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Monday, September 25, 2023


Air hockey has Scarlet and Albino roots

No longer confined to the back rooms of arcades and pool halls, air hockey is making a serious run at becoming the next mainstream niche sport.

The latest stop on that journey was in Houston, which hosted the 2009 U.S. Open Air Hockey Championships this weekend.

Since the sport’s inception in the early ’70s, Houston and UH have played a key role in its expansion. As early as 1974, the Houston Air Hockey Players Association was being formed by a UH student named Phil Arnold. Later that year, the University Air Hockey Club was born.

These groups held meetings and sponsored tournaments in the University Center, making UH a hot bed for the game’s growing popularity.

The World Champion is UH chemistry alumnus Ehab Shoukry, who started his rise in air hockey with the world’s fifth-ranked player, UH engineering alumnus Danny Hynes.

‘We knew right away. We fell right in love with this sport and we were going to be dedicated at being the best,’ Shoukry said. ‘We found ourselves skipping some really tough classes, like physics and thermodynamics, to go play air hockey.’

Anyone can play the sport, whether you’re a spelling bee guru to a former professional football player. No size, strength or bulky muscles are needed to play. Instead, winning requires quick reflexes, excellent hand-eye coordination and an ability to think quickly.

A reaction time of 0.5 seconds is needed to succeed, making air hockey one of the fastest sports in the world.

‘Calculated intensity,’ as referred to by those on the competitive circuit, is exactly what it sounds like – intense and competitive.

Shoukry is regarded as one of the most complete players in the world, and maintains his top international and U.S. rankings with superb defensive play.

‘A lot of people really kind of know me for my defense, and people have a tough time scoring on me,’ he said. ‘That really comes into play. It works out well and gets you more possessions.’

Rivalry extends beyond college days

Shoukry and Hynes met in Spring 1994 at the UC Satellite and decided to succeed at becoming great players.
They didn’t have to look far for tradition or guidance in the sport. Since then, the duo has become kings of the sport. They have won all but one World Championship since 2001, with Hynes winning six and Shoukry nabbing two.

They played thousands of games at UH and some of their early mentors include history alumnus Arnold and 10-time World Champion Tim Weissman, who earned his doctorate in psychology at UH.

‘It just hit me all at once. This arcade game we were playing could be turned into a sport like table tennis, if we had rules and maybe an association formed,’ said Arnold, who founded the U.S. Air Hockey Association. ‘If I did that, I could be the very best player in the whole world.’

‘Air hockey is visual, fast fun. It creates the essence of real competition,’ U.S. Air Hockey Associated President Michael Rosen said. ‘It’s very revealing for the adrenaline to see how people handle pressure. It produces moments of ‘peacock pride’ and a lot of ‘gotcha’ moments.’

Sport requires mental toughness

Although Hynes and Shoukry are adept at scoring defense, their key to success is their mental demeanor.

‘I say the hardest part is getting over that mental game. Anybody can hit a shot, block a shot, but to continuously do it over and over and over (is difficult),’ Hynes said. ‘Always creating that pressure on you to perform, to overcome that and to be successful and to learn that attitude is very difficult.’

Those who want to join a USAA-sanctioned club or tournament must know the rules. Basic differences between recreational and tournament play include fouls for ‘topping’ and no ‘palming’ of the puck.

Topping is placing the mallet on top of the puck to slow it down or stop it and palming involves any part of a player’s hand touching the puck. Both result in a foul and the opposing player is awarded possession.

Arnold still resides in Houston and has weekly tournaments at SRO Sports Bar at Northwest Mall, site of this weekend’s championships. UH proved it is still at the top, as Hynes won and Shoukry placed second.

‘I’ve won seven times, seven World Championships, so I feel pretty good (about my game),’ Hynes said.

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