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VOL. 39 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 13, 2015

Dr. Phil delivers hockey therapy to the masses

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Dr. Phil Hamilton demonstrates one of his Swedish-built Stiga Stanley Cup games, of which he has sold thousands from his East Nashville home.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Dr. Phil toys with me as he allows me to work my center and left wing to get the puck tantalizingly close to his net.

Then that big smile erupts on the face of a man who hands out “Live With Happiness” dog-tags – like the one dangling beneath his Hawaiian shirt – as he passes through life. With a couple of cagey quick twists of his wrists, Dr. Phil clears his end of the rink and fires a slap shot past my befuddled defensemen and goalie.…

Perhaps, to be fair, the players on my team weren’t befuddled. After all, they’re only about 2½ inches tall, which makes it pretty tough for them when a one-inch puck ricochets up and down the 40-inch-by-21-inch “ice.”

Fact is, I was the befuddled one, as I reached for the wrong player-control rod and didn’t recover in time to get my Detroit Red Wings goalie moving face-forward across the front of the net to block the relentless attack of Dr. Phil’s Toronto Maple Leafs.

Guess I should back up to note this Dr. Phil is not the TV star of massive size, ego and audience who every afternoon tells viewers things like where, when and with whom to use their genitalia and offers advice like “you should not marry your sister.”

No this Dr. Phil is a slight, 5-8, retired railroad worker who’s about as much a medical doctor as was my old colleague, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

Indeed, Dr. Phil Hamilton’s credentials include his online doctorate in metaphysics from the Universal Life Church in Modesto, California, which also ordained him via the Internet as a minister “because I wanted to marry some of my friends,” he says.

Still a doctor doubter? Well, look at the DR PHIL license plate the next time you see him tooling around East Nashville in his English-red 1978 Mercedes 450 SL convertible (that he parks beneath a tarpaulin carport in the backyard). Don’t you figure anyone with a DR PHIL vanity plate has got to be Dr. Phil?

Back to hockey, though, and the not-so-heated “battle” on the dining room table of Dr. Phil, whose Inglewood home, backyard workshop (and sometimes his wife Faye and his kids and grandchildren during the Christmas rush) are devoted to assembling and selling table-hockey games.

He’s sold thousands of these games, imported from Sweden, since first opening for business at the end of a long and happy railroad career.

This Dr. Phil, 70, has been selling Swedish-built Stiga Stanley Cup table-top hockey games for a decade and a half.

“It was back when the Internet was kind of new, and I created my own website to sell these games,” says the lifelong hockey enthusiast. (Oh yeah, if someone asks what he likes to do besides play a children’s hockey game, he’ll answer “Well, I do like to play badminton.”)

He turns back to the game on the dining room table and fiddles with the control rods of the Maple Leafs, guiding them up and down the slots that mark their zones and spinning them around to swipe at the puck.

“It was just the idea of doing something on my own,” says Dr. Phil, eyes glistening behind Lennon-like glasses frames, as he guides me around his international HQ that looks like any other tidy home on Milton Drive, where deer sometimes come up from Shelby Bottoms to graze in the yard.

The only “landmark” to let you know you’ve reached table-hockey paradise is the caboose on the mailbox, representative of his three decades with the L&N and CSX railroads.

“When I worked up in Gallatin as an inspector, my office was a caboose,” he recalls. “I was the only one working there.

“I started out at Union Station as a fireman,” he says. His timing was not quite as sharp as his wrist-flicking hockey shots. By the time he signed up, there was no longer a need for firemen to shovel coal from tender to boiler to keep the steam locomotive clattering along.

“There were no more steam engines, so the railroad got rid of the firemen,” he allows, noting his primary fireman function was to sit with the engineer and look for signals along the tracks.

“About the hardest work I did as a fireman was get ice water,” he says.

The guy who perhaps was Nashville’s last railroad fireman was turned instead into inspecting and repairing cars. “I was a ‘car man.’ We inspected passenger cars and freight cars.”

If they needed repairing, he eagerly applied the welding and soldering skills learned in his TV and radio-repair classes at Hume-Fogg Technical and Vocational High School.

It was not the romance of the rails that drew him to his chosen profession.

“I’ve lived in Nashville all my life and when I got out of school, I just went a lots of places and put in lots of applications and the job at the L&N (the railroad name back then) turned out to be the best…They were a little above average pay, and I’ve always been mechanically inclined. It was a good fit for me.”

And it provided well for him, his wife of 50 years and their two grown children.

Romance, however, was involved in his choice to spend his post-railroad days as founder/CEO/assembly worker/shipping superintendent of TableHockeyGames.Com.

“I’ve always loved hockey,” he says, noting he and brother, Steve, four years his junior, wore out table-hockey games while recreating their favorite sport in their boyhood home, about three miles from the Inglewood home the doc and Faye have occupied for 45 years.

“I don’t know where we got our first table-hockey game, to tell the truth. … It was probably a present from my grandmother.”

The boys already had fallen in love with the game thanks to two Bobbys – “The Golden Jet” Hull and “Number Four” Orr – and their teammates.

“We started liking it because we saw it on black-and-white television,” he explains. “So whenever we played table hockey, I would be the Blackhawks and (Steve) would be Boston.

“And then when the Dixie Flyers came to town in 1961 or so, we really got into hockey at that point,” he adds. “We rarely missed a game. We’d ride on the bus with the boosters to other cities. I was maybe 18, maybe 19, and he was still in high school.”

He does go to the occasional Predators game (FYI, he can install 2½- inch Predators or mini representatives of every NHL franchise on the game, if a customer desires).

“Mostly when they order they want the original six,” he says: “New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.”

If no specific teams are picked, the Red Wings and Toronto are put on the board. And, he’s found over the years, that if someone is buying another team “the Chicago Blackhawks are by far, and have always been, the most popular team.”

Miniature NHL stars, controlled by life-size players, slap a one-inch puck around the table top, hoping to sneak one past the opposing team’s goaltender.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

For a moment, he leaves the game alone and talks again about the lifelong love of hockey that even had him put one of those massive 10-foot-in-diameter satellite dishes in his yard 30 years ago so he could pick up games from Canadian TV.

“Nashville always had good Eastern League hockey games,” he says. “Minor league hockey and the NHL are two different breeds. The minor league hockey I like the best. There’s a different feeling when you go to the games. It’s more personable, almost like our friends are out there playing instead of these NHL superstars.”

It should be noted that he has a fondness for the big-timers as well, particularly admiring the near-magical stick-work of Wayne Gretzky, whose poster helps decorate the walls of the 12-by-28-foot workshop building in the backyard where games are imported, assembled, packaged and shipped around North America. “I have a lot of customers up in the Northeast,” he notes.

As for the glow in his eyes when talking about the Dixie Flyers or the Nashville Knights or other incarnations, well he passed that down to his own children, who loved to attend games with him at Municipal Auditorium.

When the Dixie Flyers were replaced, it was Dr. Phil’s daughter, Julie, who won a contest to name the new club. “She named ‘The Knights’ and won two lifetime season tickets to the games. And we took advantage of it.”

As for his son, Troy, “I used to take him up to Municipal Auditorium, where I’d have to change his diaper. That shows how little he was when he became a hockey fan.’’

Many little boys in the 1950s or 1960s probably came across a table-hockey game at some point, but they were much more basic than the Swedish Stiga brand Dr. Phil sells.

On the doc’s game sets, the players, three lefties, two righties and the goalie, are guided via rods that both push and pull them up and down slots covering their zones. Heck, they can even turn all the way around and face away from the approaching puck – as this novice found out, with embarrassment. With the flick of a wrist, the little men play their roles of defending their goal and attacking the opposite end of the “ice.”

While many little boys likely put their table-hockey games away (or left them for their moms to clear out when converting their rooms into guest rooms or home offices), Dr. Phil never did.

He never stopped loving and playing the game. Perhaps his speed isn’t what it was when he and Steve whiled away Nashville nights a half-century ago, but his technique is dazzling.

He is one of a dozen or so folks around the country who sell these mini-arenas and players for fun and profit. (The fun part is because he also competes in tournaments, matched up against someone more able than a 63-year-old journalist whose wrists and fingers long ago succumbed to the arthritis and carpal tunnel woes of a once-honorable profession…. Forget the excuses, Timothy … I just wasn’t much good at it. Give me one of those vibrating electric football games, where skill is no asset. I’ll do fine.)

Dr. Phil estimates he’s sold nine to 10 thousand of these games that go for $89.50 plus shipping. A lot of those sales came before Amazon emerged as an Internet Walmart and gobbled up a large percent of sales from mom and pop operations like Dr. Phil’s.

Still he’s plenty busy, selling 400 to 500 Stiga Stanley Cup table-hockey games a year, with December accounting for nearly half.

“I had 5,512 unique visits to our web site the first two weeks of last December. Couldn’t do that in a store front,” he says with a laugh, adding many customers choose him over Amazon because they like to support independent businesses.

They also call on him for repairs and replacement parts, like the player-control rod Dr. Phil is packaging up to send. “That will be the dollar I make today.”

Dr. Phil’s eyes sparkle when he talks about his product, his business. “This little table-top game represents a real sport more than any other table-top game. It plays exactly like an ice hockey game. It’s a miniature representation.

“These little guys can pass to each other and shoot. It takes a lot of skill to play it, and different players have different styles. Some are slam and bam, but a lot of them are so good they can pass two or three times to the forward before they shoot their goal.”

Dr. Phil is among the latter, of course, since he’s been playing table-top hockey a half-century-plus. By the way, he’s never tried the real thing.

“Heck, I can’t even roller skate.”

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