Stationed in England during the Second World War as a radar operator, Donald Munro Jr. was shocked when he was summoned by an officer who drove him to an old building, where he discovered a heap of broken pieces from table hockey games. His job was to put them together again.
A lot of the games, manufactured by Munro’s family, were shipped overseas to provide recreation for the troops, but likely had been partially dismantled by soldiers playing them over a few beers.
That a radar operator was pulled from his post is an indication of how highly the games were valued in getting armed forces members’ minds off the difficult task of defeating the Nazis, for just a few hours.
Munro’s father Donald Sr. assembled his first game in the basement of his home in North Toronto in 1932. The Toronto Maple Leafs had won their first Stanley Cup the year before. (Toronto actually had won two Cups before that, but as the Toronto Arenas and then Toronto St. Pat’s).
Now Derek Williams, who operates Visual Rhodes Inc. in Oakville, is making a documentary on the history of table hockey games. He plans to release it in the fall at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“I put that game up there with the maple leaf, the beaver and maple syrup,” Williams said. “It’s part of our heritage. It lasted from the radio age to the TV age to the video game age.”
Munro’s first factory opened on Bathurst Street in Toronto in 1939. The company moved to Burlington in 1952 at a location now occupied by a Swiss Chalet restaurant on Fairview St., just west of Guelph Line. By 1968 there were 70 employees.
Munro was out of work and had no money to buy his wife and children Christmas gifts. So he scrounged around for whatever he could find to construct the first game, using his wife’s ironing board, the wooden sides of an old coal bin and wire hangers. He used clothes pins for the players.
Munro brought one of the games to show official’s at Eaton’s and they gave him a voucher worth about $4 for it. But before he got home on the streetcar, they had sold the game and left a phone message at the Munro home, ordering six more.
The games sold for between four and five dollars during the 1930s. A Munro game was first advertised in the Eaton’s catalogue in 1936.
By 1955, when Gordie Howe was at the peak of his game, 75,000 families in Canada and another 10,000 in the U.S. had a Munro ‘National Hockey’ game.
In 1952 two other companies Cresta and K&B Toys began manufacturing table hockey games in Burlington, making the town the world capital for production.
Vic Hadfield, who knew the Munro family growing up, was one of the first NHL players to endorse the game. Later the company signed agreements with Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.
In the mid-50’s Munro encountered his first competitor in Ben Stein of the Montreal-based Eagle Toy Company. Stein took a prototype of his game to a meeting of NHL general managers at the Royal York Hotel in 1954. He paid Ken Reardon, vice-president of the Montreal Canadiens, a licencing fee of $7,500 and eventually all six NHL clubs came on board.
Still Stein had to wait for a patent to expire before he was able to produce the popular toys.
Over a 20-year span, it was estimated that together Munro and Eagle produced between 15 million and18 million table hockey games. In 1944, Munro Games also introduced the National 9-Man Baseball game, which was endorsed by Babe Ruth.
But eventually the little company became part of a much larger business. In 1968, Munro Toys was sold to a Buffalo-based aerospace firm Servotronics.
There are original Munro games on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and the Museum and Archive of Games at the University of Waterloo.
Today people who still own one of the games from the 1930s can sell them for as much as $300.
Donald Munro Jr., who lived in Burlington during his retirement, died in August of 1999. He was the last president of the company.
Anyone who has a good table hockey story to share, or even an old photo of family or friends playing table hockey is asked to send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
They could be used in the film or perhaps a subsequent book.
Written by: Denis Gibbons