Brooklyn Boro

Brooklyn’s newest craze has no screens, apps, plugs or power

It’s table hockey, a surprising remedy for autistic kids

November 2, 2017 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
John Fayolle displays one of his table hockey boards with an Islanders decal at center ice. Eagle photo by Cody Brooks
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There’s Gary Bettman, and then there’s John Fayolle.

What do they have in common? One would never guess.  

Bettman is the commissioner of the National Hockey League. Fayolle is turning table hockey into a major sport.

In a dusty workshop in Brooklyn, the Montreal native is revitalizing an antiquated game for the modern era.

“I’ve revolutionized the game by adding all these different components to it,” Fayolle tells the Brooklyn Eagle. “I’m a hockey guy. Brooklyn was my first stop in the United States. I lived on President Street in Crown Heights.”

Once immensely popular, table hockey went dormant in the late ’80s with the collapse of the game’s main distributor Coleco.

More than three decades later, Fayolle is streamlining a forgotten pastime to play faster, last longer and look better.  

Popular among a host of celebrities, Fayolle’s tables have been used by NHL great Wayne Gretzky, Miss America 2013 Mallory Hagan and former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Players on the Islanders, Rangers and Devils are also fans of Fayolle’s creations. In fact, Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky described the boards as “works of art.” 

His mother an artist, his father an actuary, Fayolle incorporates both sides into his work.

Based in Bushwick, but initially located in Industry City, Fayolle is creating an industry of his own.

His company operates out of two small studios near a public housing complex. Across the street, men sit on milk crates, play dice and surreptitiously drink beer from brown bags. Dogs bark incessantly in a pound below.

The first room has frosted windows, tin ceilings and exposed radiators. This space is reserved for the finished products: beautifully crafted table hockey boards lined up one after the other.

Fayolle’s face lights up and a smile emerges at the corner of his mouth as he alternates between each board like a Rolodex, his fingers tracing along the edges. His passion is contagious.

“I became an expert with exotic wood,” Fayolle says. “This is a red heart for the Montreal Canadiens, and zebrawood works with a lot of teams because it’s black and white. This is a Canadian black walnut for the Blackhawks.

“That’s a cherry wood, padauk, bird’s-eye maple. I use the most exotic wood in the world for the games, almost to put them on a pedestal.”  

Everything Old Is New Again

Fayolle still has some of the original table hockey models — classics, but timeworn toys with thousands of games played on them.

“In the old days, they were made out of pretty much tin and they were flimsy,” he says. “Most importantly was the surface, which was only one-eighth of an inch thick, so the games would warp. Now I use 3/4 of an inch, it’s super enhanced. You could walk on these games.”

In an adjacent room, three diligent young men work as carpenters. Sawdust lines the floor. Sounds of machinery fill the air.

“Hey fellas,” Fayolle says. They nod without making eye contact, too engrossed in their work.

Fayolle’s attention to detail is obsessive. He is always looking for ways to improve his creations: “People tell me, ‘You’re going crazy here.’ I say, ‘No I’m not.’”

At $895 each, the games are waterproof and micropufrated, which means there’s air under the puck that allows it to glide across the board like it’s on ice.

The surface is made from subway mark, a type of vinyl that the city’s subway cars are wrapped in.

“In the old days, as soon as it came out of the box, it was the best it was ever going to be,” Fayolle says. “The rods were always bent, the puck would always leave the ice, the surface was almost never level.

“My games, they actually play better the more you play with them because they’re not going to warp, nothing is going to degrade them. [Players] call them heirlooms.”

The “secret sauce” of his game, however, is the energy-absorbing walls that allow the puck to smoothly bounce off the edges.

Fayolle uses music wire and a lighter more durable material called oil-dipped chrome silicon, a high-tensile steel that bends back into its original shape.

“I always push to the nth degree,” he says. “I’m always thinking, but I’m almost maxed out as far as technology for this game. These are low-tech games put together in a high-tech way.”

Fayolle’s business is constantly growing with new orders arriving from every corner of the country. His boards are used in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Montreal and Toronto for the National Table Hockey League and for the New York Table Hockey League.

“It’s really coming back, and that’s why I’m trying to gear up production,” he says. “I haven’t even really advertised because I can’t meet the demand right now.”

He adds, “This didn’t happen overnight. This took a lot of time, effort and money. I’m lucky it’s going to be a business, but it never started out that way. It started purely out of the love and joy I had playing the game.”

Although he’s Canadian, Fayolle credits his Brooklyn roots for much of his success.

“It kept me close to the street, to keep my ear to the ground, to be very aware of things,” Fayolle says of his Brooklyn upbringing. “I’m just very aware of trends. I wanted to make games that met a demand that really wasn’t verbalized.”

Fayolle’s company is called SoHo Table Hockey, but he regrets not using the Brooklyn brand, knowing that the borough has become synonymous with all things hip.  

His clients have an extreme obsession with his games, viewing them not as toys, but rather a lifestyle.

“Some of the guys say, ‘If there’s a fire in the house, I’m grabbing my baby and I’m grabbing my game.’ Watching these guys play, it’s played like a sport,” he says. 

More Than a Game

When Fayolle speaks about his emerging enterprise, he is most excited not by his potential financial gain, but rather by what the games do for children.

In an era where toddlers are more apt to be using iPads than reading books, Fayolle praises his games for helping children socialize and for being unplugged: no electricity and no screens.

“Kids become bullies behind screens,” Fayolle says. “You can’t say what you’re going to say to somebody behind a screen in person because you’ll get your ass kicked.

“Who would think that it would all come back, so that people want to play real games where everything you do is not electronic?”

The boards, according to Fayolle, act as a therapeutic activity for children with disabilities by helping them communicate with their teachers and peers.

At Ecole Primaire Ste-sophie, a school for autistic and troubled kids in Sainte-Sophie, Quebec, there has been a 3 1/2 year increase in enrollment since the institution implemented Fayolle’s table hockey boards into its curriculum.

“The teachers say the students talk to each other now,” Fayolle says. “They’ve done interviews where they just wax nostalgia about table hockey, how it has changed the entire school. This is what it’s all about: real games, real activities, getting the kids back.

“The games have taken me to places I’ve never dreamt of. In many ways, I feel like I’ve won the lottery without even buying a ticket. This is real a labor of love.”

Fayolle’s tables have also had a profound influence on programs in America, including Ice Hockey in Harlem (IHIH), an organization founded in 1987 that helps disadvantaged kids learn hockey while also creating academic opportunities for them through the sport.

“Having grown up myself playing a form of table hockey, it was important for me in creating friendships and learning more about the game,” Executive Director of IHIH John Sanful tells the Eagle. “We introduced the game and the kids really took to it.”

Sanful asserts that, in addition to helping children understand the sport better, table hockey builds stronger motor skills and coordination.

“For our kids to come in with their parents and have access to these games, it adds a unique wrinkle onto what we do,” Sanful says. “We’re trying to point our students to opportunities in hockey that don’t only exist on the ice.”

Sanful hopes to have Fayolle come speak with the kids about SoHo Table Hockey and the tightly knit community that surrounds the sport.

Sanful believes it’s important for his students to have someone like Fayolle around “who has this great idea that doesn’t involve being on the ice, but encourages a love of the sport, an interest in the sport and gets our kids excited about it.”

Fayolle cites countless parents who thank him for revitalizing their relationships with their kids.

“They say the greatest job in the world anybody can have is the toymaker because the toymaker brings joy to everybody and is loved by everybody,” Fayolle says. “I didn’t know until I started this how much joy it really brought me.

“When you see the kids play, I can’t even watch because it brings me to tears, the joy that these kids have.”

He pauses for a moment, overcome with emotion. His eyes become glossy, and a lump forms in his throat.

“Truly, there is nothing that I could ever do in my life that is going to be more important than this — nothing.”

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

 


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