Millennium Lanes has kept the ball rolling for 20 years..
Owner Cherie Robinson and her husband, Dave, built the bowling alley together in 1999, opening near the end of that year – right at the turn of the century.
“It was my husband,” said Robinson. “It was all his idea and I kind of went along with it.”
Dave had been working in Calgary and when the business he was employed with was bought out, he thought he might open a bowling alley in Okotoks, a town which, at the time, had a population of just under 10,000 and not much for extracurricular and recreational entertainment.
He had helped build an alley in Saskatchewan years before for someone else, and had managed the business for them.
“So he had this thought in his head and we kind of went with it and made it work,” said Robinson.
They worked through the winter to put a business plan together and contact suppliers to put in lanes. Within a year the bowling alley was a reality.
But the business wasn’t easy to run, at first.
“It was a real rough go the first seven or eight years, just because the customer base was so small for such a big endeavour,” said Robinson. “But we’ve really seen the change of people coming through the door and Okotoks has changed.
“It was a sleepy little town when we first came out here, and not so much anymore.”
They began operating leagues from the get-go, and Robinson said they were pretty popular when the bowling alley first opened its doors and people discovered something new to do in town.
For the first few years the bowling leagues were full, and though membership has changed over the years and the number of leagues has declined, she said the people who remain truly love the sport.
One of those members is current alley manager, Wendy MacDiarmid, who has been keeping things humming at Millennium Lanes for almost three years.
But she’s been bowling there for 12 years.
“I’ve always enjoyed bowling,” said MacDiarmid. “My parents did it for many years, I went through the youth program also, that’s where I started. I was really the only one out of my siblings that carried it on. It was my way to get out one night a week when I had four kids.”
It was a fun but inexpensive weekly getaway for the busy mom when her children were growing up, and two of her kids also participated in youth bowling. Now, her grandchildren are growing up at the lanes, visiting while she works. One also takes part in the youth bowling league.
“He kind of grew up here at these lanes,” said MacDiarmid. “My daughter was bowling here when she was pregnant with him, so he literally grew up here, so it was natural for him to start bowling. He saw it so much.”
Millennium Lanes has become a night out for her mother as well, who is now 85 years old and lives alone in Calgary. It’s a chance for her to get out and socialize.
Bowling is a very social game, said MacDiarmid – only one person is on the lane at a time, and the rest have the chance to chat and enjoy one another’s company while they wait.
She said the biggest change of note was when owner Dave passed away in June 2014.
“There was a big emptiness that a lot of people did feel,” said MacDiarmid. “It just wasn’t the same.”
Over time new managers tried different approaches, but it never felt right. When MacDiarmid took the position in 2017 she pledged to return things as close as possible to the way Dave ran them – particularly when it came to maintenance and leagues.
“From what I hear people are happy with some of the things I’m bringing back to Dave’s way,” said MacDiarmid. “It just makes their life a little easier and makes them feel they’re appreciated.”
One of those changes is to allow bowlers to “bank a week’s worth of bowling.” Members can come to the alley and bowl three games, then bank their scores rather than paying for them immediately. Then in time, if they are too sick to come out to league or get called in to work, their scores can be paid for and put towards that week’s games.
People are also able to bowl ahead of time and put their scores toward specific dates, if they know they’ll be away on vacation or busy with other commitments.
“It seems simple, but these little things really can make a difference for our regular league players,” said MacDiarmid.
There’s something else she’s been focusing on since becoming manager – lane maintenance. It’s something Dave did with pride, and MacDiarmid said she works hard to keep them in the best shape possible.
Of course, with mechanical components there is always the chance of something failing unexpectedly, but she does her part to ensure they’re working well most of the time.
That also extends to the flooring, which switched over from wooden lanes to synthetic about seven years ago. She said the synthetic is much easier to manage, and less easily damaged when people inadvertently loft the ball when they release.
It’s still a lot of work to keep them in good condition.
MacDiarmid’s weekly routine includes sweeping the length of each alley on Mondays, then washing thoroughly from the foul line to the arrows and coating the same section with oil.
The oil is an essential part of the game.
“That’s what helps it play the way you need it to play,” said MacDiarmid. “It just gives that little extra. When it’s not on the oiled part, it just has some extra glide. There’s not as much friction, so it’s going to have the speed you’re going to want.”
One of the newest additions to Millennium Lanes is the 300/700 board on its wall, which lists people who have scored either 300-plus in a single game or 700-plus over three games. MacDiarmid made the wall with chalkboard paint so it’s easy to change, and the black is noticeable from across the bowling alley.
It’s a good way to show off how league bowlers are doing, she said.
In the summer of 2018 when the wall went up, one of the youth bowlers passed away. Eight-year-old Caleb Honish had been an avid bowler and his dad, a youth coach and adult league member was well-known in the Millennium Lanes community.
“As soon as I heard that it had happened I instantly said, ‘Well, this is going to be dedicated to him,’” said MacDiarmid. “Bowling was a really big part of his life, and there was no questions asked – this was going to be Caleb’s wall.”
The dedication meant a lot to dad, Kyle Honish, who coaches the Youth Bowl Canada (YBC) teams. It’s just one of the many reasons he appreciates Millennium Lanes.
“Everybody here has been so supportive,” said Honish. “It’s been a family, it really has been. Some friends just aren’t the same, but this place has been above and beyond.”
In addition to the wall, a tournament for youth is held in Caleb’s name.
It’s an honour for the man who has been coaching the young bowlers at Millennium Lanes since the alley started running.
He had moved to Calgary from Manitoba and was looking for a place to bowl, then heard a new bowling alley would be opening up in Okotoks.
“I thought, what an opportunity to go into something new and just to see the growth in the place,” said Honish.
He met with Dave and began coaching right away in 2000. At the time he was still bowling in Calgary, but by 2004 he had made Millennium Lanes his home club.
Over that time he’s helped develop the largest under-age bowling program in the Calgary region.
“When national enrolments are dropping drastically – we’re talking 10 years ago there were 30,000 youth bowling and now it’s down to 7,000 – our numbers remain stable,” said Honish.
He hasn’t been alone. There are now seven coaches for YBC and all seven are regular bowlers themselves and come with their own experiences to help out.
Over the years the numbers in all leagues has fluctuated, but the programs have always remained strong, he said.
“I look at the adult league and it’s constantly changing but it’s always full,” said Honish. “Some come, some go. I think the fun has been the constant.”
Robinson said the fun was what Dave loved about the business – that and the people.
“People still walk through the door and ask about him,” she said. “He had a real presence with the league people, with the community. He made everybody feel welcome here.”
Though her personality is different from his, Robinson said she’s determined to keep up that welcoming atmosphere in the bowling alley in his honour.
She has now retired from her full-time job and is stepping back from volunteer commitments to devote more time to the business she and her husband started together 20 years ago.
“Okotoks has been good to us,” said Robinson. “I can’t say anything other than that. They’ve been really good to us, the people support us well.”