Not surprisingly, the sport of Air Hockey was dreamt up by an avid fan of ice hockey. In 1972 Bob Lemieux helped design the very first air hockey table for Brunswick, a noted manufacturer of pool tables. The game’s immediate popularity led it be a staple of college game rooms and carnivals across the country.
Shortly after its introduction to the world, however, Brunswick became displeased with the game’s image as a carnival attraction. In an attempt to make air hockey more of a serious sport, it organized the very first world championship in 1974. Composed of thirty-one “regional champions” at a Holiday Inn in New York City, Brunswick promised $5000 to whoever could handle the mallet well enough to earn the title of The Best Air Hockey Player in the World. As a further effort for legitimization, they invited legendary announcer Marv Albert to do the play by play, NHL star Derek “the Turk” Sanderson as a spectator to establish a link to ice hockey, and Las Vegas bookmaker Nick the Greek.
The final match took place between a Centenary College student named Barnett, and a much feared twenty-four year old player called “The Spiderman,” who enrolled in a community college despite never taking any units just so he could play in college air hockey tournaments. In the end, The Spiderman was defeated, his game weakened by the multiple blisters he acquired during the course of the forty games he played in the championship, and was forced to settle for the thousand dollar second prize.
Air hockey continued to enjoy popularity until the early eighties, when video arcade games threatened to consume every other product in the coin-op industry. In 1983 legendary player Phil Arnold prophesized a future where no new air hockey tables are produced. He feared that the “only thing we players could do would be to buy up a dozen or so of the existing air hockey tables and go underground. We would be a dying breed isolated from the rest of mankind, growing older, wearing out both body and table in garages and houses — like some despised cult.”
Air hockey may have died in those bleak years if it wasn’t for a determined man named Mark Robbins. Robbins, an air hockey fanatic since 1973, took out and ad in a trade magazine asking for people to donate their old air hockey tables. He rented a twenty-foot moving truck and, connecting the dots of cities in the Midwest from where people responded, began a long journey to collect as many as he could. After storing and hopefully saving the tables in a barn in Minnesota, he convinced U.S. Billiards, the only remaining manufacturer of air hockey tables at the time, to make a better quality model than anything else they were producing, based upon on the old Brunswick Formica topped air hockey tables he had stored away. In 1985 he convinced Dynamo Corp., a successful manufacturer of foosball tables, to start producing tournament quality tables. The very first year only one hundred were sold, but determined Robbins poured everything he had into reviving the sport, working fifteen hour days without ever taking a vacation until he left the company in 1993. By the time he left Dynamo Corp. was selling thousands of air hockey tables a year. Air hockey, once on the verge of flatlining, breathed comfortably once more.
Jacobson, Mark. “Gone with the Wind.” Village Voice 17 November 1974
Dexheimer, Eric. “Married to the Mallet.” Denver Westwood 21 November 2002