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Illustration by Drew Shannon

I thought it was probably just one of those urban myths.

For years there were whispers in the neighbourhood about a small group of somewhat overly refreshed gentlemen who played an extreme form of bocce every Sunday afternoon come rain, shine or blowing snow. Typically, the game of bocce is played on manicured grass. Well, there may have been some grass involved in their games, but none of the lawn variety.

These bocce boys, it was rumoured, would play where no self-respecting bocce ball would ever go. They flung that target ball with joyous abandon down rocky back alleys, bouncing down hot or icy pavement and careening into banks of snow.

It sounded cool enough to me; but was it true?

Then a little while ago, I spotted them. They were emerging out of a back alley in Inglewood on Calgary’s east side and spilling onto 19th street, heading for the old softball field. I remember thinking: there goes a unique clan phenomenon that I would enjoy. But it looked pretty exclusive, and I didn’t see any recruitment posters.

I know some influential women in the community, however, and chatting up a few I realized they might just provide my leverage. Powerful women often have pretty compliant husbands, and it turns out these back-alley bocce boys were open to “suggestion.”

The women got me in.

I now have several games under my belt and what a year it has been for a rookie. It’s been hot, it’s been wet and it’s been bone-chilling cold.

Speaking of which, remember Boxing Day? It was -28 C in Calgary. Five of us spent a couple of hours throwing that old target ball in the alleys. We figure we may have set a world Urban Bocce record. Not that impressive, I suppose, if no one else in the world plays the game under these conditions; but we’re throwing down the challenge.

The boys figure it all began around 2008. That’s when the Great Dane, the Train Guy, the Aging Ski Bum and assorted other misfits rolled up some spliffs, cracked open some cold ones, and threw their first uninhibited bocce balls. Miles, their leader, had begun the free-form tradition the year before, setting a wild tone with forays into the brush, up and over pesky obstacles, and onto thin ice in Pearce Estate Park.

Casey, the Aging Ski Bum, figures the existential brilliance of the game is the wonderful liberty that comes from having no court, no rink, no lines, no baskets, no referees and precious few rules.

But let’s not call them rules, maybe suggestions that may be enforced, or not. You always go where the guy who scored the last point throws the target ball; and this can take you down some serious blind alleys. One point if you throw your ball closer to the target than the other guy, two if you are within a ball’s width and three if you are touching. No whining or suggesting where you might want to go next; you go where the little ball goes, even if it ends up under a parked KIA Soul where nobody will help you retrieve it (just sayin’). Trash talking is definitely encouraged, but mercifully it so far remains a non-contact sport.

Really, it’s a “half sport” according to the Great Dane, Lars, who explained to me that by definition you can play the game with one hand while still holding a beer in the other. And like street hockey, you need lookouts … “Car!” Measurements as to who is closest to the target ball are handled with boot lengths and finger widths.

And the balls! You have never seen a set of once pristine, multicoloured bocce balls so pitted, so crudely decorated and so loved. None have broken in half, but three have been lost over the years to storm drains and such. These battered balls are poetry in the round.

The Train Guy, Davy, has the key ingredient for a successful bocce cult, a place to stash the balls and a sanctuary to thaw out and quaff a brew or two. Bocce boy Trevor, somewhat of a culinary genius, provides his delicious homemade soups and chili, as needed. The garage of which we speak is lifted directly from the pages of Man Cave International, if such a magazine exists. In fact, his garage would make a seductive centrefold in that publication. Play starts from the garage and leads to many social encounters, “Hi, how-are-yous?” and free beers around the neighbourhood.

For some reason, the neighbours seem to love these guys. Rosa, the elderly Italian woman down the block says: “These boys make me happy and fill me with memories from my younger days when my husband and his friends played bocce in the alleys.”

Drivers will slow down to ask who’s winning. The standard response is “we all are.” A while back, a car stopped while the game was occupying an intersection, and the driver said, “Excuse me, gentlemen.” That polite fellow, who was not really the one who needed excusing, was none other than former prime minister Joe Clark. The guys swear that Joe looked like he wanted to get in on the game.

Another witness, who drove by while the boys played through a typical Calgary blizzard, shouted: “That’s the most Canadian thing I have ever seen!”

In a time when Canadians are questioning the perennial need to escape winter, among other things, the bocce boys are saying: “Hey, whose turn is it, anyway?

Bob Chartier lives in Calgary.