Profile Of Club Atwater’s Revival In Montreal

by Rob Dinerman

December 26, 2002  -The $ 20,000 Morgenstern Cup competition held in mid-December this year provided another advance to the ISDA professional doubles squash tour, which added another successful site to its expanding 2002-2003 schedule and brought professional squash back to the beautiful city of Montreal for the first time since the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association (MAAA) on downtown Peel Street held its last WPSA hardball tournament in 1991. More importantly, the three-day event became a celebration and affirmation of the spectacular improvements that a Can. $7 million investment has wrought upon Club Atwater, the host club, which is now fairly bursting with vitality and well-deserved pride over the success of the transformation it has undergone during the past eight months.

Founded in 1926 on land bought from the Gentlemen Ecclesiastics of the Seminary of St. Sulpice (to whom Louis XIV of France had awarded seigneurial rights to the whole island of Montreal in 1663), and known for almost all of its glorious history as the Montreal Badminton & Squash Club (MB&SC), this venerable institution was purchased and re-named last spring by Leonard Schlemm Jr., a lifelong member and the co-founder and former chairman of Fitness Holdings Worldwide, the largest operator of fitness centers in the world, with U. S. $ 1 billion in annual revenue.

Mr. Schlemm’s father, a member since 1929, was an accomplished racquets man, winner of multiple national titles in both badminton and squash and the holder (co-holder actually, since all of his squash titles came in doubles competition) of four of the 84 (!) national or international squash championships (and of one of the 33 such badminton titles) that have been won over the years by MB&SC members. Included in
this number are two-time U. S. National Men’s champions Colin Adair (’68 and ’71) and Michael Desaulniers (’78 and ’80), later the top-ranked WPSA player and winner of the ’81 WPSA Championship and ’82 North American Open, and three-time Canadian National champion John Smith-Chapman, considered one of the greatest Canadian players in history, in whose honor a prestigious annual invitational doubles tournament, affectionately known as “The Smitty”, has been held ever since he collapsed and died in the locker room immediately after a singles game in 1987 at the premature age of just 49.

It was the latter who made the tongue-in-cheek comment that symbolized the dominance the MB&SC torch-bearers were enjoying over the entire North American amateur squash scene during the late 1960’s. This phenomenon was solidly signaled by the U. S. Five-Man Team championship won by an all-MB&SC entry (the first time a victorious entrant in this decades-old competition consisted entirely of members of a single club) that wasn’t even allowed to use its two best players, since Adair and Smith-Chapman were both playing in the concomitant individual championship that weekend! (When those five were later joined by Adair and Smith-Chapman in the 32-team Centennial Tournament, the rest of the field wasn’t even close.)

But an even better example occurred at the USSRA National Singles in Boston the following year, whose semi-final slots were filled by Sam Howe and three MB&SC members. After Adair had defeated Howe in the first semi, thereby guaranteeing that two MB&SC members would meet in the final, the tournament chairman spotted the three club mates sitting together in the locker room and approached the trio to offer congratulations, only to be greeted by Smith-Chapman, who deadpanned, “We’ve had enough for now. We’ll finish the tournament next week at our own club.” He was only joking, of course, and Peter Martin went on to defeat Smith-Chapman in the other semi-final before losing to Adair in the title match.

Smith Chapman himself was a college graduate of Sir George Williams, but one of the most salient aspects of the club’s history has been the depth of its relationship with McGill University, which is located less than a mile away. The genesis of this bond traces its roots to World War II, during which 174 of the club’s 500 or so senior members joined the armed services. In response to the consequent substantial downturn in club usage, the Board made an arrangement through which McGill students were allowed to obtain temporary memberships. Although this agreement ceased at war’s end, a strong connection had by then been established, to the point where many members even today are McGill alumni, and when a major squash or badminton tournament overflows the Club Atwater facilities, the qualifying rounds are often played on the courts at this highly respected university, whose graduating athletes have joined this club with such regularity that they are even affectionately referred to as its “talent pool.”

Inside the Newly Renovated Club Atwater
The MB&SC had become so popular during the mid-60’s period when Smith Chapman, Adair et al. were in their primes that the officers were actually forced to close it to new applicants and put a moratorium on the waiting list to combat the overcrowding that was starting to occur; this mirrored the situation in Montreal as a whole, which at that time had become the most overcrowded city in Canada, a center of vigor and promise and the magnet for thousands determined to prove themselves the country’s best and brightest. But political developments, especially Quebec’s several highly charged and divisive referendums and the anglophone flight they have engendered, have had a major and ongoing impact on all aspects of life in this beautiful city; by this past spring membership had declined from a high of 2500 to 660, an erosion that resulted in increasing dues and assessments which still did not supply enough capital to address the growing number of areas of a three-quarter-century-old clubhouse that were in need of upgrading and/or repair.

The history of private clubs that for a variety of reasons have gone under in recent years in North America makes for uneasy telling and even includes a 2001-2002 ISDA stop, namely the City Athletic Club in midtown Manhattan, which contained one of the best squash doubles courts anywhere but which last summer was forced to cease operations a full 94 years after its opening in 1908. The MB&SC never even approached that level of decline or danger, but a palpable level of concern was beginning to develop until Mr. Schlemm stepped forward last spring and made his extraordinary financial commitment to an institution that had played so major a role in his family’s life for more than seven decades. Included in his proposal was a vow that the dues would actually be cut by 20% and remain at this level for a minimum of five years, that there would be no assessments and that he would cap the club membership in order to ensure that each member had reasonable access to the club’s facilities.

Club Atwater's public spaces
As importantly, Mr. Schlemm promised that for all the massive and necessary renovations he was planning, the clubhouse, located in the residential Borough of Westmount in the center of Montreal (just up from the old Forum where the Canadiens won their 23 Stanley Cups), would retain its charm and essential character as a family-oriented social and racquets club. That he was able to accomplish this delicate balancing act even during a hectic eight-month renovation period throughout which between 75 and 90 workers per day were in active operation is a remarkable story of planning, foresight and execution.

The improvements are virtually everywhere, from the easy access via a wide hallway to the doubles gallery (which previously had required a difficult ascent of a narrow and winding set of stairs, which led to countless “traffic jams” between those trying to enter the gallery and those leaving it), to the individual mahogany changing stalls in the locker room, to the new and outstanding artwork that adorns the walls all over the club, even in the locker room. A further highlight is the new private dining room surrounded by a second-story glassed-in 5,000-bottle wine cellar stocked with an impressive selection ranging from first-growth vineyards in Bordeaux to hard-to-find California cabernets.

The pair of adjacent doubles courts, deemed by many the crown jewel of Club Atwater’s racquets rebirth, and as mentioned the arenas in which the Morgenstern Cup (won by the top-ranked ISDA pairing of Gary Waite and Damien Mudge) was contested, were themselves the focus of a great part of the refurbishment. The installation of glass back walls has resulted in the creation of court-level viewing where none had previously existed, while the existing gallery area from above (with a capacity of over 100 spectators for each court) has been painted and spruced up. The front wall of each court has been meticulously reinforced, with an obviously salutary effect on the trueness of the bounces, and the addition of a sophisticated ventilation system means that the courts can be maintained at a desirable temperature regardless of the weather conditions, an important consideration given Montreal’s winters.

The end result is a wonderful environment both for playing and watching the game. Photographs of the multitude of distinguished club members and supportive biographical data on their accomplishments, festoons the mahogany walls of the main hallways. So do meticulous and up-to-date rosters of the club’s many national, international and club championships in all of its many racquet sports, which include not only squash but also badminton (whose main arena on the second floor contains five adjacent courts, on which an exhibition match between the national teams of Taiwan, the world champion in this game, and Canada recently occurred), tennis and platform tennis.

Club Atwater also contains a three-level weight and fitness area with all of the most sophisticated equipment and an aerobics room with a host of personal trainers and instructors. The existence of a mobile tennis-court carpet that is rolled over the badminton courts seems to symbolize the resourcefulness and foresight that has so maximized the building’s 60,000 square feet of available space. There are two full-time badminton professionals and a whole team of squash pros, all of whom are ranked on the ISDA tour, consisting of Viktor Berg, the Club Atwater’s official touring pro, who is also ranked in the top 50 of the PSA softball circuit and recently led Canada to the Pan American Federation Cup gold medal, Josh McDonald, Berg’s doubles partner (in a pairing whose debut performance in late September resulted in an advance all the way to the final of the Monticello Open in Denver) and the assistant pro, and head squash and tennis pro Ken Flynn, a native of Ireland, which he represented 87 times in international team competition while earning a world singles ranking as high as No. 52 before assuming this position eight years ago.

Flynn’s predecessor Kevin Parker served for a full quarter-century in that role after leaving his native Australia (where he frequently used to go on barnstorming squash tours with Hashim Khan) on the recommendation of fellow Aussie Ken Binns, who had been the MB&SC squash pro during the late 1960’s. Now 73 and embracing a kind of emeritus status, Parker is still a frequent and extremely popular presence at the club, and his photo and list of career achievements (which include four consecutive British Open veterans titles in the late 1970’s, during which period he also defeated Khan to win the WPSA Veterans crown, and a slew of Masters championships in both singles and doubles) is prominently posted just outside the first-floor main-bar area (just steps away from the grandfather clock that has greeted visitors ever since being donated by Dr. Hanford S. McKee, the club’s first President, during the 1927-29 period of his service), where Parker often holds court and regales appreciative audiences with anecdotes and noteworthy episodes from his long and praiseworthy tenure.

Another notable Club Atwater artifact in addition to the grandfather clock resulted from the commandeering of the premises of the Montreal Winter Club (at the time the most prestigious private sports club in Montreal) by the Royal Navy in 1939, with World War II looming. At war’s end six years later, it was decided that the Winter Club would not reopen, and the famous 1870 portrait by William Notman of a festive skating scene from the Winter Carnival (held each year at the Winter Club) was donated to the MB&SC, where it hangs today on the main stairway leading up to the second floor.

That same stairway also contains a carved wooden plaque commemorating the club members who were killed during World War II. Photos of these and many other important items can be found in “The Atwater: An Informal History of the Montreal Badminton and Squash Club, 1926-1994,” an 100-page archival work chronicling the thematic history of this clubhouse by Gavin Drummond and his father, Derek, whose two-year, two-generation collaboration is itself a testimony to the continuity from one era to another than so permeates Club Atwater and defines its personality.
Ultimately, it is perhaps the sage Parker who best expressed what makes Club Atwater (which in the wake of its recent renovations is already well on its way to reaching the 1,000 membership goal Mr. Schlemm posited) such a unique institution when he admiringly, indeed almost reverently, paid tribute to its intangible quality in the following terms: “The club itself is what holds you. The members, the comradery, the games, the fellowship---it makes you and your family want to spend as much time here as possible. I really don’t know of any other place like it.”


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