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Seven Years

By Kurt Zehnder

Published Feb-March 2023

RALEIGH, NC - I never thought that this would still be growing seven years later. Truthfully, I never thought it would be growing seven weeks later. What started primarily as a promotional event for a bar has turned into so much more.

      Most of you reading this weren’t there at the beginning, in fact I’d doubt that more than even a very few were. Most of the original group isn’t around anymore. I remember those early tournaments with sometimes six people and struggling just to figure out how to make it last more time. I remember the weeks of wondering if we would cancel it since so few showed up, but there were always a few.

      I remember learning about the competitive scene not once, but twice during the very first tournament. Once when looking up the rules and deciding for myself that nobody needed a rule book that long, we only needed three or four. And once when our very first tournament attracted the attention of someone that used to play. Somehow twice that day the competitive scene was pushed in front of me, waiting for me to notice. We noticed, but it was a slow burn. This was a tournament for fun after all, but there was something hidden in that which proved to be the most important thing for the continuation of our new project.

      We were getting better, albeit slowly. We didn’t hold the mallet right. We played with center shields. When we took them off, the center line didn’t exist. The shot clock was merely a suggestion. Topping was enforced – sometimes. And that was it. The rest of rules were out there in the ether, waiting for us to pay attention to them. Instead, we were building something else.

      After a short while, you could see the skill tiers as they started to split apart and as some people got more and more into the game. Fun turned into fierce competition and unfortunately, not everyone stuck around. We thought this was air hockey, damnit and we were gonna play! And play we did. We started attracting attention from outside of our little bubble. People came to see us, mostly with the sort of curiosity that can only make you wonder “How did this get here anyway?”

      We expanded. We grew. We reached out and sucked more people into our world. It was more, more, more. You could see the struggle. We were falling apart just trying to support to weight of our own growth. The proverbial table was expanding in all directions if only we could find the edges fast enough, to find some sort of solid ground. Air hockey was growing, so we must’ve been doing something right. But that’s not what this is.

      Air hockey isn’t the competitions. It’s not the tournaments. It’s not the pucks, or the mallets, or the low hum emanating from the table. It’s not the pinhole breeze that blows when you run your hands across the table. The table may be where you see hands flash, where you see David conquer Goliath, or it can be where you blink and you miss it, even though it’s right there in front of you. The table is right there in front of you. All of its edges, solid. The metal, the plastic, the wood and the circuitry – it’s all right there in front of you, but that’s not what air hockey is.

      Seven years doesn’t float by on plastic – pucks do. We needed the table to find each other, to build our hallowed ground. We needed the endless hours at night, the spilled beer, and the seedy spots. We needed to hear the crowd and we needed to hear the quarters drop. We needed all of it to get us into this game.

But that’s not what air hockey is.

We are.

      We needed the rest of us there and we needed all of those that came before that gave us permission to play this silly game. From the beginning, the thing that bound us all together, that secret ingredient, that magic – it was us. What we built was community, connection, and camaraderie. Through all of it the table was there, waiting for us to play. It is the through line that connects our bizarre little world of air hockey from beginning to end, but what held it together was us. Through all the trying times, through all the thick and thin. We laughed, we fought, we loved, and we cried. We bitched, and we moaned, and we tried. We tried so hard to hold onto this thing even when we weren’t really sure what it was, because the truth of the matter is that it isn’t that table that’s sitting right there in front of you; it’s everything else. It’s all of the people the pushed us along before. It’s all of the people that are here, now, leaning on each other.

      That’s why I know this thing won’t go away. For all the talk of the death of air hockey, we aren’t dead yet. Just like the players from the past who brought us here, we too will be stepping stones for those that have yet to play. Because we are what air hockey is. That family doesn’t die, no matter how hard sometimes we may try.

      Seven years on, the table brought us together. It’s together though, that we continue and grow.

One puck.

First air hockey tournament @ Boxcar Raleigh!

February 29, 2016

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