SACO — The sounds of the busy bowling center fade away as Don Saucier steps up to the lane, ball in hand and eyes focused only on the 10 white candlepins in front of him.

He lifts the ball slowly, then with three quick steps and the swing of an arm sends it spinning toward the woods. Only after his ball cracks against the pins does Saucier turn around and smile.

“I still think I’m going to win all the time,” he says with a laugh.

The 73-year-old Old Orchard Beach resident got used to winning during a career that included five world championships. Now, the humble former champ who only recently returned to the lanes has been selected for induction into the International Candlepin Bowling Association’s Hall of Fame in October.

It is an honor some say is long overdue for a bowler who consistently competed with the best of the best during the heyday of candlepin bowling in Maine in the 1960s and 1970s.

“He was the best shot maker there ever was and still is. He earned it years ago,” said John Foster of Biddeford, a 1974 world champion bowler who has known Saucier for 50 years. “I’ve never seen anyone better.”

Saucier is among nine new Hall of Fame inductees from across Maine and New England, including Valerie Joy of Windham and Judy Bowden of Newport. Forty of the roughly 100 bowlers in the Hall of Fame are from Maine – a strong showing by a state that has long enjoyed the challenge of the game, said Rick Jones, president of the Maine State Candlepin Bowling Association.

FROM BOWLING’S HEYDAY

Saucier got his start in bowling back when the game was so popular his native Biddeford had three candlepin bowling alleys; there are none now. Everyone, it seemed, played in a league or on the weekends. Interest in the sport has waned over time, but some in the industry say there is a renewed interest in the unique Yankee tradition.

Candlepin bowling is played almost exclusively in New England and the Canadian Maritime provinces. It was invented in Worcester, Mass., in 1880, but never spread far beyond the region, said Mary Campo, executive director of the International Candlepin Bowling Association.

“There are now about 200 candlepin bowling centers in New England and Canada,” she said. “In the heyday in the ’50s and ’60s, there might have been close to double that number. There’s been a lot of change in that industry.”

Much of that change has come in the way candlepin bowling centers operate, but also with an influx of 10-pin – or “big ball” – bowling centers into a region that had long focused on a different game.

“The business model in the ’50s was very different. You could go to a bowling center and the primary business was bowling. Those types of centers are barely surviving now,” Campo said. “Bowling centers have had to diversify.”

While some candlepin bowling centers have added extra features like laser tags and mini-golf, there has also been diversification in the bowling industry in Maine with the arrival of 10-pin centers with restaurants and bars in Portland and South Portland. Campo said that is part of a nationwide upswing in the popularity of bowling.

Jones, who co-owns the Big 20 Bowling Center in Scarborough, said he has seen a bit of renewed interest in candlepin bowling in recent years, which he believes stems from people rediscovering bowling as an affordable family activity. There are about 30 candlepin bowling centers in Maine and there has been increased interest in the state tournament during the past several years, he said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s making a huge comeback, but it’s picked up some momentum again,” Jones said. “It’s alive and well here in Maine.”

Die-hard bowlers like Saucier say the sport lends itself to playing at all ages: It’s fun, good exercise and the 2.5-pound balls are light enough for children and seniors.

HE POSITIONED THE PINS

Saucier’s interest in bowling dates back nearly 60 years to his first job at a bowling alley in Old Orchard Beach. It was 1953 when he became a pin boy – one of the last in the state before mechanized pinsetters took over, he said. Each day, he’d climb above the back of the lane and reset pins over and over again.

He was hooked on the sport in no time.

When the bowling alley was empty, Saucier and the other pin boys were allowed to practice. He said he used his position above the pins to learn how good bowlers moved their balls across the lanes.

“It was a good way to learn because you were sitting right out there watching how to hit pins,” he said. “Bowling is not just shooting the ball down there. You have to know your woods.”

Although pins are now made of synthetic material, Saucier still calls them “woods.” In candlepin bowling the fallen pins remain where they fell, and good bowlers use those woods to knock down the others.

Saucier soon found himself spending most of his time bowling – it cost 14 cents per string and he wanted nothing more than to improve his game. He even met his wife, Doris, at the Pastime Lanes in Biddeford in 1957. In 1964, they became the first set of spouses to win the men’s and ladies’ Twin City championship titles in Biddeford.

The Sauciers bowled in leagues together – they still do – and Don Saucier played in tournaments almost every weekend.

“I didn’t go out there just to practice,” he said.

By the mid-1960s, Saucier was bowling a 130 average and winning or placing at the top of many tournaments he entered. In April 1969, he took home his third straight Western Maine championship title after coming back from a 33-pin deficit. He went on to win five international titles, including the 1971 singles crown. His other titles were won with partners Dot VanDerveer and Roslyn Rankin and with a five-man team.

The wins began to blur together as Saucier racked up local and regional titles. Decades later, the fierce competitor remembers more clearly the near-misses that both frustrated him and pushed him to bowl a better game. At one televised tournament, he forgot he had one more ball to roll and hit the reset button. He lost by one pin.

COULDN’T LEAVE LANES FOR LONG

Saucier, who now owns an Old Orchard Beach hotel with his family, channeled his love of bowling into an earlier career that included owning centers in Sanford and Portland.

Saucier has especially fond memories of running Congress Square Lanes, an underground bowling center on Forest Avenue in Portland, for seven years during the 1970s. It was a job he said he loved because it allowed him to teach children to bowl.

Mark Fogarty, a bowler from Saco who grew up bowling at Congress Square Lanes with the Boy Scout Explorers, recently ran into Saucier between games at Vacationland Bowling in Saco. Fogarty congratulated Saucier on his inclusion in the Hall of Fame, an honor Fogarty said was long overdue for a bowler who dominated tournaments during the peak of his career.

Fogarty reminisced about watching Saucier bowl and getting tips to improve his own game.

“He was just an amazing bowler. He still is,” Fogarty said. “There were a lot of bowlers around back then and he was on the top of his game. And he’s a good guy to top it all off.”

Foster, who bowled against Saucier decades ago, said he learned a lot from watching Saucier bowl over the years.

“He could make any shot. He never left pins on the plate and that’s what made him better than other people,” he said. “When it came to head-to-head matches, he was the best.”

But by the time Saucier was 50, his average was slipping a bit. It was around that time he and his wife started wintering in Florida and he decided to walk away from bowling entirely.

“I was going downhill and people were beating me. I got used to that,” he said. “I thought I could win forever but I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Three years ago, Saucier stopped traveling to Florida and found himself being pulled back to the lanes, which always felt like home. He found his determination to improve and win had not waned over time.

Saucier now bowls in three leagues – some with his wife and two sons – and competes in tournaments. His average is still above 100, which he says is pretty good for a guy his age. This month he finished second in a state senior singles tournament. Last year, Saucier and Bert Dube, owner of Vacationland Bowling, won the state senior doubles title.

Though he knows he’s in the twilight of his career, Saucier said he is enjoying his return to friendly competition. Doris Saucier said she wasn’t surprised her husband found his way back to the game he has loved for nearly his entire life.

“It’s in his blood,” she said.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@pressherald.com

Twitter: grahamgillian