Let’s Play (Bubble) Hockey: The iconic bar game inspired by the Miracle on Ice

A SuperChex bubble hockey game at Rival House in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota // Photo by Aaron Job

A Super Chexx bubble hockey game at Rival House in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota // Photo by Aaron Job

When your favorite Gen X relative finally shuts up about how underrated Mudhoney is, ask them about the Cold War. They’ll get a faraway stare, pop a Lipitor, and start relaying savage tales of Red Dawn, The Day After, and the constant, nagging concern that a U.S./Soviet Union showdown would burn the world to a crisp.

(Yes, there used to be ENTIRELY DIFFERENT REASONS to worry about Russia and the fate of the planet. We also pinned and rolled the cuffs of our jeans. The ’80s were wild.)

Nothing was more emblematic of the American side of the Cold War than the Miracle on Ice. Led by Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig, a raft of fresh-scrubbed Minnesotan kids, and future St. Cloud State head coach Herb Brooks, the U.S. men’s hockey team stunned the heavily-favored Soviet squad 4-3 in the semifinals of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, on their way to a gold medal.

Perhaps more importantly than providing the decisive proxy victory over the Evil Empire, it also inspired Super Chexx.

The original Super Chexx game, as pictured here, featured the U.S.A. versus the U.S.S.R. // Photo by Aaron Job

The original Super Chexx game, similar to the version pictured, featured the U.S.A. (blue) versus the U.S.S.R. (red) // Photo by Aaron Job

This game, also known as bubble hockey, is familiar to anyone who grew up among arcades or sports bars. Debuting in 1982, Super Chexx was basically a hockey-themed variation on foosball. It pitted the Americans versus the Soviets, right there by the Ms. Pac-Man machine in the Hutchinson Mall. Players controlled five players and a goalie, just like real damn hockey, and moved them about slots in the playing surface with foosball-like rods. Complete with organ music, rabid cheering, and a button to boo your opponent for [embracing a Soviet heel turn/being a corny USA! USA! dork], it was an immediate hit.

Ralph Coppola created the game in Buffalo, New York, about a six-hour drive from Lake Placid. Per Buffalo Magazine, he sold 5,000 Super Chexx games in its first year, and it’s considered “one of the Buffalo area’s most popular exports,” joining chicken wings, relentless snowfall, and an NFL tailgating scene dominated by a blinding hatred of tables.

While the arcade boom went bust and the Soviet Union crumbled, Super Chexx persevered. Coppola’s company, Innovative Concepts in Entertainment (ICE, get it?), continued cranking out bubble hockey games, along with a wealth of other coin-operated machines. If you’ve ever spent quality time in a mouse-themed pizza restaurant, redeeming armfuls of paper tickets for a novelty pencil and maybe some Airheads, ICE likely supplied the Skee-Ball and the Pop-a-Shot.

The lack of geopolitical tension didn’t prevent players from playing, creating their own leagues, and compiling surprisingly long PDFs regarding gameplay and illegal maneuvers. In a world where people watch Twitch streams of people who are not them playing video games, it should come as zero surprise, and with zero judgment, that there are Super Chexx leagues in the United States and Canada. And they have Twitch streams, too.

About those illegal moves:

  • As with foosball, real bubble hockey heads HATE spinning the players/rods. You get one second to spin, after that you’re penalized. Use your wrists. Are there YouTube tutorials on how to build a base of custom moves and set plays without cheating? Hell yeah there are.
  • You can’t score off the face-off. Pass the puck.
  • No stalling! Take that neutral zone trap BS back to New Jersey with you, Lemaire.
  • No “popcorning.” A real thing listed in their rules, it’s when a player uses their goaltender to shake the puck along the fake ice, like popcorn popping. It would be more fun if it was a rule specifically meant to ban a guy named Todd Popcorning from playing in a Super Chexx tournament, but alas.

ICE now offers a wide variety of bubble hockey options. A licensing agreement with the NHL allows consumers and/or Dave & Buster’s to get a custom Wild vs. Blackhawks game. While they offer current NHL franchises, they do offer a North Stars game.

Despite the baffling absence of a Dino Ciccarelli/Al Secord throwdown at bubble hockey Met Center, there are several enticing bells and whistles now available. Canadian and American national anthems? Check. Jumbotron with LCD scoreboard? Check. A Molson-branded version that pours a beer for the game’s winner? Check. Commentary by longtime Sabres play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret? Damn right.

In 2015 the company released a Molson Canadian Beer dispensing version. The game winner gets a cold beer // Photo via Super Chexx website

In 2015 the company released a Molson Canadian Beer dispensing version. The game winner gets a cold beer // Photo via Super Chexx website

There’s also a Phoenix Coyotes Justin Bieber edition, which, regardless of how you feel about the oddly mustachioed crooner in 2018, seems like a case where ICE ignored the “should we” at the expense of the “could we.”

The classic game still exists for enthusiasts and Reagan-Gorbachev nostalgists. One can even track down a Miracle on ICE (clever) edition to wake up the echoes of a time when “making America great” meant a handful of quarters, a place at the mall that’s likely been replaced by Yankee Candle or Apricot Lane today, and a friend willing to be the fearsome Russians.

The looming threat of thermonuclear war notwithstanding, I kind of miss it.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that ICE did not offer a North Stars version of Super Chexx.