Ken Hurshowy, 74, watches from the sidelines in wry amusement. There are “silver” and “gold” players, he explains, those who play for fun and those who take it personally. These hotheads? They’re golden. Quite frankly, so is he.
“I have a competitive gene in me,” says Hurshowy, who picked up the racket four years ago, becoming south Edmonton’s pickleball “kingpin” within six months. “Some people take it very seriously. A lot of people just take it as a fun event.”
In the wide world of racket sports, pickleball is Frankenstein. Players swing Ping-Pong-esque paddles, putting bizarre spins on a whiffle-ish ball thwacked over the net, strung at a tennis-like height. The game is played in a badminton court, ideally renovated to enlarge the “kitchen,” the front portion of the court where “dinking” — the word for a shallow volley — is disallowed. You can’t just stand at the net and smash everything down, in other words.
Everything about pickleball — the slow ball, the small rackets, the kitchen — is designed to accentuate defence, not offence. The rules are designed to preserve the rally.
No one seems to be able to explain why the game is called what it’s called, though. Back in 1965, a group of neighbours on an island near Seattle dreamed up the game as a summertime boredom-crusher. Early games were interrupted by a ball-stealing pooch named Pickles, the story goes, though others insist the dog was named after the game. The term “pickle boat” can refer to a slow boat in a rowing race, or a crew filled with castoffs.
The game caught on, particularly with seniors. It thrives in American retirement communities and has made peregrinations with Canadian snowbirds. Recent stats list nearly 300 Canadian venues. A national Canadian pickleball association was set up in 2009, around the time the game was introduced at Edmonton’s Central Lions Senior Centre.
Linda Dane, one of Edmonton’s earliest evangelists, took that group from seven to 80 members within two years. These days, she says, local tournaments can feature up to 120 participants, and competitors battle for bragging rights at various seniors games. Other local pickleball groups have popped up in St. Albert, Spruce Grove and Sherwood Park.
The signature wooden paddles of old, initially cut from plywood, have given way to composite and aluminum constructions, much like the braces favoured by players. In Phoenix and Florida, retirement communities have retrofitted countless tennis courts. A tournament in Utah features cash prizes. Could a professional circuit be far away?
The Terwillegar group, exclusively amateur, drop-in and 55-plus, is a perfect example of the game’s potential for expansion. They started in 2011 with three courts, then moved to four, and now six — 24 players at any given time — with a dozen players waiting on the sidelines to step in, roughly half and half across gender lines. There are sessions three times a week, not counting the Tuesday-morning session perfect for beginners, complete with loaner paddles for those who want to try.
At this point it appears they could make a claim on the remaining third of the gym, but Hurshowy notes this is peak pickleball season in Edmonton, after golf season and before snowbirds head south for the winter.
Among today’s victors is Leigh McMillan, a longtime Austin O’Brien High School gym teacher who remains active and trim at 80. Back in 1954, McMillan returned punts for an Edmonton Eskimo team stacked with Johnny Bright, Don Getty and Norman Kwong. They won the Grey Cup in 1954, crushing the Montreal Alouettes in Toronto, but he was too young to go to the bar to celebrate afterwards.
That’s not a problem anymore. While most pickleball games are capped off with a drink in a coffee shop, the Friday crew heads to the pub every now and then, this time to honour McMillan’s farewell to his 70s. It’s an incredibly social game, McMillan observes. Friends gather for barbecues or dress up together for Halloween. He gave up hockey a couple years back, and his new favourite sport provides a new physical challenge and a friendly environment.
“It’s something my wife and I can do together,” McMillan says. “We tried playing tennis, but tennis is harder. You don’t have all the stop and start.”
Hurshowy will turn 75 next month, and has been playing even since spotting a story about the sport in the Journal four years ago. Within a month, he’d dropped a notch on his belt and felt some relief of his back pains. After six months, he’d taken the reins of the Terwillegar group after the previous organizer headed south, asking Hurshowy to mind the shop while he was gone. He never asked for it back.
Hurshowy chairs the Edmonton Pickleball Club, which is seeking non-profit status and is currently organizing a winter indoor tournament for Jan. 9th at Archbishop Joseph MacNeil School. They hope to bring the game outdoors between May and October, repurposing a set of underused tennis courts in Royal Gardens into a round-the-clock pickleball facility. There’s a steering committee, agreements to be struck, grant applications to be processed. It might cost upwards of $200,000 and take 1,700 volunteer hours to bring rundown courts to tournament standards. But the pickleball community rarely backs down from a challenge.
So far, he’s signed up 148 for the new club, and they’ve put dozens of hours of sweat equity into the new courts. Who knows? He might even be willing to let “younger people” play too. If they’re willing to stop giggling and give it a chance
“It’s such a goofy name. You say, ‘what the hell is pickleball?’ ” Hurshowy says. “A lot of people do dismiss it, because of the name, until they see it played or listen to me.”