Bowling for Canada’s game

January 20, 2010

Guelph Mercury, 01/20/10tommy_ryan

Guelph has given the world a lot of things. The Biltmore hat, Sleeman beer and John McCrae, the man who wrote In Flanders Fields.

But one of the coolest things this fair city may have ever done was to produce a young man by the name of Tommy Ryan.

Ryan may not be a household name, but the game he invented is, or at least it once was. The next time you pick up a hard urethane ball and send it rumbling down a wooden lane, toward five — not 10 — plastic pins, remember to thank him.

Ryan could’ve been a pitcher, so good was his stuff. The Baltimore Orioles saw this, and came calling. But baseball was not steady work in his era, and men of the likes of Babe Ruth, who would soon play for the Orioles, were not yet names that meant anything to men like Ryan.

Instead, at 18, he moved to Toronto and began working at more indoor pursuits. First, he helped run billiard parlours. Then he established the Toronto Bowling Club, a tenpin club above a jewelry store on Yonge Street. He brought in tropical plants and a string orchestra. It was a fancy joint.

Some of his customers started complaining — how Canadian is that? — that the American-style tenpin game was too heavy and too slow. So Ryan used a lathe to trim down his wooden pins, found a smaller, rubber ball, and created a lighter, faster game that captured the imagination of a whole country.

For 100 years the game Ryan created has endured. It’s been played in bowling alleys from St. John’s to Victoria. We developed leagues and players’ associations. At one time, daytime fivepin leagues were so popular many bowling alleys ran daycare centres and hired babysitters to take care of the kids while the moms played.

But the rumble and crash of Canada’s game is fading. Fewer and fewer Canadians are playing fivepin in any organized way. Membership in the national association that oversees league play was still hovering around 170,000 in the late 1970s. Today, it’s closer to 29,000.

And when we do bowl for fivepin, it’s often under the guise of something called cosmic bowling. For the uninitiated, that’s bowling under black lights, with glowing carpets, glowing laneways, glowing pins and thumping dance music. Kind of like being stuck with a bunch of teenagers in a bad, loud version of the movie Tron.

As with so many things in our country, the American version of bowling gets more publicity, more money, more entrepreneurs. While they’re talking about high-end boutique bowling clubs that are bringing new players and a new revival to the game in the U.S., we’re talking about closing alleys and a dying game.

Veterans of the sport figure the Canadian game will be extinct within a few generations.

When a bowling game was developed for Nintendo’s Wii console, it was for the tenpin variety, of course. A whole generation of kids who have never stepped into a local bowling alley might think this is the only way to play the game.

This is Canada’s game. Yes, we claim hockey, curling and lacrosse, too. But so do other countries. No where else in the world do people play fivepin.

This is our game, and a man from Guelph invented it.

Greg Mercer is a journalist who lives in Guelph. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at

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