The name of the game draws looks of confusion, and often amusement. It brings to mind the colour green and names like Bick’s and Vlasic. But there are no pickles in pickleball, the fastest-growing sport in North America.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake Pickleball Club officially formed on Jan. 1, 2018, with about 80 members who had been playing casually at the community centre. Just over 15 months later, the club boasts 140 members and a beautiful, brand new outdoor facility in Virgil outside the Centennial Arena.
The new courts will be formally opened by Lord Mayor Betty Disero on Saturday, June 15 at 10 a.m. Club vice-president Nick Lamb is inviting the public out to take part in the celebration, and to give the game a try.
Pickleball has been around a lot longer than you can probably imagine. According to the United States of America Pickleball Association (USAPA), the game was invented in Washington State in 1965 by congressman Joel Pritchard, businessman Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum. Pritchard’s property had an old badminton court on it. He and Bell couldn’t find a full set of badminton equipment, so they improvised by playing with ping-pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball. After first playing with the net at the badminton height of 60 inches, they eventually settled on just over half of that, at 36 inches. The following weekend, McCallum joined them, and they began to hash out some rules, keeping in mind the goal of creating a game that all members of the three families could play.
The USAPA was formed in 1984, and the game had spread to all 50 states by 1990. Its history in Canada is a bit fuzzier. It’s widely believed the game spread here, first out west, by snowbirds who had played pickleball in the American south. The Canadian National Pickleball Association, now known as Pickleball Canada, was formed in 2009.
To newcomers, probably the best way to describe the game is as a mash-up of a number of different racquet sports. The racquet itself has a solid surface, similar to a table tennis paddle, while the feel of it in the hand is a bit like racquetball. The net is close to the height of a tennis net, while the court is similar in dimensions to a badminton surface. And the hollow plastic ball, dotted with holes, like a wiffle ball, is unpredictable, like a badminton birdie.
Sixty-four-year-old Nick Lamb first picked up a composite pickleball racquet about 18 months ago at the NOTL Community Centre. The retired TD Bank executive, though, says he has played in places like Biloxi, Mississippi and elsewhere in the U.S. In fact, Lamb hopes the town will come to be known as a destination for travelling pickleball enthusiasts (known as picklers), further boosting Niagara-on-the-Lake’s tourism profile.
Club member Arlene McGuire beat Lamb to the punch, picking up the game in its pre-club days three years ago. In the five years McGuire has resided in NOTL, the club has become a big part of her social life. She says the first few times she visited the community centre there were about four people playing. The steady growth of the club’s size has pleased her, as it has given her more people to play both with and against.
As a former racquetball and squash player, McGuire was drawn to pickleball as a great way to stay active without doing any further damage to her knees and ankles. And that’s a common point made by many pickleball players, such as John Hindle, who calls the game “a compromise — a little easier to get, less hard on the knees, yet it keeps you active.”
Because of that, it seems, membership in the NOTL Pickleball Club has skewed toward the senior demographic. According to Lamb, the members range in age from about 50 years old to the mid 70s. But, as he is quick to point out, younger people shouldn’t be discouraged from coming out to try the game. McGuire has even brought her 12-year-old grandson to the indoor courts.
A visit to the new outdoor courts on their first day open found a number of members raving about the new facility. The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake had set aside $85,000 to refurbish the original tennis courts on the site. Club president Case Bassie was instrumental in working with the town staff to convince them the change to pickleball was the way to go. Town staff agreed, and work began last fall.
On a sunny Saturday morning, this reporter found all the members of the club welcoming and courteous. Lamb was quick to offer me a racquet to use, and I was invited into a game as Hindle’s partner, playing against Jim and Ann Sifton.
It took only a few hits to get used to how the ball moves off the racquet. The rules and lingo of the game (stay out of the “kitchen”, unless the ball bounces in it; a “flabjack” is not something you eat for breakfast; a “dink shot” is what you want to aim for) are different than the other racquet sports, but also easy to catch on to. As a newcomer to the sport, I found myself probably playing a bit too hard. Hindle and I won the game, but I’m pretty sure the Siftons were taking it easy on me.
It’s easy to see why the club members are so enthusiastic about the sport, and about the new courts. The gritty, colourful finish over the asphalt provides better grip than the hardwood of the indoor facility. There are six courts, comfortably spaced apart so as to not have overlap, which can be a problem on the three courts at the community centre. And the wind adds a new challenge to the outdoor game, making it that much more fun to play.
The club members would like to see the game become even more popular than it already is. The key to that could be bringing pickleball to school-aged children. After all, if kids grow up playing a game that’s easier on the joints, they can play the same sport the rest of their lives.
Back to that name. It seems no one truly knows how it came to be known as pickleball. One story has a cocker spaniel named Pickles who sat courtside, springing into action every time an errant ball rolled by. The more likely story relates to the Pritchards’ love of rowing. It seems Joan Pritchard was fascinated by the legend of the crew whose oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers from other boats. The name of that boat was the Pickle Boat.
No matter how the sport got its name, it truly is a fun pursuit all ages can enjoy. The NOTL Pickleball Club hopes to see many newcomers and curiosity-seekers out on June 15, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For information, visit notlpickleball.ca.