Archive for the ‘Bobby Orr’ category

Munro: Bringing Table Hockey to the Masses

October 4, 2016

Munro (the toy brand, not the muffler company) may not be as recognizable as Mattel, Kenner or Ideal. But it has a place in the pantheon of toymakers nonetheless.

If you were a boy growing up in the 1960s and 70s anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line and you owned a hockey stick, chances are you bugged  — and begged — your parents until they relented and bought you a table hockey set. And there were even odds that it was made by Munro (the other major manufacturer was Eagle.)

When my brother and I  spied the iconic “M” logo peeking out from the over-sized box as we tore through the wrapping paper on Christmas mornings, we knew we had scored a slapshot. Getting a new hockey set was as much of a Christmas tradition in our house as drinking eggnog — which gives you some idea of the wear and tear we subjected the sets to in the previous 364 days.

hovkey

The action-packed game was a common fixture in American homes, especially in the cooler climes where kids actually played hockey on frozen lakes and ponds. And in Canadian households, table hockey sets were as ubiquitous as maple syrup and Molsen’s ale.

Playing table hockey required expert hand-mind coordination, exacting dexterity, and the reflexes of a mongoose.  Hands and wrists were a blur of motion, twisting, whacking, twirling and yanking the skinny metal rods through their motions in order to pass the puck from player-to-player and slap a shot into the goal. It was a miracle of multitasking. You worked up a sweat. You grunted, cursed, giggled and shouted expletives at your opponent. It was a blast.

Donald H. Munro, Sr., the company’s founder, pioneered the game of table hockey. Like many of mankind’s greatest innovations, necessity proved the mother of invention. With Toronto, Canada deep in the throes of the Great Depression, Mr. Munro, owner of a Fish and Chips restaurant, lacked the money to buy his kids gifts for Christmas 1932. So he decided to make them a present instead, scrounging around his house for any odds and ends he could find: clothespins, old springs, scraps of wood, and potholder tops.

His ingenuity paid off. The handmade table hockey game he cobbled together was a hit with his kids. He realized it might have commercial potential. One day he visited a local department store, which agreed to give him a store credit in exchange for a game. When he arrived home later that day, he  already had a message waiting from the store: they wanted to buy five more sets.

He applied for a patent in 1936, and Munro Games Ltd. was born.

Munro’s original game only had pinball machine-like flippers and the puck was a steel ball bearing. A convex table top enabled the ball to roll toward one side or the other. By 1956, Munro and Eagle, its Montreal-based competitor, had evolved the concept to more closely resemble a real hockey match in miniature, with tin cut-out players, a wooden puck, and a surface that looked like an ice rink. Many of those upgrades, including the introduction of metal rods to move the players back and forth, were the brainchild of a Swedish company.

Each player was attached to a thin metal rod extending beneath the rink’s surface. Pushing the rods enabled you to slide your man forward in his slot: a narrow groove cut into the rink’s surface. While your player’s range-of-motion was limited to his slot, by twisting the plastic knob on the end of the rod, you could twirl him and his stick 360 degrees, allowing him to pass the puck to another player or, with a perfectly-timed snap of the wrist, slap a shot into the goal.

While Munro got into the marketplace first, Eagle scored some major coups. Eagle reached an exclusive  licensing agreement with its hometown Montreal Canadiens, and then with the entire NHL. So Eagle sets could feature actual NHL team logos, uniforms and likenesses; Munro had to settle for a more generic look with the team cities on the uniforms. However, Munro was able to score lucrative endorsements from two of the game’s biggest stars, Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.

The NHL, which only had six teams, doubled in size in 1967. Table hockey sales soared. Munro and Eagle were sold to American companies in Sept. 1968:  Munro to Servotronics Inc. of Buffalo, and Eagle to Coleco Industries Inc. of Hartford.

Its new parent company kept the Munro brand name alive. And for a while, it continued to thrive. Its Bobby Orr Hockey became its signature product for the 1970s and biggest-selling product ever. In 1973, Munro introduced a Peanut’s branded set, and in 1974, an air hockey game.

But times and tastes changed. In the mid-1970s, slicker games like air hockey, foosball and electronic pinball invaded the home and competed for kids’ attention. Then came Pong, Atari, Nintendo. Financial difficulties forced Servotronics to shut Munro down in 1977. The other legacy table hockey brands, Coleco and Tudor, disappeared a decade later.

Today, Munro lives on in the hearts of those of us who owned a Munro Hockey game and spent countless hours in stick-to-stick combat as we lived out our fantasies of becoming real pro hockey players. Various shrines to Munro hockey games have popped up on the Internet, and original games in decent condition fetch a pretty penny on ebay.

Not too shabby for a game originally built out of scrounged odds and ends and cobbled together by an ingenious dad who couldn’t afford to buy a gift — but who also couldn’t afford to see his kids disappointed on Christmas morning.