Gunslinger

In the previous post we discussed the rules of Canadian baseball, which are still not well known beyond Canada’s borders. But, while most people may not have heard of Canadian baseball, they have at least heard of baseball. In contrast, when it comes to that other great sport played in Canadian summers, gunslinger, I’m always a little bit surprised, when I speak to people outside of Canada, that they have almost never even heard of the sport before.

I guess this does make some sense, since it’s not played all that much these days..especially not since we started having indoors skating rinks everywhere that allow hockey to be played year-round. Back in the old days though, gunslinger was the number one way that Canadian athletes kept their skating skills sharp during the warm half of the year. It was, in some ways at least, the quintessentially Canadian sport, mixing hockey and tennis (which the British-era colonials were obsessed with)with the gunslinger ethos of the old (North) American West.

The rules of gunslinger are simple enough:

  • Players can use a tennis racket or a hockey stick, and can switch back and forth between the two at will, either by going to their bench to swap utensils or by going to their bench to sub players.
  • Each team is allowed one Lone Gunslinger in the game at any given time. The Gunslinger, uniquely, carries both a hockey stick and a tennis racket. The racket the Gunslinger keeps sheathed in a holster slung over his (or increasingly, her) shoulder, to draw and re-holster at will
  • on a football-field-sized, tennis-court-surfaced rink, on roller skates, players score a goal by hitting a tennis ball through an upright goal. (In most gunslinger facilities, the uprights are the same as those used in American football for field goals).
  • When the ball goes out of bounds, a player on the opposite team gets to tennis-serve it back into play from the sidelines
  • Like hockey, games are usually played 5 on 5, with three 20 minute periods, 2 minute penalties, and sudden death overtime

That’s about it, for the core rules of the game. Much of the fun of the sport comes from its strategic stick/racket/gunslinger mixing – the great Canadian dialectic – with sticklers at an advantage whenever the ball is close to the ground, racketeers at an advantage playing the ball in the air and scoring, and the Lone Gunslingers cooly ready for any situation, as any gunslinger worth the name must be.

At the height of the sport a century ago, games usually resembled something between an orderly war-game and (especially given the quality of 19th century roller skates) a violent mess. In the modern game, knowing what we now know about head injuries, a few adjustments have made, some for the sake of safety and others for the sake of fun:

  • the ‘Wimbledon border’: rather than have the big gunslinger rink be directly surrounded by hockey-style boards, instead there is now about 10 feet of grass between the rink and the boards. The ball is still in-bounds when on the grass; the grass mainly serves to slow down skaters so that they cannot hit opponents into the boards at high speeds. (Players do hit opponents into the grass at high speeds sometimes, but those who try for a big hit of this kind and miss will often fall into the grass themselves, so high-speed dangerous hits are relatively rare, and players’ heads do not crash into boards or hard surfaces even when big hits do occur).

  • the ‘Flip on the fly’: because teams’ benches are situated behind the rink’s 10-ft-wide grassy border (though there is a narrow path through the grass to reach the bench), any player who wants to rapidly swap his stick for a racket or vice versa has the option of doing so ‘on the fly’: by tossing his or her stick/racket across the grassy border to a teammate on the bench, and then another teammate further along on the bench throwing a new stick/racket across the grass back to him or her. This is not mandatory, but when executed properly it is fast and damn cool.

  • the trampoline goalie. This is probably my favourite modern gunslinger innovation. It seems to have been inspired by slamball in the 1990s….or perhaps quididitch in the 1990s. In gunslinger facilities equipped to handle trampoline goalies, the goalie creases are large, circular trampolines on which only goalies are allowed to stand. The trampoline goalie-only creases are then surrounded by a circle of grass. The goalies wear shoes, not skates, and carry no stick or racket. If they catch the tennis ball in the air, they can only bounce once on the trampoline before throwing the ball back into play; failure to do so results in the opposing team getting to serve the ball inbounds from the corner sidelines. In some trampoline goalie gunslinger rinks, the upright goals have been replaced by quidditch-style upright hoops, sometimes quite high off the ground. Of course, the higher off the ground the upright goal is, the more gymnastic and well-timed the goalie must be, and the harder it is to score a goal with a stick rather than a racket. (Just don’t tell that to Pavel Birkenov, who is currently leading the Kelowna Dancing Bears in scoring despite having more stick goals than racket goals!)

Just like bandy in Scandinavia and Russia, gunslinger is a skating sport that has mostly been forgotten about in the world at large – despite having everything a sports fan could want: speed, skill, strategy, simplicity, sharpshooting, soccer-sized stadiums, and lots of opportunities for fans to snag balls hit into the stands during the game. This is a real shame; superstar Condor Macphearson, the starting lone gunslinger for the Edmonton Tar Heels and the league’s top scorer, is well worth the price of admission on his own. (Forgive me for saying this, but Macphearson may be the fastest-draw the ole’ Western conference has ever seen). With fans finally starting to fill stadiums again, it’s time we finally, finally bring the sport back out of the wilderness. It’s time for gunslinger to go global.

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