If you were a kid playing hockey in Chicago in the 1960s, you wanted to be Bobby Hull or Stan Mikita. In the winter, there were never enough hours of daylight to pretend you were a member of the Blackhawks' front line. Gary Leverence and his friends from Saint Rita High School skated in McGuane Park or flooded backyards until the 4:30 dusk, then stomped down to his dad's basement to swat plastic pucks around a Coleco table hockey set. "We announced
the games with real players," says Leverence. "Hull to Mikita. Goal!"
Those predinner games gave birth to the Chicago Table Hockey League. Its six players, one for each team in the NHL, competed every winter for the Stanley Cup--named after Leverence's father, Stan, who never kicked them out of his basement. They kept playing even after they went to college at Circle Campus, after they got married, after they got divorced.
Leverence, a ponytailed, 52-year-old part-time blues/rock guitarist, is the last remaining member of the Original Six and, therefore, president of the oldest table-hockey league in North America. The CTHL outgrew Stan Leverence's basement sometime in the 70s. It now meets every Sunday in the cellar of Harry's Tap on Paulina near 32nd. With six tables wedged in among its pipes, low-hanging ductwork, and concrete floor, the room feels as claustrophobic as Chicago Stadium during a Norris Division final. An American flag hangs from a beam next to a much larger Canadian flag. Sunday night is supposed to be a work night, not a drinking night, but the league still draws two dozen players, guys wearing hockey jerseys and Kiss T-shirts over their growing beer bellies.
Barry Daniels joined the league this winter but is already so fanatical he posts his "Diary of a CTHL Rookie" every week on Yahoo's Table Hockey Cafe (groups.yahoo.com/group/tablehockeycafe/). "I haven't played table hockey since I was a teenager," he says. "Now I'm addicted. I go over to the other guys' houses and practice on Saturday nights. I didn't realize table hockey could be played like this. These guys are bangin' on the tables like you wouldn't believe, and they take it. It's a kid's game made for men."
The evening's first face-off is between Roger Connolly's San Jose Sharks and Ken Harris's Montreal Canadiens. Crouched at opposite ends of the table, Connolly and Harris shove and twist the horizontal rods as frantically as a pipe organist trying to play "The Flight of the Bumblebee," the board shaking and buckling as the two-dimensional centers, wingers, defensemen, and goalies slide up and back, spinning for shots. The puck clatters off the walls, skidding around a rink so tiny that the combatants have less than a second to switch from offense to defense. When it whips into the net, the scoring player barks "Goal!" and the referee throws a fresh disk onto the slab. By the end of the first five-minute half, a half dozen tiny pucks, seven-eighths of an inch in diameter, are scattered beneath the table.
Those sets you used to buy at Toys "R" Us were never built to withstand 200-pound guys full of Budweiser, but these rinks have been souped up for league play and bolted to heavy-duty work tables. The particleboard ice has been replaced with laminated Masonite, which is Zambonied every other week with car wax, and it's ringed by a five-inch Plexiglas wall. The nets are string, not that cheap plastic webbing, and the pucks are hollowed out and weighted with epoxy to make them whip across the rink.
The Canadiens beat the Sharks, 15-6. Postgame, Harris wipes his sweat-slick forehead. "It almost sounds silly to talk about the adrenaline rush of table hockey, but anything physical..." he says. "After two weeks of this you can get thumb cramps. You can also get split nails, cuts on fingers. These are metal games, and you push too hard, you can hurt yourself."
Leverence sits atop a stool, cracking open pistachio nuts as he watches the games. He retired from the league at age 36--a common sunset year for athletes. "I had played the game for 17 years, and it was harder to go to the well," he explains. "The arthritis was getting a little worse in my hands, and I was having trouble writing the next day. In that crouch stance, it wears you down. This is a very athletic game, and any kind of weight you carry, it's going to tear you down. I found myself in my 30s, jogging in the park, thinking, 'I can't believe I'm doing this for table hockey.' But if you want to win, you have to go through some pain." By the time he retired he'd won eight Stanley Cups and he had nothing left to prove. Now he's appointed himself "executive producer," which means he schedules the matches and calculates obscure statistics like "Lowest Goals Against Average (minimum of eight games played)."
This Sunday's most-hyped game is between league leaders Dennis Schaade and Mike "Big Daddy" DiGangi. Big Daddy, a Stanley Cup champion, is built like a beanbag chair but still has the nimblest hands in the league. He's 17-1-0. Slender, 24-year-old Schaade is the CTHL's youngest player, recruited from a junior league Leverence organized at Saint Barbara Grammar School.
Big Daddy crouches on bowed legs and attacks as soon as the puck drops, his hands jabbing at the rods. All five skaters seem to be spinning at once. Big Daddy knows Schaade is a fast player, so he wants a defensive game. Keep the kid from scoring any quick, cheap goals. With his gut, Big Daddy tires easily. Ten minutes can be a long haul in table hockey.
Schaade's wingers snap puck after puck at Big Daddy's goal, almost all of them deflected by the little men. The young gun, as the other players call him, wants a scoring run: momentum is critical. But with ten seconds left, the game is tied, 4-4. The last puck drops. Big Daddy flicks it past Schaade's goalie. "Big Daddy scores!" a member exults.
Hull to Mikita. Goal!
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.