Keith Elliott at Large: Table-top ice men prepare for meltdown: Frantic antics in the basement as Britain's plucky puck-pushers face a daunting trial on the world stage

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The Independent Online
IN FOOTBALL, it is the nutmeg: in cricket, a pair of golden ducks. In table-top ice hockey, there is no real name for the most humiliating manoeuvre that an opponent can inflict, but Theodore Wood reckons that he has endured it.

'I was playing the Swedish champion. It was the first to 10 and he bet that I wouldn't even score a goal. He was playing with one hand and talking to someone behind him. I still didn't score.'

A member of the eight-man British team, Wood is approaching the World Championships, which start in Paris tomorrow, with some trepidation. 'I've got a lot better since that day, but I still have no chance of beating him,' he said.

Norman Silver, who runs Skate Attack, a London shop devoted to all aspects of ice hockey, agrees that Britain's table-top team are unlikely to enhance the nation's reputation tomorrow. (After all, we did win the ice hockey gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, even if our team were mainly Canadians.)

'Some of the Scandinavians are incredible,' Silver said. 'We had one of the top players over last year and none of our players could score against him, even when he played with one eye shut and took off his goalie. It was like watching a musician.'

In those countries where ice hockey is a leading sport, tens of thousands are addicted to the table-top version. Leading exponents earn around dollars 80,000 (pounds 55,500) from sponsorship, and companies such as Mars and Volvo jostle for space on mini-rink hoardings.

Here, the Swedish-designed game is played by a few hundred. 'I can't understand it,' Wood, a 28-year-old photographer who enthuses about table-top ice hockey the way 13-year-olds talk about Nintendo, said. 'It is the best pounds 50 I have ever spent. I've been playing for two years and I'm still addicted. Often I play until two in the morning. This is so much more sophisticated than Subbuteo. You just can't compare them.'

Nor is it anything like table-top football, that antiquated game with faceless players still adopting the derided 5-3-2 formation. 'This game is beautifully designed because there isn't a 'dead' area anywhere,' Wood said. 'One player or another can reach the puck wherever it goes. But you have to co-ordinate forwards and defence all the time, even when you don't have the puck. It can be very frantic.' Positional sense is vital, but so is the ability to play off the stick at varying angles and speed of reaction as the puck whizzes round.

Metal rods that slide in and out move the two-inch plastic bruisers. Experts use silicone to keep the cogs below the rink moving smoothly, and shine the 'ice' with furniture polish (Mr Sheen is rated highly). The rods also rotate so a player can hit the puck. 'It's no good just spinning them wildly,' Philip Andrews, who is also in the British team, said. The 28-year-old teacher, who is Wood's regular opponent, added: 'It is very much a touch game and so much more subtle than table-top football.'

In preparation for their world debut, Wood and Andrews have been practising hard in the basement of Wood's flat in Surbiton, Surrey. 'We have to find somewhere quiet because we get pretty excited and make a lot of noise,' Andrews said.

Wood has already fitted several extras to his game, and is now manager of five teams, though he has not yet taken up a service offered in Sweden, where you can have the actual features of your favourite players painted on to the figures. Unpatriotically, he is hoping that a side wearing the strip of a Swedish club from the Arctic Circle will lead him to glory.

'We have been learning a few moves,' Andrews said. 'The Scandinavians and the French are still too good for us, but I reckon we should beat the Moroccans and the Australians.'

But they may have problems adjusting to world rules, which stipulate that a game lasts only five minutes and that a player must pass the puck within five seconds. 'We play the first to 10 and much of our time is spent planning positions,' Wood said. 'Our games often last more than an hour. It probably explains why we suffer so many injuries playing it. We both get terrible backache after playing for several hours.'

Silver, whose Skate Attack shops in Kirkcaldy and Alexandra Palace, London, sponsor 120 full-sized teams, including three in Oman, is mystified why the mini-game does not have a wider following here. 'This really is a very true representation of ice hockey,' he said.

It is also perfect for ice hockey fans like Wood, who admits: 'I can't actually skate.'

Anyone wanting to try table-top ice hockey can play it free at Alexandra Palace every Sunday for the next month.

(Photograph omitted)