Kris Draper was never a Lady Byng candidate when he played for the Detroit Red Wings. He had an impolite style, sometimes mouthy, frequently prickly, always edgy and persistent. That’s probably why Draper initially rejected the idea that a sport called pickleball might be for him during the COVID pandemic.
“The world was shut down and my buddy asked if I wanted to come over and play. I kind of laughed, and said: ‘No.’,” Draper recalled. “Then he said: Have you ever played? That’s the first reaction when you hear it — no one wants to play. But then (former Detroit teammate) Dan Cleary and I went over and played, in my buddy’s backyard, and I was hooked right away.”
Three years later, Draper is one of an estimated 36 million people in America playing an increasingly popular sport that combines some of the elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. It’s paddle sport with a plastic ball. You can play singles or doubles. Draper is also among a chosen few of retired pro athletes who have been invited to play for various events as a celebrity competitor for PRO PBX. If you go to the PBX website, you will see Draper’s photo in the first row of athletes with NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry.
Other celebrity competitors include former major leaguers Tino Martinez, Kent Mercker, John Smoltz, former Detroit Tigers player Luis Gonzalez and former NFL quarterbacks Rich Gannon and Jake Plummer.
Older NHLers Try New Sport
Pickleball seems to be particularly popular among former NHL players. In addition to Draper, the PBX lists Frederik Modin, Patrick Sharp, Peter Bondra, Paul Holmgren and several others. Current Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen is also listed by PBX. But Kekalainen’s job and Draper’s job as assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting limit their participation in the events.
Draper was like most professional athletes in that he sought ways to compete, even after he hung up his skates.
“When I retired I golfed and worked out,” said Draper, 52. “But (you miss) the competitiveness, the one on one battles, the opportunity to chirp your opponent, the opportunity to get chirped.”
As anyone who knows Draper would suspect, he plays pickleball with commitment and conviction. And based on what we heard from Dan Cleary about his matches with Draper last summer, the sports is perfect for chirping or trash-talking.
“I hang out with Drapes every day,” Cleary said. “We’re constantly playing pickleball nonsense. He’s passionate about it. Drapes is a great guy. He’s a winner, he’s passionate and he’s so competitive.”
Draper vs. Cleary
Is Draper better than Cleary?
“We battle,” Cleary said. “I don’t know. He’ll probably say it’s him. We’re okay. We’re pretty even…I love his passion for the pickleball. He has gotten a lot better.”
Draper said he and Cleary were even when they first started, but Cleary plays more golf and Draper has moved more into pickleball. Now there’s some separation in Draper’s favor.
“I play a ton,” Draper said. “It’s a great workout. It’s everything I want to get in on a workout. I love the competitiveness. I love the game.
Draper and Kekalainen got together to play when the Blue Jackets and Red Wings were both competing in the NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City last September.
“As you can imagine, Draper is very competitive,” Kekalainen said. “I love his passion for the pickleball and I can see why he was such a passionate hockey player as well. He wants to get better at it and works at it and has gotten much better. I have a lot of respect for someone like that and I really enjoyed playing with him at Traverse City.”
The PBX isn’t a league or tour. It offers an opportunity for organizations to bring in celebrities to run clinics or showcase the sport. Draper did participate in an event last summer in Columbus. But Draper also competed in tournaments (not connected with PBX) last summer.
He was recruited to PBX by Holmgren who is a former NHL player, general manager and team president. (Holmgren) knew the limited time Draper has for events.
“(He) understands that with my job (with the Red Wings) I’m not going to be able to take a week and say, ‘Hey Steve (Yzerman) I’m going to a PBX event,” Draper said, laughing. “My involvement is primarily in the summer time.”
But that doesn’t mean Draper is committed to being a better player. He played competitive tennis until he was 15, and that experience helps him in pickleball. However, it’s background as a pro athlete that helps the most.
Pickleball seems to attract former NHL players. Kekalainen has played with Rick Nash and says he could be a quality player if he played more frequently. Al Iafrate, Mike Krushelnyski, Bob Bassen, Dave Bolland, Lindsay Carson, Mike Del Zotto, David Emma, Garnet Exelby, Ruslan Fedotenko, Lou Franceschetti, Adam Hall, Michael Garnett, Mike Hartman, Cody Hodgson, Glen Metropolit, Scott Pearson, Ron Sutter, Dixon Ward, Erik Westrum and Carey Wilson other ex-NHLers who are pickleball enthusiasts.
NHL Pickleball? Drapes Would Love It
Draper said former NFL quarterback Drew Brees plays pickleball and he has made it known he would love a chance to play against him. Draper has played against pickleball pros. How does his game stack up?
“I’m not even close,” Draper says. “Those guys are next level. It’s the same thing when you thinking about hockey players. How close is someone to being able to play 82 games in the NHL? You realize you are not close…I’ve watched these pro pickleball players and it’s a complete next level. I’m 52 years old. These guys are so young. When I played in an open bracket in Grand Rapids, I was one of the oldest guys.”
Draper would like to see a pickleball tournament for former NHL players. He believes he could do well in that kind of tournament.
“I think (Carolina Hurricanes owner) Tom Dundon is working on it,” Kekalainen said. “He owns the PPA (Pro Pickleball Tour). He is a real good pickleball players…I thought he was just owner of the PPA, and then I played against him and he’s really good.”
Best Athletes Succeed in Pickleball?
Draper believes there’s logic to the notion of hockey players becoming the best pickleball players because he views them as the best athletes. Their hand-eye coordination and agility work well in both sports.
“I was talking to Kent Mercker, the former major league baseball pitcher,” Draper said. “He was at the event in Columbus…He asked me: ‘Out of the four major sports, who are the best athletes?’ I said: ‘I said it’s pretty simple, it’s hockey. I can hit a baseball and throw a baseball, but you can’t skate and you can’t shoot. We were kidding around. Football I can do that. Basketball? Same thing. And on the pickleball courts, we will be the best players as well.”
Draper said. “We had some nice banter about that. It was a lot of fun.”