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Sad closure of Canadian National Centre

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In darkness ... the Canadian National Squash Centre is closed for business Picture Diane
In darkness … the Canadian National Squash Academy is closed for business Picture Karen Knowles

Cool, laid-back squash oasis closes its doors
By TERRY PRITCHARD – Squash Mad Canadian Correspondent

 

On February 5th, a unique chapter in Canadian squash came to an end as the National Squash Academy in Toronto announced it was closing.

While this news was not completely unexpected – rumours of trouble with the NSA’s lease had been making the rounds since the landlord had forced a temporary closure several months earlier – it was certainly unwelcome in the Canadian squash community.

Founded by the trio of Jonathan Power, Gary Waite, and Jamie Nicholls in 2010, the NSA was a private squash facility unlike any other.

Housed in an old hangar on a former Royal Canadian Air Force base, the NSA was anything but a traditional private club. It sacrificed posh amenities (and some basic ones) in favour of a utilitarian layout wholly dedicated to training and playing squash.

With eight modern panel singles courts, a glass singles show court, and the world’s only glass doubles show court, all set inside the cavernous hangar interior replete with exposed pipes, conduit, and even the occasional bird, a first-time visitor understood immediately that this was something different.

The atmosphere of the NSA is something everyone who visited remarked on. Upon entering you were immersed in an atmosphere of pure squash energy, surrounded by a mix of legendary veteran players, up-and-coming young pros from all over the world, recreational players, coaches, parents, and at-risk youth learning the game with Urban Squash Toronto.

To me, the NSA felt like a postmodern cathedral – a cool, laid-back yet energetic manifestation of the unspoken kinship shared by those who love squash.

The closure was a tragedy for Canadian No.1 Sam Cornett
The closure was a shock for Canadian No.1 Sam Cornett

“So many people called it home, and I think everyone is in shock that such a staple club in the city has to close”, said Sam Cornett – current Canadian #1.

“I know they fought very hard to keep their doors open and to continue running programming from house leagues to Urban Squash to high performance sessions. That’s the end of the dream at this location, but so many people count on the programming there that I believe the energy the NSA created will live on as other clubs in the region support the great squash energy in Toronto. I will miss it.”

The vision that Jonathan, Gary and Jamie had for the NSA was a great one, and they along with a small, dedicated team made that vision a thriving reality. That it didn’t quite remain fiscally viable was due to some unfortunate and in some cases unforeseeable factors unique to the location and its lease – not any flaw in the fundamental vision.

While the Canadian squash community mourns the end of this remarkable chapter, there’s hope that the best elements of the NSA’s model may be resurrected in some fashion.

In a joint statement issued by Jamie, Jonathan, and Gary to announce the closure, they wrote “The commitment to the sport lives on and we look forward to having you all be a part of the next chapter…. please stay tuned.”

Those who had the chance to experience the NSA and its unique energy certainly share that hope.

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Justin Vanderleest wrote on Facebook:
Today is a sad day in the squash community. Last night, the coolest club in Canada closed its doors. I was proud to be a member at the National Squash Academy over the past 4 years. Long before I moved to Toronto, I looked forward to this place as it developed.

In many ways, it didn’t disappoint. The concept was to develop a central training hub for elite squash–a high performance training facility, accessible to everyone, without the pretentiousness associated with exclusive private facilities. From its inception, the NSA was truly unique.

Housed in a former airplane hangar, the NSA had a shabby chic appeal with polished concrete floors, exposed pipes, ample natural light, turf sprinting track, and centrepiece glass courts–the only permanent singles glass court in the country and the first doubles glass court in the world. For whatever it lacked in creature comforts and polished finishings, the NSA was undoubtedly cool and unapologetic about what it was.

While the club only had a few hundred members, it was a place where beginners could rub shoulders with world champions, and at-risk youth could have a hit with millionaires. They housed an amazing after school program called Urban Squash Toronto that worked with kids to help with homework and develop squash skills that could open all sorts of doors socially and academically.

Squash is one of a few sports that can do this. Even as an established professional, I had a hit with Tie Domi, once at the NSA, that prompted him to hook me up with a job interview immediately afterward. Pretty cool.

They were one of the few clubs big enough to host Nationals and provide elite professionals with world class courts. They hosted everything: junior championships, senior championships, university championships, professional men’s and women’s events.

At various times, the bulk of the national team and prospects congregated at the NSA to train with top coaches. The NSA attracted players from around the world who wanted to hit with former world number one, Jonathan Power, while surrounded by a host of other good professionals with a regular training schedule. I don’t know who will pick up the mantle, but the insane amount of productivity of the NSA will be sorely missed.

Above all else, the warmth of the people at the NSA was tremendous. The first time I came to the club, unannounced, Jamie Nicholls greeted me by name and set me up with a match. They were generous in time and spirit.

They wanted everyone to succeed at their squash goals. A friend of mine needing a leg up, crashed on the couch at the NSA for a while, enabling him to get back on his feet. That’s an amazing level of generosity and heart for a business.

For a year, I worked at the NSA as a physiotherapist. I brought my dog to work and spent the year training squash 20 hours per week, getting on court with world-class athletes and the national team coach and they never asked any more than that I help support the community in return.

From Jonathon’s intense drill sessions with some selection of his jazz or punk beats on the turn table, to Gary’s track workouts, to structured sessions with Hickox and Nicholls, the experience was fun and formative.

The NSA was casual and inviting. You could show up at the NSA with your dog to watch a pro event and someone would offer you a beer from the keg as you entered.

You could let your kid run around unsupervised and everyone would tacitly assume a babysitting role. It was a family atmosphere. It was a family.

It was a bit out of the way, and they didn’t have a bar or a sauna, and occasionally the plumbing was messed, but after 23 years playing squash at great clubs all across this country, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the NSA was the coolest squash club in Canada and one of the best squash builders. The NSA was immeasurably important and the one club that I wish would have stayed open more than any other.

Thank you to everyone that dreamed big and made this happen over the past five years; thank you sincerely for the experience.

Picture by Karen Knowles (@KarenKnowles18)

 

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