Pickleball Isn’t Just for Seniors — Just Ask Stanley Cup Champ Kris Draper

The former Red Wing is just one of many who have taken to the fastest-growing sport in the U.S.
Kris Draper pickleball
Since retiring from the NHL, former Red Wing Kris Draper has traded in his hockey stick for a pickleball paddle.

It’s shortly after 11 a.m. on a Thursday in West Bloomfield, and Kris Draper is in a heated argument. Much like during his playing days, the former Red Wing and four-time Stanley Cup champion is disputing a call with conviction. Unlike in his 20-year hockey career, the argument ends with Draper and his opponent sharing a handshake embrace, acknowledging that the debate was just for laughs. 

They’ve just finished a rousing game of pickleball. 

“It’s competitive,” says Draper, 50, who played 1,157 NHL games including 17 seasons with the Red Wings. “Everyone has their moments, good and bad, but it’s a really good game. Just a lot of fun.”

For the uninitiated, pickleball is more or less a combination of tennis, badminton, and ping pong. It’s typically played on a court that’s 20 by 44 feet, with a net that’s 3 feet high at the ends and 34 inches in the middle. While the size of the paddle resembles that of a tennis racket, it takes on the shape, feel, and touch of a ping pong paddle. It’s played with a plastic Wiffle ball, neon green. It is also the fastest-growing sport in the U.S.

After his faux confrontation, Draper works his way back toward the gym bag sitting courtside and starts packing up his gear. Thus concludes one of the high points (maybe the high point) of his day. “You get great exercise, meet so many good people, and you get to compete,” says Draper, who lives in Oakland County. “I’ll be honest — after I retired, I missed that, having the ability to go out and play, go out and compete.”

From a career perspective, Draper is still all in on the game of hockey. The Toronto native was promoted to Red Wings director of amateur scouting in 2019 and is constantly touring the globe in search of the world’s best hockey prospects, on behalf of the team he once served as an assistant captain.

In his first draft in the new role, he even had the chance to select his own son, Kienan Draper — a University of Michigan commit — as the Red Wings’ seventh-round pick. 

But up until 2020, nothing gave him “that adrenaline rush” like stepping onto the ice once had. That changed when former Wings teammate Dan Cleary invited him and Shawn Horcoff (Cleary serves as Red Wings assistant director of player development; Horcoff was recently promoted to assistant general manager for the team) out to a game organized by Dee Geelhood of The Sports Club of West Bloomfield.

Kris Draper teams up with pal Tom Lin for a game of doubles.

Geelhood had taught tennis lessons for 30 years but gave it up to be the club’s accountant — so she could have time to play more pickleball.

“I can tell you that people stick with pickleball,” Geelhood says. “People are not moving on. They start it, and not only do they stay with it, they get addicted to it.”

Despite being skeptical about the name “pickleball,” Draper gave it a go, and as it turns out, Geelhood was right. “When I heard it, I was just like, ‘Really?’” Draper says. “When you tell somebody that you play pickleball, unless they play it, that’s the reaction they have. … Next thing you know, we’re major addicts.”

Draper now tries to play pickleball every day he’s in town. He has a wife, Julie, and two daughters, Kennedi and Kamryn, as well as his son, Kienan. For two decades, they’d ask, “Dad, how was hockey?” Now, he gets “Dad, how was pickleball?” (Draper admits that the latter doesn’t pay nearly as well.) 

He even took his equipment with him to the 2021 Ice Hockey U18 World Championships, in Texas, and had a routine with fellow NHL executives Jarmo Kekäläinen, Scott Mellanby, and Marty Lapointe: “Wake up, go play pickleball, go to the tournament.”

They’re not alone in their infatuation.

By 2019, pickleball had seen a 650 percent increase in participation, over the previous six years (per USA Pickleball), and then exploded another 21.3 percent, to 4.2 million players, around the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2021 Topline Participation Report.

It was an alternative to tennis — one of the few activities that could be played outside and allowed for social distancing — that is much easier to get the hang of, which also increases the likelihood that people who try pickleball will keep playing it.

Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S.

“That’s kind of what I enjoyed about pickleball — all you gotta do is return it,” Cleary says. “Not to sound rude, but older people can kick your ass at this sport, if you’re not any good. It just goes to show you, it’s a sport for all ages, and once you learn the sport, learn the angles, that’s how you get good at it.”

In early February, Cleary had knee replacement surgery while still recovering from a back injury. When he gets “off the shelf” this summer, he won’t necessarily have the option of picking up tennis, which entails more running around and necessitates power, or a game like squash, whose violent stops, starts, and swings do a number on the joints.

“Given the amount of torque and pounding your body takes [in other racket sports], for me — not being as healthy, with my knee and back — pickleball allowed me to be competitive,” Cleary says. 

What Cleary and Draper love about pickleball is something that adults tend to forget: Competition is one of the best motivations to exercise.

Chef Tom Lin, co-owner of Szechuan Empire and frequent competitor in Food Network’s array of cooking competitions, picked up the sport three years ago. He’s already a senior pro and has become a regular participant in Geelhood’s games with the Wings executives.

When Lin realized inflammation was limiting his ability to move around the court, he cut sugar out of his diet. “After I picked up this game, I started to focus on my fitness; I started eating right,” Lin says. “Anybody can do it. I dropped 12 pounds this year, because of pickleball. … This is the first time I’ve felt good. I feel much healthier, and that’s just a great feeling.”

Starting a gym kick in the middle of a pandemic can be a drag, and to Lin’s point, eating healthier without exercising is usually a surefire way to let old habits resurface. Pickleballguide.net estimates that a person can burn 500-700 calories in a single hour of play — and that’s part of what’s kept people coming back.

“It’s like when Pac-Man Fever first came out, you know? That was a craze,” says Jason Parr, a longtime pickleball enthusiast who has helped along the celebrity pickleball crew.

Kris Draper pickleball
Kris Draper tries to play pickleball every day he’s in town. 

Parr’s brand, Dinktroit (a “dink” is a type of pickleball shot), offers clothing through Kid Rock’s Made in Detroit line, which makes it no surprise that Kid Rock loves the sport too. 

A Draper-Kid Rock match is “gonna happen,” says the former, once he’s developed a technique better suited for singles. In the meantime, the pair are members of the group of influential people who are helping to push this game into the mainstream. Another is Tom Dundon, owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes and the popular sports entertainment company Topgolf, who purchased the Professional Pickleball Association in January of this year and is adapting the Topgolf format to develop a simlar apparatus for pickleball. The sport is now broadcast on ESPN. And Draper himself graced the cover of Pickleball Magazine in December 2021.

If you search “pickleball” on the internet, there’s a good chance you’ll find that a court has recently opened near you. With all this momentum, Parr envisions seeing Dinktroit apparel on the racks at sporting goods chains around the country, the sign of a growing industry at large.

“That’s going to drive more people [to the sport],” Parr says. “I mean, you’re seeing pickleball paddles at Meijer now. … It went from ‘What is that?’ to ‘No, we’re getting it. We’re going to add it.’” 

You probably won’t find Draper shopping for paddles at the grocery store, as he finds this endeavor to be quite a serious one. He hopes to compete in tournaments someday and never wants to be teammates with the best player. His sessions on the court are as much about “going to practice” as they are “going to exercise.”

That’s the main reason this group gets along so well: They all care about getting better. They study the top tournament matches, watch YouTube lessons, do their best to learn from the pros.

But when you boil it down, what they enjoy most is the chance to have fun while exercising, master a craft, and talk a little smack about things that don’t really matter.

“I won’t let Kris Draper get to my head,” Lin says. “He tried to intimidate me, threaten me — no. No way. I will not let him get into my head.

“You can write that down.”

This story is from the 2022 edition of Health Guide. Read more stories here