Class of 2021
Category : Builder
Ken Wilson, not only served as the first Treasurer of the Canadian Racquetball Association, he was also one of the founding members of what has become Racquetball Canada. Wilson immediately recognized the potential for the sport when he first played in Regina. After moving to Edmonton and finding others who shared his passion, Wilson soon became totally immersed in the sport. This led to him being on the forefront of the explosive growth of a new sport in Canada and the launch of a highly successful business, which he operated with his wife Ruth for decades. Wilson encouraged the development of racquetball in a way that impacted the sport for years.
As a member of the Class of 2021, Wilson is being recognized in the Builder Category along side John Kempo and Howie Rankin. Each of the three gave to the sport in their own unique and lasting ways, but their legacy and sport story is undeniably intertwined. It is fitting that these three are being recognized together.
When racquetball was at its infancy across Canada, Wilson, Kempo and Rankin stepped forward to provide the sport with a structure and vision that was crucial to its success. As players, organizers, promoters and businessmen, the three were critical in the early and rapid success of racquetball through their business acumen, dedication and love of the sport.
Wilson, Kempo and Rankin were at the ground level in forming the perfect trifecta in 1971, with the founding of the Canadian Racquetball Association, the Klondike Racquetball Tournament and a business which became Canadian Racquet Sports Equipment.
The Canadian Racquetball Association was the organization responsible for growing the sport and for connecting the racquetball community across Canada. The goal was to build the sport in Canada, both at the provincial and national level and to organization competition across the country. Kempo was the organization’s first president; Rankin served as vice-president and Wilson as the treasurer.
By the early 70’s court facilities were in existence but the lack of equipment was already creating a barrier to the growth of the sport. The group took on the job of sourcing, importing equipment that was in great demand but not yet available in Canada, selling it out of Wilson’s basement. Sales were used to offset the costs of the Canadian Racquetball Association.
The Klondike Racquetball Tournament became the avenue to highlight and promote the sport. Held first in 1971, it was Canada’s first major international tournament and according to news articles from the time, it also served as an unofficial National Championships. The tournament was highly successful, attracting players from across North American, including former international champion, Bud Muehleisen.
With Wilson, Kempo and Rankin laying a strong foundation related to player, coach and officials training, the sport exploded in Alberta and across western Canada. Player safety was a major issue and the group was responsible for making eye guards and tethers mandatory. Wooden racquets were banned as a result of a player injured by a broken wooden racquet.
Holding an annual national championship event was an important goal of the Canadian Racquetball Association. Although it was a struggle to get consensus across the country about an event, the organization partnered with a group of players in Vancouver to hold a National Championship event in 1972.
Without a host stepping forward in 1973, the Klondike Racquetball Tournament included a Canadian championship category. The tournament attracted over 500 players, including many of the great professional players from the United States including Charlie Brumfield, Marty Hogan and Peggy Steding.
The 1975 National Championships is recognized in the record books as the first official championship event, but it is clear that this group worked hard in the early 1970’s to build momentum. By 1975 the racquetball community was in full support of a National Championships, beginning a strong tradition that has spanned almost 50 years.
With a strong foundation in place, the sport began to grow quickly across Canada, as did the financial needs of the Canadian Racquetball Association. The association had trouble accessing government funding because of its commercial component. At the same time it was evident that there was a demand for racquetball equipment and court panels. As a result, Rankin and Wilson took over business component, which became Canadian Racquet Sports Equipment and freed up the association to continue building it’s capacity as a National Sport Organization.
Always looking for another challenge, Wilson, Kempo and Rankin teamed up to open the “Court Club”, an eight-court facility in Edmonton. They all remained heavily involved with the Canadian Racquetball Association as volunteers and players.
Canadian Racquetball Sports Equipment grew into a highly successful business. The company was a major builder of courts across the country, constructing 120 courts in 1979 alone. It is estimated that they built over 600 courts in North America over the years and is still operating to this day. Ruth Wilson, Ken’s wife, worked alongside with him over the years to build a thriving equipment business. It was a true partnership.
The success of both the Canadian Racquetball Association and the business interests of Wilson, Kempo and Rankin were fuelled by a passion and love for the sport. They were the ultimate champions of the sport. It is hard to imagine that the Canadian Racquetball Association would be in existence today if Canadian Racquet Sports Equipment had not evolved into a successful business. It provided access to equipment and built the many facilities that housed the leagues, programs and tournaments that grew the next generations of athletes.
Arising from their enthusiasm and commitment came many excellent players. In those early days there was one player in Edmonton who would bring his son to the courts. In any empty court, that young boy would hit the ball around for hours. He developed into the best player in the history of racquetball. Perhaps Wilson, Kempo and Rankin did not directly contribute to Kane Waselenchuk winning 15 US Open Championship titles, but their legacy did. This happened on countless other courts across the country, as future champions developed a love of the sport.
The trio are being recognized posthumously and their family members and loved ones are all in agreement that it is important they are being honoured together. Had these three not contributed in building racquetball to its stature, perhaps many future athletes would have followed another path.
But the dream that Ken Wilson, John Kempo and Howie Rankin had of making racquetball in Canada all that it could be, provided the basis and opportunity for young athletes to become their best.
That is what builders do.
The following are articles from the period when Ken Wilson, John Kempo and Howie Rankin were frequently featured in the news. It is remarkable to read about the sport and the impact these three had.
- National Racquetball Series (Inaugural Klondike Tournament) – Edmonton Journal, July 21, 1971
- Muehleisen Class of Tournament (Inaugural Klondike Tournament) – Edmonton Journal, July 23, 1971
- Racquetball Grows – Muehleisen at Klondike Tournament) – Edmonton Journal, July 24, 1971
- Brumfield Sweeps Up Field – Edmonton Journal, July 21, 1975
- Experience Pays Off (Klondike Tournament) – Edmonton Journal, July 21, 1975
- Peggy Steding Takes Two Championships – The Odessa American, July 22, 1975
- Bowes Courts Stiff Challenge (1976 Klondike) – Edmonton Journal, July 22, 1976
- Steding Captures Canadian Title – The Odessa American, July 27, 1976
- Indoor Alternatives (Court Club Edmonton Featured) – December 4, 1976
- Tennis Boom Thing of the Past – Montréal Gazette, March 21, 1977
- Racquetball Bouncing to New Heights – Edmonton Journal, August 19, 1977
- Smashing Success – Edmonton Journal, November 4, 1978
- From Hobby to Business – Edmonton Journal, November 4, 1978
- Racquet Reaps Profits – Edmonton Journal, August 27, 1979
- Interview with Howie Rankin – Racquetball Canada Magazine