As much as I love writing about backyard rinks and outdoor hockey, the season is excruciatingly short. So in an effort to bridge the ultralong gap between fill day and last skate, I’m going to dive into a series of hockey-related topics that don’t necessarily pertain to the arts of building or skating or shooting. This is one of those topics.
For the second time in as many years, New Hampshire was hit with a major weather event that toppled trees, ripped down power lines, and generally made life miserable for a large portion of the state. This year was a massive rain and wind storm (unlike 2008′s ice), and it knocked out power to over 300,000 NH residents at its peak. Yours truly bunked it with the in-laws for five days before I was able to return home. We were lucky to sustain very little property damage, though I did capitalize on the opportunity to take a crash course in shingle replacement. And where the rink was already done for the season, the litany of pine cones, tree branches, and general yard garbage that littered the surface were of little consequence.
But the storm, with recorded winds over 90mph out on the seacoast, was also a catalyst for a major fire on the boardwalk of Hampton Beach. Hampton Beach is somewhat of a local landmark, and a summer destination for millions of New Englanders and Canadians alike. Oozing Americana, Hampton Beach is full of your typical boardwalk fare, the smells of funnel cakes and pizza fusing with the sounds of local bands, rumbling Harleys, and screaming teenagers. I spent quite a few summer nights in Hampton, watching the weeknight fireworks with my parents as a child, strolling the boulevard with my friends and cousins as a teen. And while I wasn’t much of an arcade brat, there was one particular game that always drew me in: Super Chexx bubble hockey. I bet you can instantly picture the table in your head, with its round plexiglass dome shielding the intense rod hockey action, the giant sticks and behind-the-net ramps directing rapid-fire goals that were tallied by the miniature jumbotron that hung down from the center of the bubble. The puck striking the boards or plexiglass dome had a particular ‘plink’ to it, as did the chorus of boos that rained down whenever a player (or more commonly, a bystander) pressed the boo button. If there was one game that defined my arcade experiences as a youth, it would be Super Chexx.
That is why it saddened me to learn that the Happy Hampton Arcade was a casualty of the fire that engulfed an entire block of Hampton Beach on the night of February 25th. I have yet to drive out to Hampton to see what’s left, but even if the fire didn’t engulf the arcade, I imagine the heat destroyed the game I once played. The players likely melted, the inner electronics sitting in the same piles of charred rubble as the circuit boards of Daytona USA, Skee-Ball, and Deer Hunter. But it got me thinking about Super Chexx, and how 20+ years after I buried my first wing-to-center one-timer into the plastic net, I still see them here and there, most notably at the aforementioned arcade, but also at local pizza joints, ice rinks, and bowling alleys. Figuring that they were only made years ago, and curious as to how many were still in existence, I started doing some digging.
According to Wikipedia, the first Super Chexx game was made in 1982 by a company called Innovative Concepts in Entertainment (ICE). Much to my surprise, ICE continues to manufacture the units just outside Buffalo, New York. The early units, the ones I remember most, simulated the Lake Placid matchup of USA vs USSR, though other early opponents included Canada vs USSR and USA vs Canada. The latest iterations, according to ICE’s website, feature more generic red vs blue.
In my quest to uncover the current happenings in the world of bubble hockey, I stumbled onto a fan site called chexxfan.com, where Chexx enthusiasts share strategies and stories, and often meet for organized games. “I was a teenager when I first encountered bubble hockey,” says forum user “JG”, now 42 and living in New Jersey. “It was a great way to spend a day at the arcades, pumping quarters into the machine and playing all day. Later, as I got older and the game was featured in local bars, several of us would play once a week for beer money and bragging rights. That was in the late 1980′s.”
Then, as tends to happen to all of us, JG grew apart from the game, likely inundated with that pesky hindrance called ‘real life’. But he returned to the game in 2003, entering into a Bud Light-sponsored Bubble Boys tournament with a friend. They surprised themselves by winning. “We then won a sectional event, then a regional event, and finally we shocked ourselves and won the NJ state championship and an all expenses paid trip to the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals in Anaheim, CA. All sponsored and paid for by Bud Light. I was hooked after that and have been playing steadily ever since.”
Another forum regular named “Woj” shares a similar story. Growing up with a Coleco rod hockey table served as a precursor for his introduction to the Super Chexx in the early 1980′s. Fast forward 25 years and Woj, now a 47 year old toy designer and father of three, is one of the most recognizable names in the sport. He took part in the first Bud Light/NHL tournament, finishing second in 1999, and went on to win the tournament in 2003. His prizes for that 2003 title? Aside from Cup Final tickets, a jersey, and a new Super Chexx table, Woj and his tournament partner got a chance to play against hockey legends Wayne Gretzky and Barry Melrose.
But wait a minute. Sectionals? Regionals? Stanley Cup? Bud Light? Barry Melrose’s hockey mullet? I was astonished at the high level of bubble hockey competition that was taking place seemingly underfoot, all without me even realizing that it existed. Only…it doesn’t. At least not anymore. Despite a highly publicized ad campaign by Anheiser-Busch’s flagship light beer, bubble hockey competition at the mainstream national level essentially does not exist. Bud Light discontinued their tournament after the 2003 edition, and despite the efforts of enthusiasts like JG and Woj, a national sponsor has yet to come along to build upon the momentum that the NHL-endorsed Bubble Boys created. But that doesn’t stop guys like Woj and JG from trying.
Just two weeks ago, Woj teamed up with New Era to put on a bubble hockey tournament as part of Buffalo’s Powder Keg Festival (an event that takes place the same weekend as the Labatt’s Buffalo Pond Hockey Tournament). And down in Jersey, JG does what he can to bring fans of the game together. “I run a league twice a year called the South Jersey Bubble Hockey League (SJBHL), and I use my own 4 tables for the league games. In addition to the 8 to 10 tournaments I have run in the last 5 years, I have traveled to Anaheim, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Boston to play in tournaments over the last 6 years.” Proof that even without corporate sponsorship and posh trips, those who bite the bubble bug will travel when the promise of domed competition beckons. I ask both JG and Woj if they have met other players in their travels. “Yes,” says Woj, “lots of great friends from Boston, Philly, Jersey, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and beyond.” JG concurs: “Many, from several USA states and from Canada, from all walks of life. There is a small legion of diehards.” Indeed there are. Diehards who are trying their hardest to make sure that the legacy of Super Chexx lives on.
This voyage into the underbelly of the Super Chexx world has ignited a fire in me, one that will someday see to it that there is a Super Chexx table in my own house. I’ve decided it will happen. It must happen. About halfway through writing this post, inspired by the passion of the players I was reading about, I pulled my three-year-old son onto my lap and proceeded to watch YouTube clips of furious bubble hockey action. He was captivated. The second I let him back down to the floor, he marched towards the door, yelling at me to put on my jacket so that we could go buy one. Alas, it’s not that easy, and a new table is still a bit out of reach, particularly with our home on the market. But to harken back to simpler days of quarters and flashing lights and the boo button, and then to see that same love in the eyes of a toddler who lives, breathes, and dreams hockey is to resign yourself to becoming part of it again; hopefully soon. And when it does happen, you’ll be the first to know.
So what about you? Do you have any memories of bubble hockey from when you were a kid? Or do you own a half dozen tables and put on your own tournaments? Will Bubble Hockey be the next poker? Post your thoughts using the comment fields below.