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Table Hockey

The Complete History of the Most Realistic
Mechanical Sports Game ever Devised

Toy hockey games have been part of the Canadian scene since the days of the Great Depression. While these games can be divided into several categories (including board games, magnetic hockey, air hockey, bumper hockey and knock hockey), the image that usually comes to mind when one thinks of table top hockey is that of a miniature ice rink with players mounted on small spikes spinning and moving with the twist of their steel rods.

The earliest type of these mechanical hockey games was built by Donald H. Munro, Sr. in his Toronto home in 1932-33. Made of wood and scrap metal found in his neighborhood, Munro built his first game as a Christmas present for his children at a time when he could not afford to buy gifts. Soon after, Munro built a handful of these games on consignment for the Eaton's department store in Toronto. They turned out to be an instant success. These early games, referred to as "the wooden game" by collectors, were produced every year until 1955. During this period of 22 years, many improvements were made in the playing quality and appearance.

Despite these many improvements, the early wooden hockey games bore only a passing resemblance to the on-ice game. Players, for example, were simply wooden pegs with wire loops that moved back and forth likepinball flippers. Still, these games were exceedingly popular. One of the main reasons for this popularity was the design of the hump or high area in the center of the playing surface. This innovation allowed the puck (actually a metal ball) to roll to either end of the game and made it possible for both players to be actively involved at the same time (one on offense and one on defense). Until this time, bagatelle games (and even modern day pinball games) all were played on a single slope enabling only one player at a time to participate.

Due to their size (about 14 by 36 inches), the early Munro wooden game were sold mainly in department stores and through mail order catalogs, though occasionally they would be carried in sporting goods and hardware stores. The games sold for between four and five dollars during the 1930s. The first recorded price was listed in the 1939-40 Eaton's Fall & Winter Catalogue where the Munro Standard Model was advertised for $4.95. The number of games produced in these early days would range from a few hundred to a few thousand.

In the 1940s, the Munro Standard Model was expanded to include a DeLuxe version where the ball would roll out of the net after a goal and into a small cup mounted at each end of the game. A Club Model, with a heavier wooden frame and stronger wire parts, was introduced for the many Boys Clubs that existed in Canada at this time. In 1945-46, Munro's partner, Stewart Molson Robertson, manufactured games in Rochester, New York under Munro's American patent, but despite the popularity of the games in Canada, the venture proved unsuccessful in the United States. Sales in Canada were increasing to several thousand games per year, and by 1954, the last full year in which these wooden games were made, prices were $8.95 for the Standard Game, $10.95 for the DeLuxe and $14.95 for the Club. The DeLuxe was by far the most popular model.

During the era of the wooden game, three different mechanical hockey games surfaced. The first was built by Gotham Pressed Metal Products of The Bronx, NEw York, who displayed their version of "Ice Hockey" in their 1937 catalog. Like the Munro game, Gotham's playing surface featured a hump in the center to keep the puck (again a metal ball) moving from side to side. However, the Gotham game featured only one player at either end who both guarded the goal and pivoted in a complete circle to shoot the puck into the other end.

A second competitor to Munro was introduced by the Reliable Toy Company of Toronto in 1953. Patterned after the Munro Game, the "Foster Hewitt Hockey Game" was made of plastic and came equipped with figures shaped like miniature hockey players molded out of die-cast metal. The game was comparatively small (approximately) 12" x 24") and was sold for only a few years before being replaced by the more modern-style games.

The first of these modern-style games (and the challenger that finally ended Munro's wooden era) was introduced by the Eagle Toy Company of Montreal in 1954. Eagle's National Hockey Game was endorsed by the Montreal Canadiens and was an immediate success for several reasons. It was the first Canadian game to feature players printed in color on flat tin cutouts shaped like real hockey players who stood on a surface that resembled ice. Eagle's game was decorated with team pennants from the NHL and was the first Canadian game to feature metal rods that allowed its players to pivot a complete 360 degrees. The Eagle game measured 16" x 36" and sold for $10.95. Soon, both Munro and Eagle were issuing similar games that not only had rods to allow the players to spin but also had slots that let them slide up and down the ice surface.

The innovation that led to metal rods and slots had actually been introduced in Sweden during the 1930s. Aristospel A.B. of Stockholm manufactured the game, which was sold to several European countries. A Canadian patent was issued in 1941, but although the design of the Swedish game was unique at the time, it was a difficult and costly game to manufacture. Not until 1954 would a Canadian company (Cresta Limited of Toronto) introduce and manufacture the Swedish-style game. Also in 1954, K & B Toys of Burlington, Ontario copied the Cresta game and issued their own version under the name "3 Star Hockey." K & B was only in business until 1957, while Cresta lasted until 1958. Neither proved able to compete with Eagle and Munro, who had both unveiled their own rod-and-slot hockey games at the Montreal Toy Show in January of 1956. From that point on, Munro and Eagle produced nearly all of the hockey games sold in Canada and the United States.

Over the years, Munro and Eagle were the undisputed leaders in designing and creating models that year after year became more realistic in their appearance. The games also played better through such innovations as goal lights, period timers, puck droppers, and "glass" above the boards. Three-dimensional players were first introduced by Munro back in 964, and while both Munro and Eagle experiment with the design of their players, the flat tin men remained the most popular. In 1971, safety concerns forced a switch to plastic men with self-adhesive team labels that customers applied themselves. Eagle's games had the official endorsement of the NHL and could replicate exactly the uniforms of its teams. Munro relied on the endorsement of top stars like Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull for their games and could only approximate the NHL uniforms.

The televising of NHL games during the 1950s and the league's expansion in 1967 greatly enlarged the North American market for table top hockey games. Whereas thousands of games had been sold previously, the numbers were now beginning to reach the hundreds of thousands and were climbing every year. To meet the rising demand, both Munro Games and Eagle Toys were sold to U.S. companies in September of 1968—Munro to Servotronics and Eagle to Coleco. Their dominance of the Canadian and American markets would continue—with games growing larger (24" x 34") and prices ranging up to 30 and 40 dollars during the 1970s—until the advent of video games relegated table hockey to a "second choice" toy item.

By the late 1980s, a resurgence of table hockey occurred with Irwin Toys acquiring Coleco's tooling and companies like Stiga (a Swedish firm tat had long been selling their games in Europe), Playtoy/Remco, Radio Shack, and Kevin Sports developing new games in North America. A Wayne Gretzky-endorsed game was introduced by Kevin Sports in 1990, selling for $120. Bubble top hockey games of the type found in bars, arenas, and other venues have also become very popular. In recent years, a deluxe table hockey game in Greenwich, New York ("TableHockey" by Rick Benej) retail for about $700 U.S.

The rebirth of table top hockey games has made the collecting of these games (both old and new) a popular hobby. For both the serious and casual collector, these games often bring back many vivid childhood memories from finding a hockey game under the tree at Christmas to picking out favorite teams, playing "seasons" or tournaments for the miniature replica Stanley Cup, or simply arguing about whether or not the puck went in. Many parents today watch their sons and daughters glued to a monitor while they play video or computer games and feel sad to see their children miss out of the marvelous and dynamic interaction of the old mechanical hockey games.

Table hockey collectors often search for a specific childhood game or games which did not survive their growth into adulthood. "My mother threw it out," is the popular refrain. Many serious collectors strive to obtain all the significant landmark games from years gone by. Collecting can also include trying to find lost pieces from old games, such as players or entire teams, missing nets, trophies, pucks, rods, springs, overhead gondolas, or original boxes. Often, these game pieces are very specific to the manufacturer. For example, the original Eagle nets in 1954 were made of green mesh, but by 1957 they were all tin to be followed by white plastic nets in 1959. Munro games at one point featured three different pucks: a standard wooden puck, a magnetic puck (for better control with tin players) and a puck with a steel ball bearing in the middle.

The range of players from these old games can be mind-boggling, with flat tin players, tin players with separate plastic and/or metal sticks, 3-D tin players, 3-D plastic players , flat plastic players, and more. Players in specific uniforms have also become highly collectible, with the 1967 Oakland Seals and the purple-clad Los Angeles Kings becoming much sought-after. With Eagle Toys having held exclusive rights to produce NHL uniforms, players from their games have been most in demand. Because it was the last game to carry the NHL's endorsement, team sets from the Wyane Gretzky game have also become highly collectible (particularly for relocated teams such as Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques, Minnesota North Stars and Hartford Whalers).

The value of an old hockey game is directly influenced by four key factors: initial popularity of the game, rarity, condition/completeness, and the importance of the game in the evolution of table top hockey. Games in their original box with all their original parts can sell forupwards of $100. Many collectors with only purchase games in the best condition because they feel that repairs compromise authenticity. Others value the rarity of the game or its historical significance more so than the shape they find it in. However, to any collector who is also a player, the real thrill is to play the game again and recapture the past pleasures and glories of youth.

For these "grown up kids," there are a number of tournaments available every year, including the Johnny GoodGuy Tournament in Brampton, Ontario, the Ontario Table Hockey Championships in Hamilton, and the Upper Canada Cup in Toronto. The Toronto-area also features at least two leagues: the Metro Toronto Table Hockey League in Thornhill and the National Tabletop Association in Brampton. Other Canadian tournaments include the Windsor Cup Classic in Windsor, Ontario and the Canadian Open Championship in Hull, Quebec. There is also the U.S. Nationals in Warwick, Illinois and the Hubbard Hall Face Off Tournament in Greenwich, New York. In Sweden, an annual tournament is played on the Stiga game and a World Championship is played every second year with players from as many as 20 different countries (including Canada and the United States) competing for world supremacy.

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