My Canada, 67/150: Five pins of fun

In the southern U.S., it’s known as “Canadian Bowling.”

To many Canadians, it’s just “bowling”.

Many Canadian inventions, whether in or out of sports, are proudly known by most as being home-grown. But five-pin bowling — with its smaller ball, rather than the usual 10 pins set in triangular formation, struck down by a larger ball with grip-assisting holes drilled in it — is something you rarely find outside Canada, and few Canadians realize it was invented here.

67 Bowling Elmira
Elmira’s five-pin bowling alley still thrives. Photo: Kelley Teahen

When I was a child, there was — and still is — a five-pin bowling alley in my hometown. It’s now licensed to serve alcohol and down by the pins are enormous video screens showing other sporting events.

Things were a little simpler in my childhood bowling days. The alley was a great place to hold a birthday party once children were a little too old for kiddy games but too young for much else. I distinctly remember one time when the Basler Twins (it seemed each grade had a set of twins, and we had the Baslers) had their joint little-girl friends over to the alley as a party treat: we rented our shoes, threw our fair share of gutter balls, ate snacks, and had fun.

In 2012, The Torontoist published a terrific article about the inventor of the five pin. bowling game, Tommy Ryan.

A hat tip to writer Jamie Bradburn, whose description I’m going to quote at length because it says it all, and in fine form. He tells us that Ryan in 1905 opened a 10-pin bowling alley in downtown Toronto, which was set up as a private club “along with perks like a cafeteria, a piano, music from a live string orchestra, and surroundings decorated with lush tropical plants. The club proved popular with downtown business elites and lawyers, who rushed over for lunchtime games.

“Ryan soon noticed grumbling among his clientele. Regulars hated lugging around 16-pound bowling balls, which left them sweaty and fatigued by the time they returned to their offices. The game moved too slowly for them to fit a full match in before their half-hour lunch breaks were over. Ryan tinkered away in the hopes of inventing a game that was speedier and less stressful, but still elegant enough to appeal to his upper-crust customers.

“Ultimately, he reduced the pin count down to five, shaved the pins, and shrank the balls down to a compact three-and-a-half-pound size. While testing his new form of bowling, Ryan discovered the lighter pins flew everywhere after being struck, including out the window. To prevent potential pedestrian casualties, he placed rubber bands around the middle of each pin for stability.”

He introduced his five-pin game in 1909 and it was a hit with his club members; it soon spread first through Toronto, where it became more popular than 10 pin, and then spread through Canada.

Today, the adjective “elegant” is not the first one that pops to mind when I think of five-pin bowling. To up the party quotient, places add lasers, light shows, loud music, all manner of embellishments. In Toronto, many alleys now offer a split between five-pin and 10-pin lanes, with some lanes embedded in bars or other venues with a mix of entertainment offerings.

But some things don’t change. The shoe rentals. The so-bad-it’s-good food. And the thrill of knocking down all the pins (five in Canada) — or the agony of gutter defeat.

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