists totals for realism. I had to put Dave Hunter on the left wing rather Mark Messier or Esa Tikkanen. The gears on the left winger of the new table hockey game I got for Christmas in 1987 never did work that well, so the stats I could produce were generously more suitable for a grinder like Hunter than Messier.

It was the perfect Christmas gift. I remember it being for both my brother and myself, but everyone knew it was for me. He never obsessed about the game where miniature players try to put a miniature puck into a miniature net, at least not to the same degree.

I, on the other hand, quickly mastered the game. I was dominant on the right side, where I imagined Gretzky repositioned himself after the faceoff. I could place pin-point passes from the right winger to the slot or either pointman for perfect one timers. I even managed to do the odd saucer pass to the center for a highlight reel goal.

No neutral zone trap could stop my plastic warriors. I think that was because my players never strayed from their positions. Like the real-life Oilers often my goalie (usually Grant Fuhr) and defensemen (always Paul Coffey and Charlie Huddy) were left to defend my zone on their own. My forwards, even the usually conscientious Hunter, were more likely to be cherry picking than back checking. I must admit that Gretzky was often offside on many of the goals, but there were no linesmen anyways.

Never able to skate very well, this was my way of living NHL dreams. It became an obsession. I would practice by myself for hours on end, only because it wasn’t long before no one would want to play with me. I was too good, and if I was beaten (usually because I put the puck in my own net from a vigorous faceoff win) I was not a lot of fun to be around. I took the game way too seriously. I even kept detailed statistics on scraps of paper that cluttered the table in a pile only I could consider organized.

The game even included a miniature Stanley Cup – the only piece of the game that I still have today. I found Lord Stanley’s mini Cup the other day to remind of these days of innocence. I became curious if others still shared this passion nowadays. I knew the games were still sold in stores, but surely the old game of rods and gears has taken a back seat to the incredible video games nowadays.

So I turned to the Internet, where I have found everything else imaginably obscure. The ‘Net did not disappoint. It rarely does. I was amazed at what I found.

There are table top hockey leagues in more schools, cities, provinces, states and countries than I can count. There are all types of leagues – singles, doubles, mixed doubles, and female.

Some of the websites that cover these leagues are something else. Features often include standings, statistics, league records, post-season awards, games of the week and even tips and tricks. A couple of sites even include downloadable video of game action. Some of these sites impressively cover their leagues like NHL.com covers its’ league.

There are websites devoted to the history of the game equipment over the years. Classic games are immortalized online. These sites then show the evolution of games over time before showcasing today’s fancy games. Don Munro, the Toronto man who created the very first table hockey game in 1932, would be proud.

Of course you can always buy games from some sites. Even more fascinating to me was the selection of parts you could buy – players for every NHL and national team, replacement gears and rods, even a replacement puck! I remember the time we lost the puck and tried putting electrical tape around a bottle cap. I sure could have used the Internet back then.

Some people are so obsessed with table hockey that they created websites to show off their hours of meticulous work of intricately recreating generic table hockey players into identifiable favorite players. Some people even made replica Zambonis, referees, and even an anthem singer for some reason.

There are even serious international competitions that have a long and largely unknown history. I was able to find a 1973 Newsday article talking about the 1973 World Table Hockey Association championships held in New York City. The article suggests the tournament actually garnered television coverage in both Canada and the United States.

Many organizations have claimed to hold world championships, but it appears that the closest tournament to the official championship of the table hockey world is held in Europe, traditionally Sweden. Stiga hosts the tournament. Stiga is better known for making gardening tools and table tennis products, but they are also the makers of the most commonly used table hockey game in the world, with over 40 million games sold. Over 150 participants from 61 countries battled for supremacy. The Swedes and Norwegians are heavy favorites, while Canadians and Americans are highly regarded. We’ll have to wait and see how the Israeli representatives fare.

Apparently there is a heated rivalry between European and North American table hockey players because of differences in championship play. It seems Europeans strictly use one type of game to determine a champion, whereas serious North American players compete using several different games to eliminate such specialization. North Americans charge that the Euro champs are only champs of the one table, and that their true table hockey skills are not nearly as versatile. As a result, when a North American plays a European player of equal ability but on the European table of choice, the North American is at significant disadvantage.

North America has a premiere event happens during the Stanley Cup final. Several years ago Budweiser turned “Bubble Boy” hockey players into a television advertising phenomenon and have taken it to bars nationwide in an elimination tournament to find the best doubles team in the Bubble Boy Hockey League. The finalists got together at the Stanley Cup final and had their own championship finale. The winner was handed the championship trophy by BBHL commissioner Wayne Gretzky, who then teamed with a fellow spokesman (ESPN commentator Barry Melrose) to unsuccessfully challenge the winners to a game.

There was a time when I dreamed of being the world’s best table hockey player. Little did I know that there actually was such a thing as a world’s best table hockey player, never mind how popular the game is world wide. I always figured that the game was something hockey fans played when they were kids, and adults played between beers at sports bars and college fraternities.

If I had only stuck with it, perhaps I could have been a world champion, or at least the Bubble Boy champion. Maybe I should go out and get a new table, and begin practicing, for the dream can be rekindled and still be achieved.

Only this time I will have to find a better left winger than Dave Hunter if I want to beat the powerhouse Israeli team.

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