Table Hockey Toronto

Toronto table hockey tourney is North America's largest

Beyond the sentimental childhood memories, to me, table hockey seemed like a kid's game with a disproportionate male following. That's what was going through my head as I stood at the entrance to the 12th annual Toronto Classic Table Hockey Tournament on Saturday, watching a slew of men outfitted in hockey paraphernalia hunching over mini rinks. But as I inched closer, I discovered that there's actually a whole lot more to the game and Toronto's thriving table hockey community is re-igniting our city's passion for it.

In the 70's, 80's and 90's, table hockey was the king of all toys and a Canadian staple in every kid's toy closet. Having undergone only a few upgrades, the classic Irwin game looks virtually the same as the original. Forget NHL '11 graphics, these two-dimensional men are dressed in full jersey get-up with details down to their socks and maintain miraculous form at a 45-degree angle.

The Toronto Classic Tournament captures the attention of players of all ages, demonstrating the ultimate one-on-one competition in a battle of quick thinking and skill. But as the puck drops to the center, don't expect to see much of it. "It's like playing chess at 100 miles an hour," explains Justin Hawthorne, who travels over 500 km each year to compete for the Toronto Classic title.

The game is making a comeback because of people like Justin, and Mark Sokolski, the tournament's founder and coordinator. "It's a Canadian thing. It was invented in Canada, so we keep the tradition going, the nostalgia," says Mark. "It's a fun hobby and a great pastime, we have guys that play in leagues all over Ontario and we get to travel and compete and have fun."

Mark started the not-for-profit event 12 years ago as a student at U of T, intending to carry on a great Canadian tradition. Since then, it has taken place every third Saturday in March at St. Mike's College. The event has grown into the largest of its kind in North America, with between 60 and 100 participants each year. A host of other table hockey tournaments are scheduled throughout the year, allowing participants to be included in the Provincial Ranking System, which shows how a player stacks up against the table hockey elite in Ontario.

The tournament is divided into Division A, B and C. After the round robin, the players were divided into their respective divisions and faced-off from there. Every year, the winner of each snags a trophy, but the Division A winner is the one with the real bragging rights. This year, there were also a slew of great prizes including a year of free beer from Wellington Brewery. Does two 2-4s a month make anyone else want to take up the sport?

"You not only need to be smarter and faster than the other guy, you also need to be razor sharp in executing your plays to drop that little puck into the net!" Sokolski declared. Beating any of the top 10 ranked Ontario players is no easy feat.
The table hockey community is somewhat of a retro-culture, with many basement players who don't know tournaments of this kind exist. Tournaments like the Toronto Classic are trying to bring more attention to the game, and Sokolski cites the city as a key contributor to its success.

"We have guys who just do it once and then they get hooked on it so they just keep coming more and more 'cause they have a fun day out of it. Toronto is best for that because we're so diverse."

After competing in tournaments across the province all year long, the players have a chance to size up their competition before the Toronto Classic event. But it's really the love of the game that brings this group out each year. "It's a fun event, something to do once a year for a Saturday," said Ian Jacobson who has been participating for four years.

The 2011 winner is Dave Kraehling, taking over the #1 rank from Sokolski himself, by defeating Syd Kloosterman 4 games to 0 in the finals. Although Kraehling may have had the goals in mind, it's all really about having fun with friends.

Writing by Robyn Landau. Photo by Amy Weinstein.

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