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On Second Thought

Bubbling over with hockey

In Buffalo, your table is waiting

By Kevin Paul Dupont
January 2, 2011

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BUFFALO — Mention this city’s name to anyone, at least anyone not from here, and it’s guaranteed that one of the first eight words out of their mouth will be “snow.’’ How annoyingly predictable. Not unlike telling someone that you are from Boston and then hearing them exclaim, “Beantown, baby!’’ Spare me.

Not sure how you feel about it, but as stigmas go, I’d much rather be from a snow place than a bean place. And I’d take either over Duluth, even if my short stay there a few years ago revealed a splendid redeeming value: a vending machine, just off the lobby of a downtown hotel, that included rolls of hockey tape ($3 each) tucked below the toothpaste, aspirin, deodorant, and candy bars. Now, had they included duct tape, no telling how it might have helped Duluth’s world image.

In recent days, this beaten-down industrial town at the edge of Lake Erie has been much more about ice than snow. That’s ice specific to hockey. The Bruins played the Sabres here last night. The World Junior Championships, stocked primarily by the world’s best teenage hockey players, have been going nonstop since Monday and won’t wrap up until Wednesday.

But the tournament that might have escaped even the most ardent puck fan, the World Bubble Hockey Championship, was staged here Monday (doubles) and Tuesday (singles).

Yep. Bubble Hockey.

For those who missed all those Budweiser commercials of long ago, it’s table hockey capped with a see-through plastic dome (bubble). Games begin when the puck pops out from a small slot in center ice. Note to the NHL Officials’ Association: Far better than your old-timey sleight-of-hand drops.

As world tourneys go, it’s a small world after all, because the majority of the 224 participants were from within a short driving distance of the downtown convention center. It just so happens (not really) that Innovative Concepts in Entertainment (ICE) manufactures top-of-the-line bubble hockey games in Clarence, a suburb of Buffalo, and the tournament was ICE’s way of attempting to expand its Super Chexx bubble brand.

ICE, which retails the games on line for a minimum $2,295, is looking to launch a year-round bubble hockey series in Canada and the US, with an annual championship held, where else, right here in Snowsville.

Ken Dubois and Alan Cousineau, a couple of Massachusetts guys, won the Bubble doubles and picked up a winning check of just under $225.

“I think it was actually $215,’’ noted Cousineau, a 49-year-old from Millbury who has been a letter carrier in Worcester for nearly a quarter-century. “Doesn’t matter. You don’t play this for the money. It’s about the game.

“I hadn’t played in a table hockey tournament for years, and just to be back at it, I’m telling you . . . just tremendous to be back in the limelight.’’

Dubois, a 36-year-old former swimming pool installer from Shrewsbury, also made it through to the semifinal round in singles. John Gaffney, a 43-year-old from Burlington, N.J., took the title and the check for $488.

The sure-handed Gaffney has no fewer than four Super Chexx games in the basement of his home just south of Trenton, and if he’s not playing the game after work, he’s hosting his own tournaments on weekends. Does it surprise anyone that Gaffney is single?

Both Cousineau and Dubois are more old-world table hockey guys. With a combined 70 years of playing experience between them, they know how addictive it can be to work the slots, pull and twist the rods, slide the goalie, assume a comfortable playing stance at the working end of the table.

“I’ve still got six games, six different ones, down cellar,’’ said a beaming Cousineau. “They used to be on the dining room table, but hey, you get older, and they kinda work their way down.’’ Only, of course, if you intend to eat between games.

Dubois, originally from Lowell, has traveled the world to play in table hockey tournaments, including five trips to Sweden, one to Latvia and another to Zurich. Sweden, where the popular Stiga table hockey game originated, is considered the game’s mecca.

“Very tough to win over there,’’ said the soft-spoken Dubois, who has cut back on tournament play now that he’s married with two young children. “It’s their game over in Sweden, you know? It’s like that team in Northern Ireland that played the Bruins in preseason. What chance did those guys have against an NHL team? Sure, they tried, but it took everything they had to hang with ’em.’’

Bubble Hockey, in large part because of its price, has been played mostly in bars and amusement centers since its inception in the early ’80s. To reach the consumer market, ICE has rolled the price back slightly in recent years, but as one ICE salesman said here last week, the home version is still targeted to “the rich hockey family.’’

It did not appear to be a well-heeled lot filling the work boots and sneakers and tattered, salt-stained dress shoes among the 224 players who stood their World Championship ground at the convention center. A good number of them sipped beers between games. Tattoos abounded, along with the odd body piercing. Entrants paid $10 to participate. And the crowd was 99.55 percent male, with only one woman among the entrants.

“Yeah, apparently we have to work on our marketing,’’ said tournament director Aaron Petritz, who is also ICE’s parts and service manager when he’s not managing the company’s website. “I guess it’s not really a tournament to meet a lady.’’

According to Dubois, that is not the case the world over.

“Russian women love to play it,’’ he said. “They’ve got a whole team of them over there. I’m not kidding. They’ve got a bunch of Sharapovas running around Russia playing table hockey.’’

Whoa! The things you learn here in Buffalo, the snow/ice/bubble hockey capital of the world. Siberia might object to that title, but until word reaches this desk that there is an Omsk hotel dispensing hockey tape from a lobby vending machine, US hockey towns remain Numero Oonski.

And this city is the No. 1 place to be right now. But I knew that some 30 years ago when I first checked into the Buffalo Hilton, now the Adam’s Mark, within walking distance of the old Aud, original home of the Sabres. Where else but Buffalo would the sign mounted high above the registration desk read, “No hockey sticks in the hallways, please.’’

And that, my friends, is no snow job.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.