Industry News Largest Growing Sport in North America Coming to St. Albert, Alberta, Canada
St. Albert Pickleball

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Largest Growing Sport in North America Coming to St. Albert, Alberta, Canada
Written by     May 12, 2013    
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It is Friday night at Servus Credit Union Place – almost 9 p.m. in fact, and the gym courts are busy.

On the first two courts young men are battling one another in half-court games of basketball, the repetitive tattoo of a dribbling basketball echoing off the surrounding walls.

But beneath the drumming of the basketball, there is another sound, a lighter, more convincing "thwack." Behind the drop-cloth that separates the court into threes, 10 people are holding court. Standing in twos on either side of tennis nets strung across a badminton-court-sized playing surface, they are trading blows in what looks like the most energetic game of ping pong ever played. Their racquets look like over-sized table-tennis paddles and the ball they strike looks like the family dog has gotten hold of it.

The game looks like tennis. It looks like ping pong. It bears a slight resemblance to badminton. It is called pickleball and if the group at Servus Place is any indication, it is about to become St. Albert’s next big sport.

On April 22, city council voted to spend $8,300 to create two pickleball courts in Lacombe Park, near the tennis courts off Larose Drive. It is a modest beginning for a sport that is growing rapidly from south to north as St. Albert snowbirds bring their experiences home in the summertime.

Dave Cuvilier spent Friday during the day measuring out the pickleball courts that will be coming to Larose Park. He’s a regular at the drop-in pickeball times held at Servus Place three times a week and is excited there will be more of a chance to grow the sport.

"I hope (the courts) are going to look great and I think they’ll attract people out," Cuvilier says.

In the United States, particularly in communities where retired people live, pickleball is the big sport to play. The court looks like a tennis court but is smaller, measuring 44 feet long and 20 feet wide. The net cutting the court in two is even a little lower than a tennis net.

Pickleball is typically played as a doubles’ sport with pairs facing off against one another. The rules are fairly straightforward. The first team to reach 11 points wins and only the serving team can score. Like tennis, a serve must travel cross-court. Unlike tennis, the serve – typically hit underhand – must be allowed to bounce once, as must the return, before it is struck. After that, it’s game on.

"It’s a quick game and it’s a position game," Cuvilier says.

That’s partly because of the equipment involved. The small but wide racquet and wiffle ball mean a powerful shot will travel quickly but not as far as a tennis ball struck with similar force.

"The wiffle ball is more of a hand-wrist and a bit of the forearm swing where tennis is a big swing," Cuvilier says. "Both are great sports but the quickness of the tap or the short swing of pickleball makes it a lot faster. There’s less power."

Yet part of the reason for its popularity is its accessibility. While it is predominantly popular with retired people, it is a game they can easily play with their children or grandchildren.

"This is a game for little kids who want to get used to a racquet and old people who don’t want to run around," Bill McDonald explains.

McDonald and his wife Lorna have just returned from wintering in Arizona, where pickleball is tremendously popular. There are 14 courts in their 55-plus community and those courts are typically packed with players.

McDonald sports a large brace on one knee as he surveys the slightly smaller crowd at Servus’ Wednesday drop-in time. Osteoarthritis, he says, so bad he’s due for a new knee in the near future.

"Wearing away the bone. Probably from playing squash," McDonald says.

Despite the brace, McDonald can play pickleball and play it well. He and Lorna started playing about four years ago and very much enjoy it.

"I need a new knee but I’m still out here playing so the game is suited for someone who is even slightly disabled," McDonald says. "I call it a sedentary sport for old people."

While players can run around the court, most of the action typically takes place at the net. All four players stand there, trading lightning-quick shots, striking the ball before it can hit the playing surface. There is one small area on either side of the net called the "no-rally zone" where powerful overhand smashes and the like are prohibited, but outside those lines, anything goes. That is part of the appeal, Lorna says. It is gentle on the body and easy to learn.

"How easy was it to just pick up that racquet and play? For children, for anybody? Tennis is a difficult game," Lorna says. "Pickleball, you can play it right away and have fun doing it, whether you’re good or bad at it."

"People (in Arizona) play well into their 80s," McDonald says. "And they play it well."

The outdoor courts are good news for local players especially. The three drop-in times at Servus Place are nice, but playing in a gym doesn’t compare to playing outdoors. Until now if anyone locally wanted to play outside, they had to travel to Spruce Grove, which built some courts last summer and is building more this year.

McDonald and Lorna say they started asking the city to build some courts or a least paint pickleball lines on tennis courts shortly after they learned how to play, but didn’t get anywhere.

"It was probably about three or four years ago when we got really excited about playing and wanted to play when we came home," Lorna says. "It wasn’t in their budget or something."

And what of the name? There are no pickles involved, no piece of equipment is called a pickle and if anyone is eating pickles nearby it is merely a funny coincidence.

As McDonald tells it, "Pickle was the name of the dog of the guy who invented pickleball."

Within the game, to be "pickled" means to lose 11-0.

And the name stuck. Unfortunate, according to Cuvilier, but there’s not much they can do about it.

"I mean the name doesn’t help the attraction and I guess we’re stuck with the name because of history," he says. "Other than that, we need to get the word out and grow the sport."

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