3. 2. 1. Polo

Recounting the story of hardcourt bike polo in Calgary, Alta.

Story and design by Willis Hoff

“I had no idea that bike polo was even a thing,” is often the response when the words ‘bike’ and ‘polo’ are mentioned together. Since the early 2000s, hardcourt bike polo has made a steady climb in popularity among bike enthusiasts across Canada – and Calgary is no exception.

Justin Gullickson heard about the sport through his work as a bike courier. “I was at the courier championships in Montreal in 2004 and saw a bunch of guys playing polo in a parking lot. I was just hanging out and someone asked if I wanted to play.

“After that first game, I think I played the rest of the weekend.”

By the time Gullickson got home to Calgary, he had discovered a new addiction that needed to be fed. “I wanted to keep playing, so I built 20 or 30 mallets and kept them in a golf bag in my garage.” Every Wednesday night after work those mallets were pulled out and distributed among the emerging polo crowd.

By 2008, the Calgary hardcourt bike polo scene was bursting at the seams. “It got so big that we actually had a league with 10 or 12 different teams that would play two nights a week,” Gullickson says.

It was during that time that the first polo tournament was held in Calgary.

But it wasn’t until their second tournament that they made quite a splash in the North American polo community. “We actually did a cash prize – like $1,500 or something. No other tournament had done anything like that, but it’s a hard sell to get people to come up to Calgary.” That $1,500 brought polo players in from Seattle, Portland and even New York.

Bike polo had put Calgary on the international stage, and in 2011 the group hosted the North American Championships in Inglewood. The Calgary Bike Polo club was alive and well.

But something changed that summer. Avid bike polo player Brad Neufeld had just recently stumbled upon the bike polo community during the summer of 2011. “One night I was riding down an alley near the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre, and this dude rides by and hands me a card and says, ‘hey man, you look like a guy who should play polo.’”

He didn’t know it, but he was being recruited to be a member of the new Rogue bike polo group – a split by members of the founding group who did not want to play competitively.

“I used to get really frustrated,” Gullickson says. “They would always want every game to be fair but my answer to that always was ‘play more, get better.’”

“I came along at the high point,” Neufeld says, “but then there was this long, slow decline.” With the community divided, the initial excitement around the new sport waned and interest in the sport fizzled.

“It never died completely,” Gullickson says. “Numbers were just way down and there weren’t regular nights anymore.”

There were still enough enthusiastic players kicking around and with some new blood coming into town, Calgary Bike Polo was able to rally. Robson Blair and Thom Hoff were among those players who worked at breathing life into the bike polo community again. “In the last couple years, those guys have been stepping up, and it’s kind of bringing things back,” Gullickson says.

“It’s been good to see.”

Neufeld has also played a significant role in the polo resurgence in Calgary. “We’ve been slowly throwing little one-day tournaments, and we figure this is the year to do a multi-day tourney.”

The bike polo community is hopeful, and interest in bike polo is growing in Calgary. With citywide events like Cyclepalooza – featuring polo and the backing of bike shops like BikeBike and Prime Tune – the resources for a revival are solidly in place.

Recently, Blair and a few others have travelled to different cities to participate in hardcourt bike polo tournaments. “Wherever I run into polo cats – Vancouver, Saskatoon, Edmonton – they always ask: ‘What happened to you guys? We thought you fell off the map. It’s good to have you guys back,’” Blair says.