Pucking Around

Remembering their boyhood passion, tabletop-hockey players are reviving their tiny game.

When I hear Kenny Dubois is going to be in town, there is no question about getting with him. After all, the guy is a national champ, maybe one of the best in the world. Luckily, I am able to track him down after a couple of phone calls, and we agree to meet at a house out by the airport. When I learn that Roger Owens is going to be there, too -- just back from the world championships in Pilsen, in the Czech Republic -- it becomes even more thrilling.

Everyone shows up on time at the Green Valley Ranch home of Graham Babar, age 38, who is only too happy to host the gathering. "I'm not in their league," he says, nodding toward his guests. "I mean, I'm still reaching for a rod, and they're already three moves ahead of me."

Kenny is stocky, 26 years old, with short dark hair and a goatee, big forearms and a thick Boston accent. He's friendly enough, but it's also clear he knows he's good -- at the moment, perhaps the best in the game. He speaks of "creating opportunities" or "getting creative" during a competition. When you watch him play, the action can get so fast that it's easy to mistake his skill for sheer entropy.

Mike Gorman

Roger, 39, is a New York City cop, Times Square division. Not too long ago he convinced some of the other patrolmen to play. They got so interested they decided to form their own league, and now Roger hones his chops down at the Midtown precinct. He's smaller than Kenny, and wiry. He's not quite in Kenny's league, but he's still near enough the top of the heap to earn respect. Sometimes he'll play sitting down.

Everyone's friendly, but there's little question about the group's seriousness of purpose. When I ask Roger if any of the guys down at the NYPD cop shop give him a hard time about his sport, Kenny bristles in defense. "Why would anyone razz him?" he demands. "It's not like he's playing jacks or Dungeons & Dragons."

By the time I arrive, everything is already set up. It's a beautiful June day, and some neighborhood kids play outside in the street. Not us. We hang around chatting for a while in the dining room, and before long, Graham finally says the magic words: "So, anyone want to play?" And of course we all do.

If you are a man over the age of thirty, there's a pretty good chance that tabletop hockey is a childhood memory: The big rectangular box waiting under the tree on Christmas morning, or perhaps already set up on the kitchen table, ready to go. The "ice" had ten long grooves cut into it, along which moved five players for each team. The players were operated by long rods that poked out from underneath the goals. Turning the ends of the rods between thumb and forefinger made the players spin wildly. Sometimes they would even hit the puck, which whipped around the rink like a pinball.

The first tabletop game is credited to an unemployed Toronto restaurant owner named Donald Munro, who, the legend goes, cobbled together an early prototype in his basement in the winter of 1932 because he had no money to buy his children a Christmas present. The game measured about one foot by three feet. It was made out of wood and had only two levers -- one to work the goalie, and the other that flipped the remainder of the players. By modern standards, it was laughably primitive.

Still, in the decades that followed, not much changed about the basic design of the game, though each successive version has tinkered with individual parts. Every player now has his own rod control, for example, and the slots have been reconfigured so that players have better range around the rink. Plexiglas boards have been added to keep the puck in play. Some of the modern games have experimented with three-dimensional players, upgrading the flat metal guys who always seemed to spin off their moorings during vigorous play. Collector's editions sport hand-painted figures -- hockey's version of Hummels.

Video games cut deeply into sales of the hockey game over the years. Yet even today, enough middle-aged guys out there continue to buy the boards -- both for themselves and, they claim, for their kids -- to keep sales brisk. There is a thriving trade in vintage editions, and a handful of giant toy companies, such as Canada's Irwin Toy and Sweden's Stiga, continue to sell thousands of new units each year. The merits and pitfalls of each are hotly debated -- by adults -- on numerous Web sites devoted to the game.

"I recently waxed the ice surface of Stiga with 'Rain Dance' car wax, but the effects seem to have worn off after several hours of play," reads one recent posting. "The Stiga site recommends brushing the ice surface with flour. Is there any agreement out there as to what is the best to use, and how often?" (Until recently, King Arthur's Flour was thought to be best, though now the finer potato flours seem to be gaining acceptance.)

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