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Pickleball gains traction among active seniors

Jay Massey, left, returns a volley as her teammate Betty Bailey watches at the Five Points Center for Active Adults in Raleigh, N.C., on Aug. 7.
Jay Massey, left, returns a volley as her teammate Betty Bailey watches at the Five Points Center for Active Adults in Raleigh, N.C., on Aug. 7.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – No one gets body-checked, and speedy skaters have been replaced by white-haired folks who often wear knee braces. But at least South Florida’s roller-hockey rinks are seeing some action.

Pickleball, a game similar to badminton, is filling up the empty rinks that dot area parks.

“Roller hockey has kind of died off, so we’ll give pickleball a shot,” said Joe Fazekas, recreation manager for the city of Oakland Park, Fla.

As South Florida’s baby boomers begin to age, they may be looking for something more enticing to play than shuffleboard. Hence, pickleball. The game is usually played with a wooden paddle and a sturdier version of a perforated whiffle ball on a court one-third the size of a tennis court. Players often double up, which means even less ground to cover.

In recent years, pickleball has become popular with seniors. One senior community in Central Florida, the Villages, has 108 courts. Pickleball advocates say the sport appeals to people who still have tennis in their hearts, if not in their limbs.

“If you’ve played any kind of a racquet sport, learning it is almost instantaneous,” said John Wilder, of the Palm Beach County Parks Department, which hosts pickleball matches in a roller-hockey practice area at Caloosa Park in Lake Worth, Fla. “And there’s nothing involving an overhead motion, so people with bad shoulders can play.”

South Florida municipalities built roller-hockey rinks shortly after hockey exploded here: In 1996, the Florida Panthers advanced to the Stanley Cup final, and kids took to the four ice rinks in the area, then found a palatable substitute in playing the game wearing inline skates.

Since then, the Panthers have faltered. The team’s playoff appearance in 2012 was its first in 12 years. Perhaps as a result of the team’s troubles, interest in roller hockey is cratering.

“Everybody I’ve talked to is trying to find another use for their courts,” said Don Decker, Weston’s park and recreation director and past president of the Florida Recreation and Park Association.

Weston included eight roller hockey rinks when its regional park opened in 2000. It has converted one to a skate park, but is debating what to do with the others, Decker said. Other municipalities, such as Davie, are considering adding artificial turf to create soccer fields. But the town also has painted three pickleball courts length-wise across a roller-hockey rink at Pine Island Park, and could fit six if the concept of a Tuesday-and-Thursday morning league comes to fruition.

Each state has at least one USA Pickleball Association ( “ambassador” – a local advocate – to disseminate information about games and lobby parks to get on board.

Mitchell Ball, of Hallandale Beach, Fla., fell in love with the game during a visit to Central Florida and became one of the 51 ambassadors in Florida.

“My goal is to open a court a month,” he said.

Pickleball reportedly was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island by three children looking to play a variation of badminton. Their dog’s name was Pickle, and because he had an affinity for the ball, pickleball was born.

When Delray Beach, Fla.’s Harriet Berks Kalin, an ambassador with her husband, Josh, spreads the word about pickleball, her conversations and emails include the same slogan: “Funny name, great game!”