With 12 of the top 50-ranked squash players in the world in town for the Northern Ontario Open last week, the irony was striking.
Somehow, a small but fervent squash community in Sudbury had found a way to assemble some of the very best players from around the globe — top-end talent from England, Egypt, Australia, Peru, New Zealand, the United States and Canada — to the local YMCA for a five-day professional squash tour stop.
Yet wander into the crowd for just a few minutes, chatting with the local squash aficionados, and it's clear there are some very real concerns about the survival of the sport on a local level.
Thirty-one-year-old Sudbury native Ryan Abresch is among the top contenders for the amateur Men's A Division title, having lost in the semi-finals a year ago.
First introduced to the sport at the age of 10, Abresch originally got his feet wet smacking the ball around with his father, very quickly moving towards a more competitive path.
"It was fun, because we got to tour, travel around Ontario and play some competitive squash," Abresch said.
Like other individual sports, squash maintains a specific appeal that is a fundamentally different experience for athletes largely groomed on team sports.
"In squash, it's just you," said Abresch. "There's no one else to blame. You're playing a game against an opponent, but you're also playing a game against yourself. That's what I kind of love about the game."
And while that ability to challenge one's self might well exist within a certain percentage of the population at large, the mere introduction to squash often does not occur for many of those with no family ties to the activity.
"A lot of kids don't even know about the game," said Trevor Beange, the most common on-court adversary to Abresch on a local level.
While the 26-year-old was sidelined for the Open with a hamstring injury, Beange joins Abresch among the elite Sudbury amateurs, sharing a very similar background with his friend and court-mate.
"I played hockey religiously, up to five or six times a week, and honestly just got tired of it," Beange said. "I had hockey, soccer, where it was always the team aspect, whereas squash was more one on one.
"It's like a chess match out there. You have to adapt to the other player while trying to play your own game."
For both young men, coaching became key to their development, with Brian Clarke devoting countless hours to the progression of his own son as well as other up-and-coming juniors, back in the day.
"Squash is one of those games where you have to put in a lot of time," said Beange. "If you're not in the right position to hit the ball, you're going to make a bad shot, and you're going to be chasing the ball the whole game."
The drive for self-improvement was constant, as Beange and Abresch worked their way up the local squash ladders.
"I don't think I ever had the dream of being the best in the world, but I did aspire to be a better player," Abresch said. "Squash is a very small community in Sudbury and you're only as good as your competition. It's hard to reach an elite level in the North."
It is, in part, the attraction to see some of the elite talent that had Beange, Abresch and others of their ilk heading to the YMCA night after night last week.
"It's crazy how good these guys are," said Abresch. "I saw (Sudbury native) Mike McCue growing up playing squash, and the level he achieved at 16, 17, 18 was phenomenal.
"But then these guys come here and it's a whole other level. It's very humbling to watch them.”
The hope, among the squash faithful, is that an event such as the Northern Ontario Open can help kick-start some local interest.
It won't be easy, but for a group that enjoys the challenges of pushing themselves to their limit, it's a shot worth taking.