Mike Gorman

Pucking Around

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.

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.)

Other ongoing questions include how to keep the puck from bouncing out of the net after a hard shot (a sock stuffed into the back of the net seems to work) and how many players should have a left-handed curve to their sticks. Aficionados also disagree over whether the "Stanley Cup" model of player is superior to the "Play Off" style and whether Canadian players suck worse than American ones.

The game's heyday is generally agreed to have been the 1970s, yet table hockey has been enjoying a renaissance of late. This is mostly because of the "Bubble Boys," the tiny talking hockey players Budweiser uses in its Bud Light commercials on TV. Bubble Boy hockey games -- large, foosball-sized games with domed plastic sneeze-guards--have popped up in bars, competing for quarters with pool, darts and other games.

The popularity of the Bubble Boy, in turn, has spurred a collateral rebirth of the home models. Most of the new games are still toys, but some are not. Rick Benej, a 54-year-old former exhibit designer, handcrafts sleek $700 versions of the game from his shop in upstate New York. He credits the resurgence in popularity of the old game to the Internet, through which men who despaired that they were alone in their fixation on the childhood game now realize there are thousands of other guys out there looking to relive the vicious neighborhood hockey matches of their youth.

"We seem to be drawing them out of the woodwork," he says. "This is the one game that can replicate the real game in a tabletop version. I mean, remember the vibrating football guys? That was ridiculous."

Of course, there are players -- and then there are players. The best of the best tabletop stars practice dozens of hours a week in preparation for tournaments held across the country and the world that award thousands of dollars in prizes. What separates the champs from the hackers?

"The top guys keep their emotions together," Benej explains. "It's a game that does not reward frustration, but calmness and patience." Just like the real game, tabletop traditionally has been dominated by the Canadians and the Swedes. Now, however, thanks to up-and-comers like Kenny Dubois, the balance is shifting.

"Kenny is a great technician," Benej says. "He has to feel the puck between his players, so he does a lot of passing to keep them all involved. He seldom gives the puck away."

"It's such a passion to play these games," Kenny explains. "Playing is in the blood."

For Kenny, this is the truth. Challenged to an honor match by his uncle, Kenny's dad quickly succumbed to the thrill of the game, eventually organizing local leagues. His feverish devotion to the game attracted Kenny, who started playing when he was twelve years old. It wasn't long before he began dominating the Merrimack Valley Table Hockey League, in Northern Massachusetts, thrashing grown men at their own game.

Later, like nearly all precocious athletes, Kenny went through a brief period of growing up, taking a break from the game in his late teens for more serious pursuits. "To play street hockey and screw around with the chicks," he says. After that, it was four years in the Air Force before he returned to the table at age 22.

The four-year period since then has been one long winning streak. Kenny's name has become familiar to anyone who plays national tabletop-hockey tournaments, of which there are a half-dozen or so across the country and in Canada each year. The highlight of his short career -- so far -- came earlier this year, when he crossed over from pure tabletop and into the oversized arena of the Bubble Boy.

First he won a preliminary round at a bar called Martha's Exchange, in Nashua, New Hampshire, only a few miles from his home in northern Massachusetts. That qualified him for another round, which he also won. Next up was the regional championship, hosted by the Sports Depot, a bar on the outskirts of Boston. His victory there earned him an all-expenses-paid trip to...New Jersey.

Still, serious tabletop-hockey players don't put a lot of stock in scenery, and when Kenny arrived at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Hackensack, he knew he'd made it to the big leagues. The drinks were free. The Bud Light girls loitered about fetchingly. The whole deal was invitation only. Best of all was the celebrity mingling: Wayne Gretzky and Phil Esposito were in attendance as part of the sponsorship package. On Tuesday night, all of the players were treated to game three of the Stanley Cup finals, being held just up the turnpike.

Unlike tabletop, Bubble Boy games are played with two-man teams. Kenny's partner was one of his oldest friends, Bobby Leavy. "We grew up next to each other," he says. "He was pretty much my punching bag." No longer. These days Leavy is Kenny's defensive specialist. "Bobby's job is to tenaciously check and get me the puck," Kenny explains, adding, "On this particular table, the right defensive player is the most powerful guy on the table."

The strategy worked to perfection. Technically speaking, winning the Bubble Boy tournament was not much to be proud of: For a tabletop purist, the bar game is clumsy and slow. "It's a simple game," Kenny says. But the perks were hard to ignore. Kenny and Bobby each won a Bubble Boy game -- about a $3,000 value. Later, they got to hang with Phil and Wayne, playing a post-tournament celebrity game against the two former NHL superstars.

"We kept it close," Kenny says. "We just wanted it to be enjoyable."

"That was smart," says Roger Owens. "Very smart."

Still, Kenny's main game remains tabletop as it was meant to be played, on a fast, small table. Now a swimming-pool installer, he keeps a Benej table in his living room, ready for action at a moment's notice. "I have the game set up where I have to walk by it each day," he says. "Sometimes I'll just fool around for five minutes. Sometimes I'll do it for two hours." On occasion, he'll stay awake long into the night, practicing his moves alone to the music of John Coltrane.

Today the talk is about the upcoming Hockey Hound Table Top Hockey Tournament, held in Grand Lake. Kenny is the defending champ. The tournament was started last year by Garey Southerby, 47, who moved his sports-memorabilia store from Denver into the mountains two and a half years ago. Although he specializes in the human-sized game -- his store has about 5,000 pucks on display -- he has also carved a solid niche selling the smaller versions, offering about a hundred different tabletop models for sale.

"It's what we grew up with," he says, explaining the game's popularity among non-kids. "We didn't have a computer in our rooms. I know it's not for everyone. But there are those who say it's the greatest table game ever made."

"Table hockey is the greatest game ever made," says Roger Owens.

The finals of the Hockey Hound tournament are held on Sunday morning. It pits Kenny against Claus Rinner, 31, a German immigrant and computer programmer now living in London, Ontario. About two years ago, as a joke, Rinner agreed to pitch in for a tabletop game for an office colleague who was getting married. Not particularly interested in the game, she left the table at work, so he and his office mates began to play. The game captivated him. Hockey Hound is his sixth tournament.

It is surprisingly close, but eventually, Kenny wins the top prize. "He was just better than me in terms of varying his plays, creativity, precision of shots, adapting his defense to my attacks," Claus explains.

"When you're playing table hockey at the top level against the best, it rivals any game ever," Kenny says. "It has the qualities of Ping-Pong or tennis. It's a massive thing to be able to win. Once you understand it, it becomes the greatest thing in the world. I mean, if it wasn't important, I wouldn't be playing it, right?"


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