An Interview by Ben Pitfield
I caught up with Thomas King while playing for Ontario at the Canadian National Team Championship, which was hosted by his new facility, the Regina Squash Centre. Thomas — former world #191 and four-time winner of the Saskatchewan Open — was playing for his home province of Saskatchewan and chairing the tournament. Although Ontario beat Saskatchewan in the 3/4-playoff, he was gracious enough to speak with me. Throughout our conversation in his small office at the front of the facility, I was struck by his candor, humbleness, and good humour. Most apparent, however, was his love of the game and his desire to help it grow.
For context: Regina is the capital and second-largest city in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, with a population of about 250,000. It is on the Trans-Canada Highway, roughly halfway between Winnipeg and Calgary. The Regina Squash Centre — with its three panel-courts and gym — is the city’s first dedicated facility.
Ben Pitfield: What’s the state of squash in the prairies?
Thomas King: Calgary has the most and the best players. Edmonton’s a little smaller and the squash world is smaller, too. Saskatoon and Regina have the same number of players, I’d say. Winnipeg is pretty strong, as well; it’s a larger city.
I think, overall, it’s probably taken a dip since the beginning of COVID. I know that here, at the Regina Squash Centre, we’re working hard, we’re getting people in the door. But, like the rest of Canada, I know that COVID really hit squash and some facilities have been shutting down or taking courts out, repurposing courts.
BP: How do you see squash rebounding from COVID in Regina?
TK: It’s rebounding. We’re getting new people in. A lot of people quit [during COVID] and I don’t think they’re all going to come back. Some people are just gone, on to other things. Pickleball is obviously growing pretty fast — it’s easier on the body, it’s cheaper — and then disk golf seems to be very popular because you could do it outside during COVID
I think it comes down to the people, not necessarily the sport. I think those sports have done a good job of getting people out and advocating for the game, bringing their friends. Squash is no different, that’s what needs to be done.
BP: That’s what you’re doing.
TK: I’m trying, yeah.
BP: Where did the dream for this facility come from?
TK: When I was a kid, I had to travel just to play junior tournaments — I had to go to Calgary, Winnipeg, Edmonton. Which is minimum 6, 8 hours. We didn’t have junior tournaments. And our coaches, without wanting to sound ungrateful, we’re always volunteer or part-time coaches after work. We didn’t have a pro coach. The junior programs weren’t super structured.
So, as I travelled throughout Canada [and on the PSA tour], I saw all these cities that are the same size as Regina or even smaller and they have better facilities and I’m thinking: “Why can’t Regina have this?” And people said “Regina’s too small” and “There’s no money in squash” — I’ve heard that my whole life and that’s what I believed. But I guess as an adult I’m just too stubborn and I thought “F—— that, I’ve travelled to these tournaments. If a third world country can have a club with ten courts in a city that’s smaller than Regina, there’s no reason we can’t build some courts.” People have jobs; people pay for their hockey equipment, they can pay for a squash racquet.
So I think a lot of it was stubbornness and a desire to prove [naysayers] wrong.
BP: How else did your time in the pros impact what you wanted to do with the facility?
TK: As I was travelling, even if I wasn’t trying to learn, I was constantly learning. Seeing all these different cities, different facilities — I like learning about populations and demographics. Whenever I travel, I’m looking up on Wikipedia about the city and the location of their club to downtown and this and that. I was always asking [at the clubs] how many members they had, how many kids they had in the programs. Seeing 100 different examples of different clubs and seeing that this club is making money and that club is shutdown, gone bankrupt. Obviously they went bankrupt because what they were doing wasn’t working, so I wanted to follow [read: emulate] the ones that were.
BP: Can you give an example of a club that impacted you?
TK: The National Squash Academy [in Toronto]. As much as this is my home club, the National Squash Academy is my favourite club. And, unfortunately, the business didn’t work but the feel of it was my favourite.
The Edmonton Squash Club was probably the most practical example of what someone should do if they want to build a club as a business.
BP: How long were you at the National Squash Academy?
TK: I went there for one week, the first time. I stayed with Josh Hollings. Then a year later I went back and I stayed there until it shut down. That was a year-and-a-half.
BP: I know that the team behind the National Squash Academy has been impactful of your development here.
TK: Yes. I lived with Gary Waite. I still consider him my coach. So I keep in touch with him, constantly. Whether it be coaching, playing, business stuff. Jamie Nichols was very helpful. He was sharing with me a lot of the lessons he learned [developing the National Squash Academy]: the financials, advice to help me get started.
BP: When you decided to put this plan in action, what were your first steps?
TK: I was constantly thinking about it, but I didn’t actually intend to do it. I was playing the best I ever had. I think I was about to make a breakthrough. I was ranked about #190 [in the world], it was the first year I was actually making money on tour and I was confident. Then I tore my meniscus and COVID hit, all at the same time and the facilities all shut down and I had to get a surgery. My leg got infected and I had to go back for another surgery. When I was lying in the hospital for a week after, I realized I was never going to be the same again. I have arthritis in my knee now. So I thought: it’s time to commit to doing the club. And all the passion I had for playing, for the game, I brought to the new business.
The motto of the club is actually “Squash First” — so every decision that’s ever been made, I’ve been trying to treat the game of squash as the priority.
BP: Once that moment of epiphany had happened, what were your first steps?
TK: I made a gant chart in my apartment.
I wouldn’t say it was linear; I was doing ten different things all at the same time. I had to get my finances in place, I had to get a loan, I had to learn liability and legal aspects, I had to find a way to raise the capital. I didn’t have much to my name when I decided to do it, so finding a way to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to start a club was very difficult. Then I had to find courts. I had no wiggle room to waste any money, I had to make sure that every penny that was spent was deliberate. The permitting process was massive — I went through five or six permits and one of them took six months to be approved.
I had to do a lot of research about a lot of different things. It was not linear and I was working full-time plus extra shifts and trying to do the club. I was doing ten different things at one time.
BP: How long was that window?
TK: It took a year-and-a-half. When the club opened, I think a lot of people thought we had just started. But it took me a year-and-a-half from when I fully committed to it to when we opened our doors. And most of that was the permitting process, waiting on other people.
BP: Who were your mentors in that process?
TK: I have to say my dad is number one. My dad was the CEO of a company, a lieutenant-colonel in the army. He’s my best friend. I have to say my dad, every time.
Gary Waite, my coach, makes me happy when I’m down and is a fantastic life coach, as well.
My fiancé, she’s been with me every step of the way. And there’s people in the local community that have been very helpful, too.
My realtor was very helpful, as was my corporate lawyer.
I met Clive Caldwell this summer. He owns three nice clubs in downtown Toronto: the Cambridge, the Adelaide and the Toronto Athletic. I learned a lot from him, too.
I didn’t feel alone.
BP: What was the most difficult part of opening a facility in the middle of a pandemic?
TK: It sounds cheesy, but: believing in myself. Same as when I was on tour. I second-guess myself every single day. So finding a way to do one thing everyday that gets you one step closer to your goal is important. Some days I did a lot of work and it was positive. Other days, when nothing was getting done, I had to make myself read a chapter of a business book or make a phone call or reread old emails — do something productive that was going to help me.
I will say that the hardest part was not opening it, although that was very hard. It’s actually, now that it’s open, having it make money. I think a lot of people put all their effort into opening something and then when it’s open they’re overwhelmed and they don’t have a plan to make money. At the end of the day, it’s got to at least break even.
BP: Are you doing that right now?
Some months are way better than others; some months are very tough. It’s only been a year-and-a-half, so I don’t have much data, but the second year is significantly better than the first.
I tell people: “we’re growing conservatively.” It’s not growing too fast, I can handle the growth. I think that’s the way a stable business should be.
BP: But you’re finding that you do have new people coming through the door?
TK: Some people go, but we’ve got more people coming in than are going out.
BP: That’s awesome. It must be very gratifying.
TK: It is.
BP: How has the local squash community responded?
TK: Can I swear? [Laughs]. F——ing awesome. It wasn’t just me that wanted a club.
I don’t want to be negative of the other facilities — they’re great facilities, great gyms and they’ve been vital to the community. But I think there was always a lack of a dedicated facility. It always kinda felt like squash was an afterthought, like “Oh, we have courts,” but there wasn’t effort put into improving squash from the facilities’ side. And I understand it, if you can make ten times the revenue with personal training or yoga, it makes sense. But it always felt like we [squash players] were intruding, it didn’t feel like home. So I think that’s probably the biggest thing: people feel more at home, more welcomed as squash players, here.
I’m biased, but that’s what I think.
BP: Do you think what you’re doing here is replicable?
TK: 100 percent.
It’s definitely replicable. It could even be done bigger and better and cheaper — I wasted some money on stuff. I do intend to do this in other places. Saskatoon, for example: not far from Regina, about the same size city [population: ~270,000]. They don’t have a dedicated squash facility. If it works here, it will work there. Kelowna [British Columbia] is another place: a great squash community without a dedicated facility. There’s millions of examples. All over Canada, especially the mid-size cities. In the big cities, there are facilities. But the mid-size cities: Sudbury, Ontario; Saskatoon; Red Deer, Alberta; Halifax, Nova Scotia. Those are the places that are struggling with squash, in my opinion, and need dedicated facilities.
I think the toughest thing isn’t building facilities, it’s finding the right person to run it. I would like to be everywhere, but I can only be in one place at once. Each facility needs the right person in place, pushing the community, making it fun. It’s cheesy, but: squash brings people here once, but they stay for the community and the friendships. It takes the right type of person to create that environment.
BP: What steps are you taking to foster community?
TK: Well I know everyone who comes in the door. I try my best to be happy. I try to make everyone welcome. I try my hardest.
BP: What about programming?
TK: Junior programming is an obvious one. I try to make the kids fall in love with squash. I hardly ever teach people grip. If anyone who knows my game reads this, they may laugh at that. I’m self-taught in a lot of ways — I don’t have the right grip, I don’t move right — but I love squash. Because of that I worked hard and got better at it. In my opinion, a coach should inspire their athletes to fall in love with it.
Ladies night, as well, that’s been a big hit. There’s way more women playing now than ever; there’s just as many women as men.
Doing intro to squash nights, too. Just trying to make people fall in love with it. I know it’s not for everybody, not everyone’s gonna like it, not everyone’s gonna be good. But just give them a chance to like it.
BP: What’s the long-term vision?
TK: I still think Regina can grow, whether it’s me or other business-people. I think Regina is big enough to have multiple clubs. We only have two at the moment, and if a third one came I would honestly be happy: more people could play squash. I don’t think it would impact my business. The more courts the better.
Personally, I’d like to be involved with growing squash all-over Canada.
BP: With the same philosophy of conservative growth?
TK: [Laughs]. If it’s gonna grow fast, let it grow fast. Let it happen. But I think as long as it’s growing conservatively, that’s fine. Thinking like a player: you get better every season, you put in the work. You do the same in business: you buy more gym stuff, you listen to the members. If they want a sauna, you see if you can make it work. To me, that’s conservative growth.
If I could make it grow faster, I would. You don’t want it to be stagnate, you don’t want to be satisfied. Something Gary Waite taught me is to never be satisfied, because [being satisfied] is the end of your career. It’s the same in business. It’s never good enough and you just keep going.
BP: What does hosting the National Team Championship mean to you and to the facility?
TK: It’s awesome.
I just want everyone to be excited and happy. Although a lot of time went into it and we had to make the money work, it was worth it because everyone had a great time. All the players had a great time; the volunteers were a huge part of it. There were volunteers [and attendees] here, watching squash, who don’t even play and they were happy.
BP: That’s all my questions. Do you have anything else you want to say?
I’m not against going to university, but I do think that [in North America] people go to college by default. And it breaks my heart to see people that have a clear passion for music or sport or art that don’t pursue it because they’re scared.
I’m scared everyday but I pursue it anyway. If you have the courage to do it, just do it. Worst case scenario is: it doesn’t work out. At least you tried. And the only person who is going to tease you for that is someone who didn’t [pursue their dream], and their opinion doesn’t matter.
Just do it. Play pro, lose every match — at least you did it. Especially when you’re young. You have nothing to lose.
You can find the Regina Squash Centre on Facebook, Instagram and at their website: reginasquashcentre.com.
Ben Pitfield is a squash player and writer from Toronto whose work has been featured by the CBC. He played at the University of Rochester and his home club is the Badminton and Racquet.