Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Video games come and go, but table hockey fans keep putting the puck in the net

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HE SHOOTS, HE SCORES.

Chad Brown was watching videos on YouTube a few months ago when he caught highlights of the International Table Hockey Championships, a highly contested affair staged in Las Vegas every two years. Like most Canadians his age, Brown grew up playing table hockey or, as he refers to it, "the greatest game in the history of games."

"Except when we were kids we didn't call it table hockey," Brown points out. "To us it was carpet hockey, because that's how we played: on our knees, table on the floor, getting rug-burns on our knuckles."

Brown hadn't been near a table hockey game since moving to Winnipeg from Goose Bay, N.L. 15 years ago. Heck, he didn't even know new models were still being manufactured.

But suddenly, the 35-year-old had a goal: to get back into the game of his youth "in a big way" and maybe, one day, become adept enough to take on all comers at an international get-together like the Stiga Canada Cup, which takes place in Toronto on Nov. 2.

Brown did some research and found out about the Winnipeg Table Hockey League -- a 17-team circuit that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Brown contacted the WTHL's executive to ask if they played on Stiga tables -- the sort sanctioned by the International Table Hockey Federation and the only type allowed in major competitions.

"They told me they played on a bunch of different tables, but not Stiga," Brown says.

Undaunted, Brown got out his credit card and bought seven, spanking new Stiga table hockey games from an online distributor. Then he called a bunch of his buddies and told them it was game on.

In mid-September, the We're Better than the Other Winnipeg Table Hockey League League -- they're going to have to work on their acronym, Brown admits -- launched its first full season. The weekly get-togethers are held at Brown's Sargent Avenue business, Universal Media Solutions.

"Most of the people who show up are in bands, so it's not uncommon for a jam to break out at some point in the evening," Brown says, mentioning the room that hosts league play is, by day, a fully-equipped recording studio.

Rules are fairly straightforward: matches are played to nine and if you need a time out to reply to a text, so be it. There is no set schedule. Instead, participants -- male and female -- circulate among the tables in search of their next adversary.

Final scores aren't recorded. There are no official standings. But don't think the action doesn't get fiery at times, Brown says.

"For me, if you're a new player I'm going to kick your (butt) as best I can. But at the same time, I'll try to teach you what you're doing wrong."

For now, there are no costs associated with joining the league, which usually runs Thursday nights from 6 p.m. until "whatever time the beer runs out."

"So far I've blown about $1,000 out of my own pocket just to have fun with my crazy friends," Brown says. "But if you ask me, it's money well spent."

Table hockey has been around in one form or another for more than eight decades. Donald Munro is credited with building the first game in a workshop in his Toronto home in 1932. Back then, the "skaters" looked more like pinball flippers and the playing surface had a ridge in the centre that caused the ball -- no pucks, just yet -- to roll towards the opposition's net fairly easily.

Jeff Krieg is a Winnipeg antique dealer who collects vintage table hockey games. He owns close to 20 different types, including a Munro game he bought at an auction a few years ago.

"I don't know if anybody there even knew what it was, exactly; I thought it was going to go high (in price) but other stuff kept selling before it, people were leaving and I ended up getting it for not too much," Krieg says, noting it's not unheard of for Munro games, which were sold in Canadian department stores until 1955, to fetch in the neighbourhood of $300 when they are up for grabs on eBay.

Krieg says the main problem associated with collecting old games is finding them intact, with goal lights, score clocks, etc. You've really scored a winner, he says, if you net one with the box it originally came in.

"These things were meant to be played, and most of us played them hard," says Krieg, 52, who grew up a few kilometres east of Winnipeg and remembers going up against an older cousin on a game endorsed by "Number Four" Bobby Orr.

"I have a pile of extra players in a box and sometimes I have to mix and match if my kids want to take one out and give it a try," he says, showing off another of his finds -- a Foster Hewitt Hockey Game that was produced by the Reliable Toy Company in 1953 -- arguably the first game to feature die-cast, miniature players. (Until the Montreal Canadiens endorsed a game built by the Eagle Toy Company, the toy games couldn't use crests of NHL teams; instead, games almost always came with figures painted blue for the Toronto Maple Leafs and red for the Habs.)

Carlo Bossio is the president of Hockey sur Table Quebec. He is also a six-time table hockey world champion.

Since 2007, Bossio has been producing what purists of the sport consider the finest table hockey game on the market. Called Carleco, the games are individually assembled, piece-by-piece, and are built out of medium-density fibreboard, with a vinyl "ice" surface. Some of Bossio's clients include New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur and perennial all-star Alexei Kovalev.

Bossio has the technology to custom-create a game using any centre-ice design a customer requests -- be it company logo or beer league squad insignia.

"I do not have NHL rights (but) my dream would be to have my games sold in the arena stores of all 30 NHL clubs," Bossio says, noting his games start at $360 and are built to last 25 years or so. "I mean, who wouldn't want to bring home the mini-rink of their favourite team with logos, sponsors on the ice -- the whole works?"

Bossio, or King Carlo as he's known in international circles, has a ready response when asked how table hockey retains its allure in a video game age.

"In this day of electronics everywhere we need a balance," he says, when reached at home in Montreal. "What's great is that these games are to kids today what video games were to us when they came out: new, cool and different. What's also great is the fact you control everything: you are the coach, you make your own game plans, etc. etc.

"Not to mention that you actually interact with others face-to-face while you are playing. It's a real game versus a virtual one."

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2013 D11

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