It's bowling, the Canadian way Five-pins: The sport's found nowhere else in the world, aside from some military outposts, but national pride may not be enough to rescue this uniquely Canadian game from a slow decline.

Sun Journal

July 07, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

TORONTO -- As Leona Gasse picks up the 5-inch red ball, she studies -- for what, maybe the two thousandth time? -- the five little pins before her.

Hit the head pin straight on and, chances are, that's the only one that will fall down. Five points. Big deal.

But get a nice little curve into the pocket and then she's looking at a 15. That would be nice, eh?

With an expertise developed from 25 years on the lanes, she steps forward and rolls the ball her daughter gave her as a birthday gift. It finds the desired arc, a gentle curve that lands between the first and third pins.

The big X, the mark for a strike, fills the overhead screen. The cheers go up from teammates Vi, Sadie and Valda. Leona is on her way to a 189. She's beating them bad once again.

"This is about the only thing I do," gushes Gasse, 61, a Toronto native. "I really love this game."

Up north in the land of ice hockey, the most popular sport in the nation doesn't require a pair of skates or a frozen lake. A couple of two-tone rubber-soled rental shoes sure come in handy, though.

Eat your heart out, Wayne Gretzky. The No. 1 participant sport in Canada is five-pin bowling, a game that somewhat resembles Maryland's own duckpin bowling -- if Maryland should ever suffer a severe pin shortage.

It is a sport found nowhere else in the world -- aside from some Canadian military outposts. That inspires a certain amount of national pride. But not enough, apparently, to rescue the game from a slow decline.

Since bowling's heyday of the 1950s and '60s, when automatic pinsetters brought it to prominence, five-pin bowling lanes have been closing across Canada. Where 40 five-pin bowling alleys once could be found in the downtown Toronto business district, none exists today.

And that game from the States -- tenpins -- is creeping up in popularity. Two decades ago, there were more than twice as many five-pin as tenpin alleys in Canada. Today it's about 55 percent five-pins to 45 percent tenpins, says Kevin Jepson, executive director of the Canadian 5-Pin Bowlers Association.

"The game is culturally and historically significant to Canada," he says. "But the five-pin centers are closing and the tenpin centers are being built. What can you do?"

The industry has reacted by looking for creative ways to attract bowlers. The typical bowling center in Toronto boasts both five-pin and tenpin lanes, is open 24 hours, and features a big, full-service bar and a fast-food outlet.

The biggest marketing push in the past several years has been "Glow Bowl," where balls and pins are coated with a glow-in-the-dark material and the alley lights are dimmed. The adults-only events -- with pulsating rock music and free-flowing alcohol -- are often so packed with players and spectators that the alleys have had to hire bouncers to keep order.

That's a far cry from 1909, when an obscure Toronto billiards-parlor owner created the game in a kind of plantation atmosphere that featured a string orchestra and palm trees. After first installing tenpins -- and finding few customers (perhaps because the game was too time-consuming for businessmen on their lunch hour) -- Thomas F. "Tommy" Ryan tried something different.

He whittled down the maple wood pins to three-quarters their original size and borrowed the 3 1/2 -pound hard rubber ball used by Baltimore-born duckpin bowling.

Why he decided to use just five pins, nobody knows. But perhaps to make up for the loss in pins, scoring was made generous: five points for the head pin, three for the next two pins on either side, and two points for the outside corners.

With the same bonuses awarded for strikes and spares as other forms of bowling, that makes a perfect five-pin game 450. That's 50 percent more than a tenpins top score of 300 (and coincidentally parallels another Canadian gripe: the U.S.-Canada currency-exchange rate, but that's another story).

Because of the small ball and fewer pins, the game relies less on power and more on precision and consistency. It's also better suited to women and children who struggle with tenpin balls that are four times as heavy. In this game, a bowler can't just heave a ball with all his might and hope that tumbling pins knock each other down.

"You get three balls each frame and sometimes you need all three to knock down those five pins," says Pat Rutherford, 52, a Toronto grandmother who bowls in a five-pin league. "There's a lot to like about the game."

The 1909 version of the game was even tougher. It provided enough space between the pins to let a ball slip between them. That little frustration was later removed by putting thick rubber bands around the pins to broaden the targets.

At O'Connor Bowl in North York, a working-class community on Toronto's east side, all 24 lanes are devoted to five-pin. Bowling lTC here is like stepping back in time. Equipment predates the transistor. Furnishings bear that distinctive pea-green color found only in bowling alleys.

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