Wicked Wickets: YHMA pegs its hoop dreams on croquet

Nancy Oakley has a cool story about the likely origins of croquet. (As the executive director of the Yukon Historical Museums Association and convener of Saturday’s second annual Charity Croquet Tournament, of course she does.)

It goes like this: “Some shepherds were hanging out, watching their flocks, and they needed something to do with their time. One said, ‘Hey, we all have hooks, you have a leather ball, I have some willow for hoops, we can go knock some stuff around’.”

That was in 14th century France. “It popped up again in a backyard in Ireland,” Oakley continues, “and a gaming company in England says, ‘Aha, that is a great idea’. “They created the sets we know today and they spread out among the empire and somehow made their way to the Klondike during the Gold Rush.”

So, what sparked the popularity of this game?

“There is nothing like the feeling of taking your sister’s ball and smacking it all across the field and into the bushes,” says Oakley. “You just can’t put money on that.”

OK, this was less of a professional assessment, and more of a personal connection to the game.

But, really, that is how croquet evolved over the centuries: it was played in backyards with rules, without rules, and with little to no record keeping. “From the Gold Rush era, to 1920s flappers, to 1970s polyester, it seems every generation finds a way to re-invent the sport in their own image,” says Oakley.

The most frantic Calvin & Hobbes rendering of the game is pretty close to the extreme play in some of those backyards.

Then there are the prim and proper games where players, dressed in white, conform to international rules and make spectacular jump shots. “It can be a fun, social thing, or it can be this complex game of chess on the lawn,” says Oakley.

Her own evolution began much more close up than for the rest of us. Her father, Don Oakley, is the owner of The Croquet Store in Brighton, Ontario. “Sales and manufacturing,” says Oakley. “He’s the guy.”

Her earliest memory of the game is playing on her front lawn for the cameras of the local CBC station.

So, last year, when she needed to come up with an idea of how to raise money for the good works of the YHMA, and to encourage Yukoners to connect with their heritage, the first annual tournament was launched on the lawns alongside the S.S. Klondike. “It was a lot of fun,” Oakley says today. “You don’t know, when you throw out this idea of a croquet tournament, what reactions we would get or how hard we would have to sell this. “Fortunately, the Yukon is one of those places where the weirder or the more fun an idea is, then people are right there with you.”

Nine teams played and there were 150 spectators throughout the day.

Last year, as they are this year, players were encouraged to dress up … and even some of the spectators were decked out in their Gold Rush finery. “There is something about Yukoners,” says Oakley. “If you give them an excuse to get dressed up in period costumes, they will take you up on it.”

Oakley’s father is providing the equipment as a corporate sponsor and he will be officiating. Another sponsor, Air North, will be flying the equipment to the Yukon for free. And the local airline will put up the grand prize of a pair of round trip tickets to anywhere Air North flies.

Other prizes will be awarded for best costume, team spirit and the Sticky Wicket (just think of the Yukon Quest’s Red Lantern).

The day will be capped off with an Après Croquet, featuring a barbecue and beverages donated by Yukon Brewing.

And there will be private tours of the S.S. Klondike.

Teams can register through the YHMA’s website at www.heritageyukon.ca.

The game will be Golf Croquet which, Oakley says, can be learned in five minutes.

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