Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Weird name, fun game

Community centres make room for fast-growing racquet sport of pickleball

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Bonnie Gabbs is a retired phys-ed teacher. She has had her right knee replaced -- "Twice, cause they screwed it up the first time." -- and is awaiting surgery on her left. The former Winnipeg School Division instructor also has a 25-centimetre-long scar along one shoulder, thanks to a rotator cuff injury. If that isn't enough, she suffers from depression.

In December 2012, Gabbs attended an active living seminar at Seven Oaks General Hospital's Wellness Institute. One of the items on the agenda was pickleball -- an odd-sounding racquet sport that combines the speed of tennis with the adroitness of badminton. Gabbs used to be a competitive badminton player so she was naturally curious -- more so because she'd been looking for physical activity she could handle, now that she couldn't even jog without pain.

Gabbs's sister was at the wellness institute with her and told Gabbs to forget it -- that she wouldn't be able to play pickleball because "You have no legs."

"Well, last week I wore a pedometer (while I was playing) and by the time I was done it read 17,680 steps," boasts Gabbs, who now plays pickleball three hours a day, three times a week on one of three temporary courts at Sturgeon Heights Community Centre. "I joined this group about a year ago and since then I haven't been to the doctor once. My cholesterol is down, my blood pressure is down and my depression has absolutely gone away. It's been just unbelievable."

Believe this: a game that was invented by accident almost 50 years ago is now one of the fastest-growing sports in North America.

"There are over 100,000 players in the U.S. and here in Canada, I would say there are about 10,000 -- a number that is growing constantly," says Grant Brittain, spokesman for Pickleball International, an Abbotsford, B.C.-based organization that will host the third annual Pickeball Canada National Open Championships at the Abbotsford Recreation Centre later this year.

Although the majority of people who play pickleball in this country belong to the 55-and-over crowd, it's a different story south of the border, Brittain says. (The game was imported to Canada by snowbirds who took a shine to it in places like Arizona, Florida and Texas.)

"In the States, pickleball is part of the school gym curriculum," Brittain explains. "Real pickleball tournaments (there) are not about age but about being rated according to skill. It's not uncommon to see 13-year-old kids competing against 30 and 40-year-olds."

The person responsible for pickleball is Joel Pritchard, a Republican politician from Washington. The story goes that in 1965, Pritchard and some buddies returned to his home in Bainbridge Island, Wash., after a round of golf. Somebody suggested they play badminton but that plan was scuttled when nobody could find a shuttlecock.

Pritchard decided to make do with a perforated wiffle ball. He lowered the badminton net to accommodate the plastic ball's lower trajectory, then he fashioned a set of ping pong-style paddles out of some plywood he found in his garage.

As for the tag "pickleball," don't believe the story that it was named for Pickles, Pritchard's dog, who supposedly disrupted games by running off with the ball. Before Pritchard died in 1997, Washington's former lieutenant governor dispelled that myth, stating "pickle" was instead a reference to pickle boats, slang for the slowest boat in a race and a reference to how "quickly" Pritchard and his chums moved around during a game.

Nowadays, pickleball is played by two to four people in an area roughly the same size as a badminton court. The net is the identical height as that used in tennis except it droops slightly -- about five centimetres -- towards the centre. The hard, plastic ball is served underhand, cross-court. Points are awarded to the serving side only. Games go to 11, but you must win by two.

The biggest difference between pickleball and other racquet sports is its non-volley zone - a 2.1-metre-long by 6-metre-wide space on both sides of the net that players cannot volley the ball from. Combatants are allowed to set foot in the non-volley zone -- it's called the "kitchen area" -- but only if a returned shot has bounced inside it first.

Pickleball may be popular among Winnipeg's senior set but don't be fooled into thinking it draws participants more used to the pace of shuffleboard or lawn bowling. Larry Ladyman, for example, is a former Manitoba badminton champion who represented this province at the national championships multiple times during the 1950s and '60s.

About five years ago, one of Ladyman's friends invited him to the Wildewood Club to give pickleball a try. "I'd been playing badminton for over 60 years and the first time I played (pickleball) I quit badminton and took this up instead -- it's that good," says Ladyman, who usually arrives at Sturgeon Heights Community Centre with his brother, Terry in tow. "I've also introduced it to my grandkids, who are 19 and 12. They agree it's great exercise."

Another familiar face at Sturgeon Heights is Steve Meszaros, a Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame inductee for his accomplishments in soccer. Meszaros was introduced to pickleball about three years ago and has turned his love of the game into a side business -- albeit, a not-so-lucrative one.

"About the only place to shop for pickleball racquets is online but a lot of people our age don't like shopping that way," says Meszaros, who also plays alongside his wife at Norberry-Glenlee Community Centre on Molgat Avenue a couple of times a week. "My father and son both live in Vancouver so when I go there to visit them, I stop in Abbotsford and pick up a bunch of racquets. I don't charge the people here anything extra -- but I do save them each a few dollars in shipping." (Racquets range in price from $40 to $100 and are made of wood or composite materials.)

On the morning we showed up at Sturgeon Heights, 14 people were already going through their warm-up routines. Come back in a few weeks and that number will have tripled, Meszaros says.

"A lot of the men and women who are usually here are down south right now," Meszaros says, coaxing a scribe to put down his pen and pick up a racquet. "But on a normal day, we'll have 12 people playing, and another 20 at least waiting to get on."

If you're a newbie and show up without equipment, no problem, Meszaros goes on. Most of the clubs that host pickleball have a few extra racquets kicking around for people who want to give the game a shot, which is precisely what occurred when St. Vital city councillor Brian Mayes showed up at Jonathan Toews Community Centre last summer.

"I found out it was being played outdoors at Jonathan Toews so I went there and played with them," says Mayes, describing himself as a "very poor tennis player.

"I kept missing shots because I would swing when I was two feet away from the ball. But because the ball doesn't bounce as high as a tennis ball does, I found out I needed to be about one foot away."

Whenever the city revamps tennis courts in Mayes' end of the city, one of the objectives will be to have pickleball lines painted on them at the same time, Mayes says.

"It's definitely a growing deal and the people who play at Norberry tell me they're already at capacity. Next we're hoping to play indoors at Glenwood Community Centre, where they don't have the ice in the arena all year. And at Greendell (Park Community Centre), too, which has a nice gym where people already play badminton."

If there is one knock against the game, it's its moniker, Mayes says with a laugh.

"I've always thought this sport is held back by its name. I mean, there has to be some better name out there than pickleball."

That said, Mayes does has one idea rolling around his head that could take the sport to the next level, in terms of popularity.

"I've been saying for a while now we should stage an outdoor tournament in the courtyard at city hall, with one of the portable nets the groups use. Maybe come spring I can even convince the mayor to play me in a game or two."

For more information on where to play pickleball in Winnipeg, contact Steve Meszaros at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2014 D13


Updated on Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 9:39 AM CST: corrects typos in second and third paragraphs

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