They came. They saw. They played croki­nole

WORLD CHAM­PI­ONSHIP

National Post (Latest Edition) - - WEEKEND POST - BY GREG MERCER Week­end Post

TAV IS T OCK, ON T. • Pee wee hockey ban­ners hang from the rafters here, but for one Satur­day each year, this is the house that croki­nole built.

Ear­lier this month, 350 play­ers from around the con­ti­nent con­vened on an ice­less com­mu­nity rink in tiny Tav­i­s­tock, a farm­ing town tucked in the flat dairy coun­try north of Wood­stock. It’s the kind of place where trac­tors rum­ble down the main street and the towns­folk sell used clothes, books and baked goods on their front lawns, an­tic­i­pat­ing the ar­rival of worshipper­s of the orig­i­nal Cana­dian board game.

Dur­ing the World Croki­nole Cham­pi­onship, it’s the only game in town. Play­ers drive days to be here, pitch tents in the mu­nic­i­pal park and spend hours con­torted on plas­tic chairs, all un­der the watch­ful eye of vol­un­teer ref­er­ees in neon cross­ing guard vests.

They’re all here for the love of the sim­ple wooden board game born in the ru­ral heart­land of On­tario — though there’s some de­bate about its true ori­gins — which ap­pears to be en­joy­ing a re­vival with ev­ery sharp flick of a new fa­natic’s fin­gers.

Though Cana­dian ex­pats have ex­ported the game around the world, Tav­i­s­tock re­mains the clos­est thing croki­nole has to a cra­dle. Lo­cal his­to­ri­ans be­lieve crafts­man Eck­hardt Wet­t­laufer built the first known board here as a birth­day gift for his son in 1876. For more than a cen­tury, the game lived on in farm houses, fire halls and church base­ments.

The rules are sim­ple and have been al­tered lit­tle since Wet­t­laufer’s first board: Games can be played with two or four play­ers, who take turns flick­ing small, round wooden discs across a slick, pegged board, in search of en­emy discs and points. Se­niors of­ten play a ver­sion us­ing short wooden cues. In all games, the home runequiv­a­lent is the 20-point shot, or a “doo­gie,” which is sink­ing a disc into a hole at the cen­tre of the round board.

Oh, and your chair must re­main static with one but­tock touch­ing at all times.

“It’s as old school as it gets,” says Brian Cook, a Toron­to­nian who, for the third year straight, was crowned world cham­pion at Tav­i­s­tock, claim­ing a $1,000 prize for first place in the com­pet­i­tive sin­gles cat­e­gory, the gold stan­dard of croki­nole.

By day, Cook works as a re­searcher for the city’s pub­lic health depart­ment, and says his in­famy on the croki­nole cir­cuit takes some get­ting used to.

“For 364 days a year, I’m ig­nored in Toronto. Then I come here, and it’s this,” he said, sur­vey­ing the crowd at the Tav­i­s­tock & District Recre­ation Cen­tre. “I like to say I’m big in small-town On­tario.”

That seems true: When he plays, Cook’s fo­cus at­tracts crowds who spec­u­late on his next move. He’s the man to beat, and every­one knows it.

“When he comes in the room, we bow,” says Fred Slater, a mem­ber of the Toronto croki­nole club.

There’s no deny­ing the ap­peal of a tour­na­ment in which grey-haired farm­ers en­gage in bat­tles of at­tri­tion with shaggy teenagers, and packs of play­ers ar­gue fer­vently over what “speed” of gran­u­lar wax is best, wear­ing T-shirts that read: “I came. I saw. I croked.”

“I see this as a back­lash against video games,” reck­ons Lon­don’s Greg Matthi­son, cre­ator of the World Croki­nole League, who imag­ines clubs in ev­ery town across On­tario and be­yond. “Some peo­ple are just com­ing to it now. We want this to be a novel idea again.”

Part of the re­vival is thanks to the cham­pi­onship it­self, an idea that be­gan in 1999 when Tav­i­s­tock went looking for a yearly event be­yond its sauer­kraut sup­per. The gath­er­ing has el­e­vated the game to its most organized level yet.

That alone has in­creased Canada’s claim to supremacy in the game, even if croki­nole’s true be­gin­nings are as shrouded in mys­tery as the se­cret lac­quer that the board’s mak­ers ap­ply to their prod­ucts. Some spec­u­late its ori­gins may come from the French, and their word cro­quig­nol, which means lit­tle bis­cuit or cookie. Sim­i­lar games were also pop­u­lar in Bri­tain and In­dia, and vari­a­tions of those may have formed the ba­sis of the game Euro­pean set­tlers brought to On­tario in the 19th cen­tury.

But one thing seems not to be in dis­pute: If you want the best croki­nole boards, you want the Cana­dian-made ver­sion.

“They’re go­ing out the door as fast as I can make them,” boasts Wil­lard Martin, who in­her­ited an Elmira, Ont.-based croki­nole busi­ness from his fa­ther and now sells his boards from Nor­way to Aus­tralia. “I guess I’ve shipped to pretty well ev­ery cor­ner of the world.”

A truly global game this is not, how­ever. At least, not yet. Just ask Ire­land’s John O’Brien, who was in­tro­duced to the di­ver­sion at a Water­loo physics in­sti­tute and might be the first man to bring a croki­nole board to the Emer­ald Isle as carry-on lug­gage.

“When I brought it home, my fa­ther just looked at it,” he re­called. “Then he said, ‘What the hell is that?’ ”

GREG MERCER FOR NA­TIONAL POST

Brian Cook sets up his big win at this year’s cham­pi­on­ships.

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