Action at the first Professional Table Hockey Tournament in 1971 (Courtesy of Stan Fischler)
Historians have argued for decades over the precise birth of hockey in Canada. But when it comes to when and where professional table hockey was born in Manhattan, Stan Fischler has no problem citing the site, players and purse. After all, he and his wife, Shirley, were behind the whole thing.
Table hockey has had its exciting moments, but nothing like the first New York Professional Tournament played at the George Washington Hotel in March 1971. Historians have argued for decades over the precise birth of hockey in Canada. But when it comes to when and where professional table hockey was born in Manhattan, I have no problem citing the site, players and purse. I even remember the championship silverware – known as the T.J. Rugg Trophy, because it originally was my wife, Shirley’s, antique samovar (a metal container used to boil water). The first tiny puck was dropped in our living room. This premiere table hockey event happened by accident. Actually, it came about because of pure snobbery. To celebrate moving into our new Upper West Side apartment, my wife and I decided to throw a party, inviting two sets of friends. On one hand, there were the hockey nuts like us. On the other were pseudo-intellectuals who neither knew nor cared about our beloved ice game. With that in mind, we segregated the groups; heavy-thinkers in the dining room while puck-followers were around the corner where Shirley set up our brand-new table hockey set.
“Let’s have a tournament to make it interesting,” urged jazz guru Ira Gitler. And so we did with such notables as sportscaster Marv Albert, Michael Hopp, a young plastics industrialist reporter, Joe Breu of UPI and Bob Blume, who worked for NBC. “Are Canadians allowed to play?” wondered publisher Bob Stampleman. The games began and within minutes a strange development took place. A couple of curious intellectuals drifted into the hitherto off-limits hockey area. Soon, the trickle became a flood and members of the brainy-bloc got hooked on the stickhandlers. “This ‘Original Six’ you got here should expand,” demanded Christopher Cerf who, along with his brother, Jonathan, were sons of famed publisher-author Bennett Cerf. “Make room for more teams – give us a chance to play.” Shirley produced a better idea. “Since we don’t have enough space in my living room for all you nutcases, we’ll have a real tournament at a hotel next year.” No sooner had NHL training camps opened in 1970, our phone rang off the hook with choruses of “When’s the big tournament? We want in.” My wife and I decided to turn table hockey pro. But it wasn’t about the money. We set a $50 expansion fee for each team with a grand prize of $40 going to the winners. We booked the George Washington Hotel ballroom and ordered a dozen standard table hockey games. The next challenge was finding a suitable answer to the Stanley Cup. “Why not this?” brainstormed Shirley, pointing to her beat-up silver samovar, virtually hidden on a kitchen shelf. “Fine,” I shot back, “but we have to give it a name; like Stanley.” Shirley remembered a Detroit friend who ran a Monopoly tourney and so her tarnished silver hunk became the T.J. Rugg Trophy. Ugly as it was, the Rugg soon would become eagerly pursued by a cast of dozens in assorted regalia and temperament. For example, the Cerf Brothers showed up in Pittsburgh Penguins jerseys, angry that they were seeded seventh at 9-1 odds, well behind the Hopp-Breu and Gitler-Blume favorites. “Tenacity and utter concentration are the keys to the championship,” Gitler explained in an interview. “Tilting the board doesn’t hurt either.” As it happened, the Hopp-Breu team reached the final, facing the Cerfs who later revealed they had revolutionized table hockey with a new technique. “I handle four rods, leaving Chris with only two,” said Jonathan. “I operate the goalie with my left hand and the other three with my right.” The Cerfs opened the best-of-three final with a 3-0 win after which Breu claimed the brothers secretly had snapped the springs on his forwards. Referee Rich Friedman checked the underside of the game and ruled that there had been no tampering. Then, as the Cerfs and Hopp prepared for the second game, came the Manhattan melodrama. Breu had disappeared, but where? Suddenly, out of the crowd a messenger arrived with a Western Union telegram: “Had to leave – our babysitter threatened to quit if I didn’t get home – see you next year. Breu!”
Ah, but there would be no table hockey next year. In March, 1972, Shirley and I were back in our living room, doing our ice game the right way: watching the Rangers on television while the T.J. Rugg Trophy sat forlorn and forgotten on its kitchen shelf. C’est la hockey.
This is feature appears in the Feb. 16 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.