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The cult appeal of Bubble Hockey

The “Miracle on Ice” — Team USA’s legendary upset of the Soviet Union hockey team at the 1980 Olympics — is one of sports’ most indelible moments. The victory gave the country an emotional lift at a trying time and inspired future NHL stars while selling the sport of ice hockey to millions of Americans.

The shocking win also gave Ralph Coppola an idea. As it turns out, his timing was perfect.

Ralph is the creator of the popular Super Chexx bubble hockey machine, born in WNY in 1982.

“Super Chexx has become iconic, but it was really just a way to commercialize the table hockey games I played with my friends in law school,” said Ralph, president of Innovative Concepts in Entertainment (ICE), the company Super Chexx spawned. “Our company creates more than 30 coin-op games, but Super Chexx is the one that gets the most attention, especially locally.”

Bubble hockey | Super Chexx | Buffalo Magazine

Brothers Joe and Dan Coppola now help run Innovative Concepts in Entertainment (ICE) the business founded by their father, Ralph Coppola.

Ralph introduced his concept at a trade show in Chicago. Originally featuring the USA and the Soviet Union to reprise the Olympic match-up, the game caught on quickly, selling more than 5,000 units in its first year. Today, Super Chexx ranks as one of the Buffalo area’s most popular exports.

Joe Coppola, Ralph’s son, is vice president of sales at ICE. He said Super Chexx has universal appeal.

“The game is huge in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada,” said Joe. “We have a nice following in all of the NHL cities through our partnership with the league. And we’re growing globally, including Europe, Russia, Japan and Australia.”

Super Chexx was the start of a lifetime career for Ralph Coppola. In addition to the iconic hockey game, ICE manufactures a variety of amusement and ticket redemption games for arcades, bars and restaurants, including Chuck E. Cheese and Dave & Buster’s.

With more than 270 employees – including Joe’s brother, Dan, who heads up U.S. sales – today more than half the company’s business takes place outside the United States. Other popular ICE games include Cyclone, Hungry Hungry Hippos and Deal or No Deal.

“We’re the largest American coin-op manufacturer, and everything is made in Western New York,” said Ralph. “From assembly to manufacturing, it all happens here.”

Super Chexx’s long game

While bubble hockey is actually a small part of ICE’s business, the game is the company’s runaway success story. Super Chexx demands its own team — a responsive customer support staff that assists with repairs, and a global marketing plan. According to Joe, the reason for the game’s ongoing popularity is simple.

“People love head-to-head competition,” said Joe. “It’s timeless. Whether it’s young kids playing, men who have been fans for decades or a growing number of females.”

“Plus, people like to develop their own unique moves,” said Ralph. “Some play at an extremely high level.”

Today, the game that got its start in bars and arcades has found a place in the homes of avid fans — specifically, basements, garages and game rooms.

“We estimate that at least 90 percent of our business is with consumers,” said Ralph. “People enjoy the game so much that they want to take it home.”

Partnering with the NHL has been a huge boost for the company, too; as an NHL licensee, Super Chexx can create versions of the game featuring all 31 NHL teams. Super Chexx has also teamed with NCAA hockey teams to grow the game on the college circuit. Now the game is a staple in pro and amateur hockey rinks across the United States and Canada.

“Our partnership with the NHL has been integral to the game’s growth,” said Ralph.

“We navigated the arcade industry downturn of the mid-’80s, and business picked up in the years after that.”

But the game’s ultimate success is steeped in tradition.

“The game today is remarkably similar to the original game from 1982,” said Ralph.

“Many of the people who are passionate about this game have been playing their whole lives,” said Joe. “People tell us all the time how this was their favorite game when they were a kid. And they never lose their love for it.”

And when father and son square off?

“He used to beat me but now I kick his butt,” claimed Joe. “You can quote me on that.”

Enduring design

Bubble hockey | Super Chexx | Buffalo Magazine

The game’s design — including its familiar dome — was well thought out.

“We couldn’t have the puck getting lost, so that’s why the dome was needed,” shared Ralph Coppola. “The scoreboard over the ice surface gave us a way to intrigue people who weren’t playing to notice the game play.”

When Super Chexx was first developed, many bar owners worried about the durability of the plastic dome. There was a fear that the game would get broken in rowdy bars.

To counter that perception, Super Chexx touted the dome as being indestructible — resistant to slashes with hockey sticks that would make Gordie Howe proud.

“It’s a Mercedes-quality machine,” said Joe. “There are cheaper competitors out there, but those games tend to break down. Super Chexx will last for decades.”

A Mercedes doesn’t come with a discount price tag, and Joe admits that the Super Chexx team has kicked around the idea of a scaled down game.

“But a cheaper version of the game would have to be so diminished,” said Joe. “You’d lose so much of the game play that people love. That’s why we’ve never gone down that road.”

Meet the new game

Thousands of bubble hockey fanatics would tell you the current game is perfect. Why mess with a good thing?

In developing Super Chexx Pro — an updated version of the game just released — the team at ICE set out to take the game to its highest level yet while preserving the facets enjoyed by so many.

As Don Cherry might say, the new game looks like a beauty. It’s packed with cool features such as improved sound effects, live-action game calls and a LCD jumbotron that features video replay simulations. At this point, the only thing missing is fighting.

Available now at Bubblehockey.com, Super Chexx Pro may represent a nice way for you to invest your tax return.

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