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Altona fondly remembers when crokinole was king

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ALTONA -- Decades ago, rural folk would frequently hunker down on a snowy winter's night, cut off from the rest of the world, to play a rousing, tension-filled game of ... crokinole?

"Crokinole was as popular as television today," explains one old-timer in a new documentary Crokinole: The Movie, billed as "the one flick you must see" by Canadian filmmakers Josh and Jonathan Steckley.

Not so much today. Many crokinole clubs and tournaments have ceased and downright desisted. The Altona Mall ran its last crokinole tournament several years ago.

Don't blame Altona's Occupational Training Centre (OTC) for mentally handicapped workers. The workers, with the help of support staff, churn out 500 all-wood, smoothly lacquered boards per year. The boards are available on site, or at toy stores Toad Hall and Hans Christian.

It's a niche market, explained general manager Richard Neufeld. "Often times we find items that aren't produced elsewhere but where there is still a market."

The Altona centre also makes: those wooden, collapsible clothes-drying racks that many of us remember in our grandparents' laundry rooms (they're sold at Pollock's Hardware on Main Street); soft drink crates, "university students like them for furniture," said production manager Lloyd Giesbrecht; industrial pallets; and mole traps, but that's a whole other story.

Crokinole is still in the blood of many people here, says local resident Henry Stoesz, 79. He remembers playing by the flickering light of kerosene lamps. Growing up, he once played crokinole from morning to midnight against his brother. Every home had a crokinole board.

It's not like that anymore, but there are still small tournaments at some of the churches. He also visits a seniors' home to play.

Stoesz has modified his board by adding another ring of bumpers. He's also rigged a table with a hole in the centre so his crokinole board can be swung around like a lazy Susan.

In Crokinole: The Movie, 1999 world champion Dan Shantz explains that you don't always need other people to play crokinole. He'll often turn his shooting hand into four players, with a finger representing each player.

As to what makes a top calibre player, Shantz says: "You've got to have your finger connected to your head."

The movie climaxes with the annual world crokinole championships in Tavistock, Ont., the "cradle of crokinole," where the first board is believed to have been made.

How do you play crokinole? You flick the disc like in a schoolroom game of hangers (although some experts say the trick is to push the disc) and try to get it into a hole, like golf. You use checkers discs, but the board has no squares. There are bumpers, but the discs hit them with a polite, barely-audible 'thhecck' sound.

The OTC board is made of birch plywood, and the sides from pine. Crokinole is popular in seniors' homes. Seniors and children often prefer to use cues made of a 14-16-inch long piece of three-eights-inch dowel. "The dexterity is a little hard for children," said Neufeld, whose two young boys prefer cues.

The OTC operates on a ratio of one support staff per three workers. There are nearly 60 workers in the workshop.

Sales provide about 25 per cent of OTC funding, with the rest coming from the province. Workers can keep the first $100 they earn, but after that it comes out of welfare payments. At least 15 workers have graduated to full- or part-time jobs outside the centre, at Friesens Printing and the Co-op Food Store, and gotten off social assistance.

Crokinole has been played for about 130 years. It has long been held that Amish or Mennonites in Ontario's Perth County invented the game, but Wayne Kelly, author of The Crokinole Book, maintains the inventor was craftsman Eckhardt Wettlaufer, a Lutheran. However, Canadian wordsmith Bill Casselman maintains crokinole is a rip-off of tavern game called squails, imported by British immigrants.

Author Kelly said the game was popular among Mennonites because it has "nothing objectionable," unlike playing cards, which can be used to gamble.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2006 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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