NORTH LIBERTY — A countdown on the stereo abruptly interrupts the chatter in Steve Junge's suburban basement. Beer bottles are hurriedly put down as players rush to take up positions along a row of tables, bump fists and drop pucks to begin a night of action in the third season of the Eastern Iowa Table Hockey League.
The league features a mix of first-timers and skilled players, and its competition is fierce but friendly.
“It's pretty intense,” Junge says. “But not in a way that is intimidating. It's very competitive and a lot of fun. I think your wins and losses don't matter for the fun you have.”
Junge was ranked 23 in the United States by the U.S. Table Hockey Association in April, and learns new moves from watching YouTube videos. He practices these moves and helps out newer players with tips and tricks each week while warming up for league games.
“Some guys just like to come and kick it around, drink some beers and have some fun with the guys. But you can get good quickly if you decide you want to,” Junge says.
Table hockey is more complicated than many table games. Passing, shooting, and defensive skills as well as strategy all go into being successful. And despite the plastic men with their sticks on the “ice,” players don't necessarily have an interest in the NHL.
“Once you start playing table hockey you sometimes forget that it's hockey,” Junge says. “It's chess at 100 mph.”
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After being introduced to the game as a child and playing in a work breakroom in the '90s, Junge decided to get back into table hockey. He bought one of the games and formed the league in 2013 with six participants. The league runs for six weeks starting after the Super Bowl.
“In the beginning it was just because it was something different. Football is done and it's still winter,” says league member Kevin Bullard of North Liberty, who played with Junge in the '90s. “When you're getting cabin fever it's a great place to just go and vent ... get the blood boiling.”
The league quickly spawned into something more than just a few guys blowing off steam in a basement. Junge has seen upward of 30 people in the area try out table hockey, and the interest inspired him to expand the game's reach further.
In October, after only two seasons of his six-week league, Junge organized and hosted the inaugural Mississippi Valley Open in Coralville. The tournament was sanctioned by U.S. Table Hockey Association, meaning participation counts for certain player rankings. Coralville is on a list with Las Vegas, Chicago, Montreal and Toronto, and other major cities as one of 10 currently sanctioned tournaments in North America. This apparent anomaly is not lost on Junge.
“We went from having three tables to 18, and having a sanctioned tournament,” he says. “It was an honor to have that kind of caliber of player come and play.”
The final match of Iowa's first sanctioned tournament was a faceoff between the No. 1-ranked United States and Canadian players, a rematch of the 2014 U.S. Open final.
Despite the international talent and competitive nature of table hockey tournaments, Junge is a huge fan of watching the evenly-matched newcomers compete at tournaments. These games embody how easily accessible he believes table hockey is and its low threshold to having fun as a rookie.
“One goal changes everything and when you score it, people are jumping around and it's a blast,” he says.
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Unlike other tabletop games such as pool, foosball, or air hockey, table hockey is uncommon in arcades or bars. This means most people don't typically have a chance to see or play the game. Junge's laid-back league and creation of tournaments have created a local access point to try out the game without purchasing a table.
League newcomer Travis Hauser of North Liberty heard about the league from a friend, and had only ever seen pictures of the game before playing. But he wasn't daunted by the learning curve and found it easy to get started.
“You start out and you're very much a novice,” Hauser says. “But you go from a novice to semi-skilled very quickly.”
Many table hockey novices exist in Iowa, with the game far from a mainstream activity. But a common theme Junge credits with those who have joined his league and played his tournaments is a desire to do something a little bit outside of the box and try something new.
“I think what restricts people from coming out and trying it sometimes is just the matter of learning that you will fail until you succeed. We live in a society where we kind of want to be good at something right away or we just do something else,” Junge says. “But a minimal amount of work can, hopefully, lead to a lifetime of fun playing.”
Learn more about table hockey at the following events:
— Eastern Iowa Table Hockey League's STIGA Summer Challenge, June 27 in North Liberty
— STIGA Mississippi Valley Open, Oct. 3 in Coralville
— For more information: Contact Steve Junge at (319) 331-4237 or visit the Eastern Iowa Table Hockey League's Facebook page