By Peter Schwartz
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Back in the day, I was unstoppable.
Whether it was a wrist shot from just in front of the goal, a blistering slap shot from my own blue line, or a perfect pass off the boards, I could do it all.
And I wasn’t too shabby in the goaltending department, either!
The reality is that I’ve never put a pair of ice skates on in my life. Yes, I’m talking about hockey, but not ice hockey. There was a time in my life that I dominated game rooms from Long Island to Buffalo in “Chexx,” or “bubble hockey” as it is commonly known.
As a kid growing up, I had the popular “Bobby Hull” table top hockey game where the players were controlled by rods and the puck was sent to the ice for the faceoff from the overhead scoreboard. But in 1982, a company called “ICE” in suburban Buffalo brought the game to a whole new level.
They brought “rod hockey” to arcades, bars, and restaurants with the introduction of “Chexx,” a coin-operated version of the old table-top hockey game that would eventually be referred to as “dome hockey” or “bubble hockey.” In 1991, ICE rolled out “Super Chexx,” a newer version with improved features including the voice of Buffalo Sabres play-by-play announcer Rick Jeanneret.
Thirty-four years after it was introduced, the bubble dome game is as popular as ever.
“It’s a great story,” said Joe Coppola, VP of sales for ICE and one of the company’s co-owners. “It’s probably one of the only titles out there today that’s still being manufactured in the same form that it was back in 1982.”
In addition to bubble hockey, ICE produces a number of other arcade games, including “Air FX,” which is an air hockey game, “NBA Hoops,” crane games, and skee-ball games.
Just two years after the United States hockey team pulled off the “Miracle on Ice” against the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, Coppola’s father, Ralph, and former partner, Jack Willert, founded ICE and initially ran the company out of a garage.
The original “Chexx” game was primarily produced as “USA vs. Soviet Union” and the company sold 5,000 games in the first year of operation. After that, sales slowed down to the point where the company almost went out of business in the mid 1980s. They would attend trade shows to demonstrate the game, but there were skeptics that felt that the game, particularly the bubble dome, would not hold up in a bar.
“They used to bring a sledgehammer with them and slam it on the dome just to prove how indestructible the game was,” said Coppola, who started working for ICE in the late ’80s.
The company stayed afloat and I’m thankful that it did because I fell in love with it in 1985 when I enrolled at Buffalo State College. We had a game room on campus and sure enough it had a “Chexx” game. It was one of the most popular games in the room and there always seemed to be a wait to play.
I can’t tell you how many hours I played that game. In fact, I think bubble hockey may have cost me a little on my final grade-point average.
More than three decades after “Chexx” was created, the game has evolved in a different marketplace. Back in the 1980s, ICE sold the games predominantly to bars and game rooms. Today, the company sells close to 2,000 games annually with 90 percent of them now going into the home market for people’s game rooms and basements.
The company’s acquisition of an NHL license has helped breathe new life into the game over the last seven or eight years.
“It’s incredible to us,” Coppola said. “It’s great because you see that whole phenomenon today of dads who grew up playing the game, whether it was in college or at bars, and now they’re playing with their kids.”
That’s so true in the Schwartz family.
I got my son, Bradley, started at a young age as there was a “Super Chexx” at Nassau Coliseum during Islanders games. He now utilizes some of my techniques, including “shaking” the goalie to knock the puck away from the opposing center. But I’ve come to learn that, after all these years, I’ve been breaking the rules because that’s not acceptable in organized play.
“No, not at all,” said Coppola with a laugh. “When they have these so-called official tournaments, you’re disqualified if you shake the goalie.”
I’m not one to brag, but I think Bradley is a chip off the old block when it comes to bubble hockey skills, and I think my younger son, Jared, is going to be right there as well in the coming years.
There’s no question that bubble hockey is now a family tradition.
“I guess that’s the thing that makes Super Chexx what it is,” Coppola said. “It’s really a timeless game and a great head-to-head competitive game.”
I grew up playing a whole bunch of arcade games, but there’s no question that the game that I most hold near and dear to my heart is bubble hockey, whether it was “Chexx” or “Super Chexx.”
Given all of the technology that you see with arcade games and home video games these days, it says a lot that bubble hockey is still around and going strong.
Sure, there are hockey video games with realistic graphics, but give me my six plastic guys on rods under the bubble dome any day of the week.
For more information on ICE and “Super Chexx,” go to http://www.icechexx.com/.
You can follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan and ICE @ICEcoinop