The Time I Won Chuck A Duck


It was 2010 and I was talking about the Winter Olympics in the pub with my mate Mike. Of all the events we were enthralled by we both agreed that we enjoyed the ice hockey most of all. Well, that or the one where they slide down an ice tunnel on a tea tray while dressed in a giant condom. Anyway, such was our enthusiasm for the sport we reckoned it strange that neither of us had yet been to watch Manchester’s ice hockey team, the Manchester Phoenix, play live. After all, they were our home town team. We wondered if there would be fights. After all, ice hockey is renowned for fights. Not that either of us were aficionados but we’d seen Slap Shot. Surely there would be fights! And if there were fights we’d enjoy those and then probably have the added bonus of an ice hockey game breaking out after they’d finished. I would also get to watch the ice resurfacing machine (commonly known as a ‘Zamboni’ even though Zamboni is a brand) that seemed hypnotic from what I’d seen. We agreed that we should definitely go. And so it was that soon afterwards, I headed to my first live ice hockey game. It was one of the Phoenix’s last games of the 2009-10 season.


I can’t remember the result of the game but I can remember being captivated in a way that wasn’t usual for me. The building that housed the rink was certainly nothing special. A wooden structure covered in some sort of blue tarpaulin that gave it the look of a giant carrier bag like the ones you get from a corner shop to carry home your 3 litre bottle of Frosty Jack in. It was freezing cold inside because of the wood / tarpaulin allowing cold air into the rink as well as the large slab of ice that wasn’t far away from the viewing area. But they served beer. And hot dogs that had probably been endorsed as kosher for all the trace of pig they contained but still tasted weirdly satisfying when covered in onions and ketchup. They had an ice resurfacer (made by Olympia, not Zamboni). They had noisy fans that genuinely seemed to be having a great time. They had a guy selling programmes while sporting the weirdest piece of headgear this side of Lady Gaga. They were sticking loads of pound coins to an ice hockey stick for a reason beyond reasonable comprehension. And, as if all of that pre-game pandemonium wasn’t enough of an assault on the senses, they were promoting a game that would take place between the second and third periods called ‘Chuck A Duck’. As someone with a fascination with a) throwing things and b) rubber ducks, I was as excited about the prospect of launching a rubber duck around an ice hockey rink as Noddy Holder is at the end of midnight mass, even though at that stage I didn’t quite realise what the rules were.


To my surprise, the game seemed to be intended primarily for children to take part in, which struck me as blatantly unfair for those of us that no longer qualified as children purely and simply because we’d lived for too long. Yet plenty of ‘adults’ were buying ducks so I wasn’t about to be discriminated against purely because of my hitherto successful policy of not dying. The game being designed for younger throwers may have been the reason they decided to have another child (an actual live child!) as the target to aim the rubber ducks at. After all, there would be less chance of the target (REPEAT – a live child) being injured as they stood in the middle of the rink as an arena full of people aimed projectiles at them if those projectiles were being launched by people no taller than 3ft 6in with arms resembling a piece of overcooked spaghetti. The rules were simple – whoever got their duck closest to the Target Child (TC) standing on the centre spot was the winner. All ducks had a number on the bottom to identify the victor. Further explanation of the rules can be heard in my hilarious interview with Shaun Keaveny on the BBC 6 Music breakfast show which is available here: Stream Praising ChuckADuck by ThePrinceOfDeansgate | Listen online for free on SoundCloud


That first time it seemed that all other contestants (mainly children – my rivals) were going as close as they could to the side of the rink and throwing their ducks from as close as possible. I decided then and there that I would give them a chance by throwing from my seat at the back of the stand. After all, having previously played league cricket for years and now being quite a handy darts player my throwing arm was likely to be much more powerful than theirs. I had to be careful not to hit the roof from my elevated position and also couldn’t aim too low in case it didn’t make it over the plexiglass that rose above the boards at the side of the ice to protect the fans from the puck and gave the players something to smash each other into. I obviously had to avoid hitting my fellow spectators with my duck, too, and I was also eager not to hit any of my rivals while throwing it icewards. If I managed to even get my duck past all of those obstacles and onto the ice I then had to judge how much sliding the duck would need to do after landing and factor in how that might be affected by my elevated position and angle of trajectory. There was so much to consider as I took aim popped my Chuck A Duck cherry.


Approximate view of where I was throwing my duck from. Note the broken screen on the left.

Like many cherry popping experiences, that first time was a disappointing failure that served only to sew the seeds. In this case, those seeds were seeds of Chuck A Duck and were sewn in my heart and mind. Mike and I vowed to return to watch ice hockey much more frequently the following season as we’d loved our time at the game. It had been completely mental and we’d had tremendous fun the like of which I hadn’t experienced as a sports spectator in quite a while. And while we returned from the game happy to report that, yes, the players did fight, it was my new obsession with Chuck A Duck that I was most enthused about. It was now my ambition to win Chuck A Duck, not because of the prizes on offer (sometimes a player’s jersey, other times a hockey stick, other times a selection of Phoenix merchandise) but because of the glory. Winning from the back row of the stand would be up there with my finest ever achievements if I was ever able to pull it off. It would be up there with the time I beat Peter Manley (a professional darts player and former World Championship finalist) at darts and the time I managed to flip 50 beer mats at once (that there is STILL no Olympic recognition for the sport of ‘Beer Mat Flipping’ is a travesty that needs resolving, by the way). Each ice hockey team in the UK plays a home game every weekend and the season runs from September to March so I figured that with a game every week for 7 months I would have plenty of opportunities to perfect my technique and scoop the prize early the following season.


Though I didn’t have a season ticket for the 2010-11 season I was present for well over half of the games, usually accompanied by friends and / or work colleagues. Having conveyed my enthusiasm for Chuck A Duck, ice resurfacers, players fighting, beer and actual games of ice hockey going on as a background to all of that, I’d ensured that I wasn’t alone for any of the games. In fact, I probably did myself no favours in my quest to achieve my sporting nadir as each of my companions also took part in The World’s Greatest Rubber Duck Projectile sport. Especially when they tried to gain a competitive advantage by going to the front to throw their ducks alongside my miniature rivals! It happened on more than one occasion where the duck of a friend had impeded the progress of my own duck. That was only a small factor in my failure throughout the season to get anywhere close to winning. I was beginning to lose faith in my own abilities and feared that I’d bitten off more than I could chew in trying to win from the back row of the stand. With the arena packed to the rafters for the last game of the season I was joined by no fewer than 10 friends. Some had suggested they were there in the hope of being present as the Phoenix clinched the league title with a win against Swindon but I secretly knew they were there more in the hope of watching me fulfil my sporting destiny.


Which I didn’t. I failed again to get the prize. Happily the Phoenix team did give us something to cheer by getting the win required to win the league.


The following season I had a season ticket. This was the 2011-12 season and I hadn’t won Chuck A Duck once since I first tried in March 2010, which was a crushing disappointment! I questioned whether any TC would ever bend down to pick up a duck with a number that corresponded to my name. The game on 18th December 2011 was one where I hoped for a Christmas miracle. I had one last chance to win before 2011 ended. As I spoke with my brother to wish him a happy birthday I could barely concentrate. I was putting myself under immense pressure to deliver my long-awaited victory. There’s a Kurt Russell film called MIracle that tells the tale of the ‘MIracle On Ice’ when the US Olympic team, filled with shopkeepers, pig farmers and students, beat the mighty USSR team filled with full time hockey players that had been trained by the military since birth to represent the Communist regime. I could see there being a second film being commissioned, undoubtedly with Bradley Cooper playing me. With it being set at Christmas it would be about another MIracle On Ice, telling a heartwarming tale of one man realising his dream to the joy of those around him. All I needed to do was get my rubber duck somewhere near the target.


Through my months of painstaking research I’d established that throwing underarm was the most effective technique. I also knew that I had to throw the duck slightly earlier than my rivals to ensure a clear passage across the ice for my duck. So when Pete, the host, counted down with a “Three, Two, One, CHUCK THOSE DUCKS!” I sent mine skyward as he finished saying “two”. Having had so much practice I could now tell if my duck was going to end up close to the TC as soon as I had let go of the duck. On this occasion I knew that this one would be close. There was a brief moment of tension as the duck left my sight when it sank below the level of the seats and hit the ice. If it got a kind bounce then I would be a contender. If it bounced at an awkward angle that could leave it yards away. Happily, when my duck became visible again it was heading in the right direction. It also had a good weight on it.


To my absolute joy, it came to rest a matter of inches away from the TC. The only question was whether or not it was the closest. When all ducks had come to a rest it looked to me like I was definitely closest. There was encouragement from those around me as I was told, “You’ve done it” and, “That’s yours, mate”. I was even offered a congratulatory handshake but declined it as I waited for the TC to make their decision. I agreed that mine looked closest but what if there was another duck that was somehow obscured from my vision? The TC was looking all around them and it looked like she was looking for some kind of excuse not to pick mine up.


She scrutinised the ice with a look of concentration reminiscent of a Master Chef judge sampling a pavlova. Those seconds seemed like hours but eventually, she bent down in the direction of my duck. I still didn’t want to celebrate until my name was read out. “Duck 49 – tonight’s winner is Griff!” announced Pete. It remains the best announcement that has ever been made in the history of sport! (Though I can’t actually remember the number of the duck) I was beyond happy! I celebrated, those with me celebrated and in the section around me the relief was palpable, as many spectators nearby had almost become as obsessed with my Chuck A Duck performance as the performance of the team they’d come to support! I won some Phoenix merchandise including a foam finger. All (apart from the puck shaped stress toy) was given away to some of my rivals.



While I was super proud to have finally achieved my goal there was now a danger that the victory would leave me feeling hollow inside, like when a girlfriend leaves you or you realise you’re no longer allowed in the local branch of Iceland just because you fell into a freezer while drunkenly reaching in to grab the last remaining Findus crispy pancakes from the bottom. And so, to retain my enthusiasm for the game following my incredible triumph I decided to showboat. After all, the pressure was now off. That way, I could still take part in the game I loved without fretting about the need to win. So during my extra long reign as Chuck A Duck Champion due to the Christmas break I hatched a plan for the first game when Chuck A Duck resumed.


Instead of aiming between the rafters and the plexiglass as I had done since starting my quest, I decided that as my first act of showboating I would now challenge myself and actually go between those rafters and then have the duck fall to the ice after safely negotiating that hazardous journey. If all went according to plan the duck would slide from a greater height and nestle next to the target child, enthralling the crowd around me as it did so.


I realise this sounds far-fetched after so many failed attempts to make the much easier shot I’d been attempting over the previous couple of seasons but that’s exactly what happened on my first attempt! One of the spectators actually left his seat twenty feet away, approached me and said, “Now, nobody likes a show off but that was seriously impressive!” I could not have got it closer to the TC had I walked behind her and placed it between her heels with my hand. Those that witnessed it were genuinely open mouthed as they congratulated me on a piece of sporting extravagance of such audacity it would have made the Harlem Globetrotters blush.


Unfortunately for me the duck had landed so close to the TC that when she looked around for the closest duck she couldn’t actually see it. To my horror and gasps of bewilderment from those around me, she picked up someone else’s duck. When the winning number was read out and it wasn’t mine, some of those around me and other eye-witnesses that could see a closer duck actually started booing. I did my best to quell the unrest by asking them to stop booing the six year old girl that was probably traumatised enough anyway by having just had an arena load of rubber ducks aimed at her.


I was disheartened but then continued to try other methods of showboating. With each attempt I would try to be even more ambitious. The one that stands out in my mind is when I decided that I would try to throw the duck (reminder – a standard rubber duck) with such power that it would sail across the entire rink, hit the dasher board on the opposite side of the rink then rebound with enough force to bounce back into the centre of the rink and nestle close enough to the TC to win me the prize. Admittedly I was a little naive with that thought process as the power needed would have required a canon the like of which isn’t available for anyone that isn’t kitting out a Royal Navy destroyer.


As it was, in my attempt to generate the power required to achieve the impossible I sacrificed some accuracy. I watched with an equal feeling of horror and embarrassment as the duck flew no more than 10 feet before it smashed into a TV screen above the heads of the spectators. The moment of impact created a bang the like of which hasn’t been seen since Krakatoa last erupted. Amazingly the screen remained in tact, though it did lose its picture as soon as my duck made contact. It then wobbled precariously on the bracket that held it above the heads of the spectators for a good few minutes. Upon impact, the guy sitting directly below it dived to his right, genuinely fearing that the roof was collapsing and was going to fall and do him serious damage. I’m still amazed that the bracket was strong enough to hold the screen up!


Looking back on it, my spectacular misdirection was probably a blessing. After all, had the duck made it anywhere near the ice with that amount of force there’s a definite chance that it may have hit the TC on the way over. I’m fairly certain that had it done so a full decapitation would have been avoided but can’t be entirely confident that it wouldn’t have resulted in a fractured skull. And so I consider a TV that was broken from that moment until the Phoenix left the arena 3 years later as a small price to pay.