Squash wasn’t on Lee Beal’s sports radar until he met an ex-logger on the North Coast.
Born in White Rock and raised in Kelowna, the first aid safety professional grew up playing hockey and swimming, sports he was introduced to by his father. Since moving to Prince Rupert, Beal has discovered a game that has given him much more a means to exercise and stay active — he also found friends in a community that now feels like home.
“I was looking for a place to fit in, and the racquet centre gave me that,” he said. “It filled that need for me.”
Beal arrived in Prince Rupert in 1987 with little knowledge of the city, saying he didn’t even know where it was. His brother was living in the city at the time and told him that there would be opportunities for young healthcare professionals to make a living. The promise of employment was quickly fulfilled, as Beal was offered two jobs soon after he arrived, eventually choosing to work at the old pulp mill.
“Prince Rupert was a land of opportunity back then,” he said. “The pulp mill was going, the fish plants were going, everything was happening.”
While he had a secure job, Beal was still very much a stranger in a foreign land. In 1992, Beal was introduced to squash by an ex-logger who worked at the pulp mill, who explained that he and other loggers would go to the racquet centre when they had time off from camp and hit a ball around.
“I said, ‘Squash? What is squash?’” said Beal.
Beal joined his friend at the racquet centre, played a few games, and quickly realized he really enjoyed the sport even though he was terrible at it.
“It’s like golf, it takes a while to develop a technique for the game, but I fell in love with it,” he said. “I had a passion for it.”
The camaraderie at the racquet centre was also something that drew Beal into the sport. At the time, there were approximately 100 club members who were welcoming and friendly.
“You’d walk in through the front door, and people would call you by your first name and ask you how you were doing,” he said.
Beal said he went out of his way to introduce himself to people at the centre, and quickly became involved in the organization of tournaments, events and the overall administration of the club. He said that in addition to the welcoming environment, there was something appealing about the freedom of being able to pick up a racquet and play at any time.
“You’re not stuck to a rigid schedule,” he said. “If you want to play hockey, you have to play when they say you can play. It’s not like that with squash.”
Beal took a break from his responsibilites in the club in the early 2000s for personal reasons, but missed being around the squash community. He returned in 2008 after introducing another friend to the game, and said it felt as if he’d never left.
“I missed the game. I missed the people down there,” he said.
In the time since returning, Beal said Wednesday and Sunday nights are religously held squash nights with a solid group of young and old players enjoying the game together. Beal, who is in his 50s, said playing against the town’s young talent sharpens his game and keeps him fit. He said he plans to play into his early 60s if his body allows it.
“We’ve still got guys in their late 50s that are hanging on and still playing,” he said.
“It’s definitely a young man’s game, but there are still a lot of us oldtimers that are sticking with it and it keeps us fit.”
Beal said the sense of community is not limited to Prince Rupert, as tournaments in other towns are considered reunions.
“We’ve got a family right through to Terrace to Smithers of squash players,” he said. “When we have squash tournaments, we look forward to seeing our friends from out of town again.”
For Beal, the sense of community, family and a sense of enjoyment have all come from squash and he doesn’t see it ending any time soon.
“If people aren’t happy or enjoying what they’re doing, they’re not going to do it,” he said. “They’re going to find something else to do, and it was the people down there that kept bringing me back.”