When Phil Verchota was born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1956, pinball machines were still illegal in his home state. However, the state supreme court made a ruling that pinball was a game of skill, not chance – and therefore not gambling – a year later, so it’s safe to assume his pinball playing days weren’t cut short by law.
Although, eighteen years later, when he enrolled in University of Minnesota, pinball machines were still illegal in New York City, and the games took place in back rooms of establishments that already had a questionable reputation.
In 1980, pinball machines were legal almost everywhere in the United States, but by then, Phll was in Finland, and that’s where I met him. We played a few games of pinball in the Helsinki hockey rink cafeteria.
See, Phil was also a pretty good hockey player and had won Olympic gold in Lake Placid about six months earlier. People call it “Miracle on Ice.”
That fall, he arrived in Helsinki having signed with Jokerit, the other Helsinki team. The other, as in, the upstart – by then, just thirteen years old – and the one that hadn’t had as much success as IFK, the big brother. In the pre-Phil years, Jokerit’s best regular season finish in the newly-founded SM-liiga was sixth, in a ten-team league, and the year before he came to Helsinki, Jokerit had finished ninth, having won eleven of their 36 games. IFK were the reigning champions.
But Phil had scored the tying goal in the US game against Finland in Lake Placid, and had helped his team clinch the final win that gave them the gold.
Looking at Phil’s stats now, it’s surprising to think that he became the whipping boy, but I guess the fans expected him to bring some of that miracle dust with him. He did lead the team in goal scoring (15 in 32), and added seven assists.
That year, the Finnish league gave the top two seeds a bye into the semifinals, increasing the number of teams making the post-season to six. Jokerit still didn’t make it. They won just six of their 36 games, and finished ninth.
In the fall of 1980, Happy Days were one of the most popular TV shows in Finland, and while the first season aired in the US in 1974, Finns got their first taste of Fonzie’s cool in 1977. Arthur Fonzarelli may have been the first person I ever saw play pinball.
Of course, there was a pinball machine at the gas station across the street from our school, and while we just sixth graders, we were allowed to leave the schoolyard during recess, because the rest of the kids were. And sometimes we’d walk to the gas station, get some candy and play some pinball.
One time I was standing by the side of the machine, watching my buddies hit and hop, and smack the machine, having put a coin on the glass to claim the next round, when a drunk guy charged into the gas station and started to pick a fight with a mate of mine. I’m not sure what happened before he pulled out the knife, and I don’t know what happened after that, because I decided it was smarter to leave the coin on the glass, and just run back to the school. So did my friends.
Playing pinball always made me feel good. There was something soothing about it, something meditative, it was just me against the machine. Also, I guess it made me feel sort of cool, especially playing it late at night at the hockey rink’s cafeteria while my father was on the ice with his buddies.
And then one night, as I was standing there again, a young American walked up to the machine, and said he wanted to play, too. He had a beard, which was unusual at the time.
If there was one thing that’s even cooler than leaning against a pinball machine, in full control of the game, it was getting free plays – or even better, paying only 20 percent of what it actually cost. Sure, paying 20 pennies instead of one Finnish markka wasn’t exactly like Fonzie just slamming the jukebox to play a song, but it was very, very close.
Just so happened that I knew how to do that. Earlier that night, I had used the wrong coin once, and noticed that if you slammed it in real hard, it’d trick the machine into giving me a game.
The cafeteria has been renovated several time since, and I don’t remember the name of the pinball machine, but I can still see how I picked up a 20p coin, held it against the edge of the coin slot, quickly slammed it in, and then waited to hear the sound of another game being put on the board. When that one was up, I took another 20p coin, and did the trick again.
And then Phil and I played some pinball.
A week later, the trick didn’t work anymore. They had fixed the machine.
It wasn’t a miracle, but it was one memorable night at the rink.
* Magic post is a post that sometimes rises up between the flipper fingers and blocks the middle drain so the ball stays in the game. The machine at the Helsinki rink didn’t have one.