Buffalo’s hunger for hockey was on display again Friday night.
A week after the city sold out the First Niagara Center for a Rochester Americans game in what became one of the largest crowds in American Hockey League history, hockey fans jammed the Buffalo Museum of Science for a 64-team doubles Bubble Hockey Tournament that featured some of the game’s top national players.
“We weren’t aware of the underground bubble hockey subculture,” said Amy Biber, the museum’s marketing director, who said spots in the tournament quickly filled up after it was announced early last month. “We have out-of-state players, and we actually have some of the top five players in the U.S. here tonight.”
One of them, Mark Wojtkiewicz of East Aurora, moved through the crowded first-floor concourse, where contests were under way on four bubble hockey tables, awaiting his second-round contest.
Ranked fourth nationally in an online system, Wojtkiewicz blended into the crowd with a simple dark blue Buffalo Sabres T-shirt. By outward appearance, there was no way to know he and his partner, Tony Eichhorn, both employees at Fisher-Price in East Aurora, had once shut out the real Wayne Gretzky and Barry Melrose in a 2003 bubble hockey match.
The chance to play Gretzky was among the prizes, along with tickets to the Stanley Cup Final, the two men took home for winning that year’s National Bubble Boys Hockey Tournament, sponsored by Bud Light and the National Hockey League.
“We play tournaments all over the East Coast,” Wojtkiewicz said. “We started by playing at work. We played and played and we got really good.”
Wojtkiewicz said Friday’s event might have been “the biggest doubles tournament” he’d ever seen.
“You have some top players here,” he added.
Brothers Rick and Nick Izzo of Hamburg might have been last year’s winners of the 40-and-over category Labatt Blue Pond turned Street Hockey Tournament in the parking lots at the Erie Basin Marina, but they wouldn’t be mistaken for top national bubble hockey talent.
“I played in bars for years,” said Rick Izzo, 51. “We’d play for hours at a time.”
Still in all, their personal story about the arcade game would rival any in the house Friday.
“We bought a Russia vs. U.S. table. It’s a rare table because all of them got worn out in the 1980s,” said Rick Izzo, who, with his brother, wore the royal blue Labatt Blue hockey sweaters from last year’s pond hockey event.
Although the Izzos have moved out of their father’s home, the bubble hockey table, which was manufactured by I.C.E., a firm located on Main Street in Clarence, has remained there in a massive game room that also includes a bowling machine, foosball and pool tables and a dartboard.
“Every one of our friends comes over, and we charge them a buck to play – it’s paid for itself,” he quipped.
Friday’s tournament was designed to coincide with the culmination of the museum’s overwhelmingly successful “Science of Sports” exhibit that opened in late September and officially wraps up Sunday, Biber said.
“This tournament is a celebration of the exhibit’s run,” she said.
The tournament, sponsored by New Era and Labatt, got started when officials from New Era approached the museum offering up three of its tables for use at the exhibit.
“As our brains started turning, we thought, ‘why don’t we have a Bubble Hockey Tournament?’ ” said Biber. “Once word got out, it spread quickly.”
Labatt officials tossed in another bubble hockey table and the “four-rink” tournament was a go. The tables were set up in the shadow of an oversized bulletin board containing tournament brackets and the names of the 64 competing teams.
The teams competed in a best-of-three game round. Each game consists of three 90-second periods. The winning team was to receive two tickets to a game at Yankee Stadium – travel expenses not included.
Lee Hales, formerly of Hamilton, Ont., and now of Clarence, said he was lured out for the fun and was surprised to learn there were so many skilled players who turned out Friday night.
Donning a Team Canada jersey, Hales and Steve deBoer, his hockey partner and colleague at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, had little more than their shared Canadian heritage behind them as they readied for their second-round match.
“I’m sure if you’re the top-ranked guys it’s different,” said Hales. “For us, it’s just luck.”