Cincinnatians Jason Cornell and Jeff Huisman have returned from the 2009 World Air Hockey Championships in Las Vegas, presided over by United States Air Hockey Association President Michael Rosen. Cornell recaps the duo's experiences here.
I spoke with Rosen after the championships concluded March 15.
CityBeat: How did you get into competitive air hockey, and what’s your current world ranking?
Michael Rosen: I’ve been playing air hockey since I was a kid down in the Florida beach boardwalks — competitively since about 1992. I’m 14th in the world in singles and fifth with George Anderson (No.1 singles player in California) in doubles.
I was in a family entertainment center in Dallas, a big mall type-place, and somebody saw me playing recreationally. That was Mark Robbins, the two-time world champion who had worked at Dynamo. He said I should get involved. It was 1992, and I was about to finish my MBA, and I thought, "I’d like to compete in this." I had been a baseball player and I like sports, but I had a tumor in my leg when I was younger that made me miss some time. I never really competed on the highest level of something. It was a great chance.
I got in touch with the top players in New York and Brooklyn. It turns out that I was better than the No. 2 and No. 3 naturally, and the No. 1 in New York at the time slaughtered me. I said, "OK, let’s see if I can step this up and learn about this."
CB: Most air hockey players don’t make a living off the sport. What kind of personal sacrifices does it take to compete at the highest level of air hockey?
MR: The sacrifices someone might make, like anybody with a hobby or endeavor, are time and money. They also have to make some emotional sacrifices as well, because they have to be prepared for the emotion of competition and what that that means to a person. If they’ve never faced that before, they can be discouraged.
It depends on everybody — what kind of time are they sacrificing over other leisure activities and other things that are important to them. Everybody really makes their own decisions in terms of sacrifices, but those who want to dedicate themselves to an endeavor and want to improve themselves through practice, those are the types of things that pay off and add to someone’s personal growth.
CB: You say that about five years ago you decided to really try to build this sport. Why did you think air hockey could be successful and what steps have you taken so far?
MR: I analyzed it and decided that it has a lot of really great characteristics that could really broaden it to the public eye. It’s been an amazing journey. I was able to come in and work with the current set of promoters.
We started acquiring property like the World Championships, which is a premier tournament held in Las Vegas. It’s held in a professional setting in a controlled ballroom gaming arena with tournament-quality tables. All the referees are actually players themselves, who are well-schooled in the game. We have sponsorship that comes in from a number of different corporations.
The air hockey invitational was another tournament that really hadn’t been done before — I had invited the top 10 in the world and we got on the Tennis Channel Open, a tournament owned by the Tennis Channel in Las Vegas. They held other tournaments around the tennis to draw people to that tournament. We had such a great response that they actually pulled us out of the setting that we were in and put us on center plaza and featured us on the Tennis Channel.
That was in our first year, and it showed the world what a great response air hockey garnered. It was a real pleasure to get it out there and break through like that. Rather than TV or news coverage, we were truly out as a sports venue.
CB: How did you come across our CityBeat-endorsed air hockey players and what were your initial thoughts of two beginners from Ohio coming out to the World Championships?
MR: One of them may have posted on one of the professional forum sites we have, and I also get Google updates on air hockey and that’s how I found the blog. I thought, "Oh, look at this." It’s not uncommon to write about air hockey, but these guys were actually writing about the experience in a way that it was like, hey, they’re going out, they’re serious about this and they wanna go pro. That caught my eye right away.
I introduced myself (to Jason and Jeff) and thanked them for blogging. I found out the injury wasn’t a writing ploy — it was for real. I thought, "Wow, these guys are trying their best." I wished them well. I’m happy to say we have a wonderful clean sport of athletes that respect their bodies. I think they really took in the athletic experience in a personal way, and they were able to grow through that and participate.
CB: How did they do at the World Championships relative to other beginners?
MR: We had a 64-person bracket and they finished at 59 and 61. If they’re new to the game, I’d say that they’re going to have a larger learning curve. The professional air hockey community is another level of competition. The skill sets are much higher, and a lot of these players have been through tournament experience before. One new player likened the experience to martial arts, given the hand-eye coordination and the speed of the game, and said that everybody has their own air hockey kung fu. You may stylistically match up with one person but with someone else you have to adjust your strategy.
I think they tried their best. I know that Jason had a tougher experience in the main tournament. He faced the two-time world champion Mark Robbins right out of the gate, and he got crushed in that match 4-0. But Mark Robbins is an amazing champion who finished 11th in our tournament.
Jason just about doubled up his points — 15 goals in his next match against Steve Carpenter. He then went to the spinoff bracket and faced Nick Harbacek, who eventually won that bracket. But he had a very respectable match against him. He actually won his first game against Heather Allard of Texas. He took a game off Heather 7-3 and made that match 1-1. He won a tournament game, and he saw what it takes to succeed.
Jeff found the will to win in Game 2 of his very first World Championships match to even the match at 1-all versus one of the sport's pros, which was very impressive. Although it was more crush after that, one can say that he's got some of that raw talent needed to move up the rankings.
CB: Jason said everyone was really supportive of them, with many people offering advice and encouragement. Is this common among the air hockey community?
MR: It’s one of those things where, as an athlete, you look and encourage others in any sport. I think that’s one of the ways athletes like to give back to those around them. You don’t just go to charities or volunteer your time. We also look to those who are receptive and future pros in the community and reach out to them. I think it’s a wonderful habit to have and to model for others. Maybe they’ll go back to Ohio and do the same thing: mentor other players and encourage people to build their skill set.
CB: Where do you see the sport of air hockey in five years?
MR: You know, you look back at the history of sports and you say to yourself, "Tennis was a turn-of-the-century sport, and sports like badminton became Olympic sports." Air hockey was just invented in 1972. We are breaking out into an athletic profile and enjoying the staying power that the game and the sport really have. Air hockey has no language barriers, no age barriers — it's the essence of competition and, as such, people can really derive a lot from that.
I’d say in five years you’re going to be seeing air hockey probably on TV in some format. We’re going to be looking into putting it into some of the major media outlets. Certainly the web, new media marketing — we develop player databases all over the world, and I think that’s only gonna grow. I usually market air hockey as visual, fast fun.
It’s also very revealing in a lot of corporate settings because it’s one of those games that encourages competition and camaraderie. It’s moved beyond the bar and basement and classic settings into the athletic realm, and I think that’s really a great model to bring it forward.