How Birling Skateshop Helped Organize Free Indoor Skateboarding in Ottawa
As told by Adam Wawrzynczak Photos by Aaron Cayer This past February, the city of Ottawa launched a free weekly indoor skateboarding...
What’s that noise? What are you doing?
I’m setting up a complete. I’ve got like two more bolts to go.
It sounds like the most ultimate Slurpee slurp. Okay, how far back do you want to go? Do you want to go with what I said? Or do you want to go more from the beginning?
Whatever you want.
Okay, let’s take it back to the start then. Where did you grow up, what’s your family situation, and what are some of your earliest memories?
I grew up in Saskatoon. My first memories, I mean, I come from a large family of five kids. So lots of family dinners and, you know, just playing with my brothers and sisters all the time. And lots of road trips and camping. Lots of traveling somehow, even with a large family.
Would you all travel around in your area in Saskatchewan or go further?
We did some big trips. We actually went to Ireland for a month, where my parents are from. We did lots of road trips, too, lots of camping trips to BC, which is quite a ways from Saskatchewan, especially with five kids in a van.
Where do you fall in amongst the kids in terms of age?
I’m the youngest, a pleasant surprise that came five years after the others.
How did you first discover skateboarding? Do you remember the first moment you saw it?
I think it was my neighbour, a family friend that was into skating. And I knew he did it but I didn’t really know too much about it. Then my other neighbour had a couple of really old, like fishtail shaped boards, and we would kind of just cruise around on those in the alley, but I didn’t really get too into it for the first, like, year or two. And then yeah, I got a Walmart board, a Nash type thing. As soon as I had that, I would skate in front of my house all day long by myself.
How old were you?
How long until you thrashed the Nash board?
I probably skated that board for like four months. But, I mean, we’re talking at least three hours a day. It didn’t really last very well.
So you’re out there by yourself. How did you figure out how to use it? What did you see that showed you how you maneuver a skateboard?
I’m not quite sure. I know my first video was Public Domain, the old Powell video, which is kind of funny because even at that time, people were already skating popsicle boards. Mouse and stuff was already out.
We’re talking mid-Nineties, right?
Yeah. It was pretty funny because, you know, I’d seen like a lot of Bonelesses and freestyle, and just a weird side of skateboarding for that time. Not a weird side, but I was skating a popsicle board, and I was watching dudes skate with fishtailed boards. It was kind of backwards. Either way it was still super ripping. I’m skating alone, but in the videos it’s all backyard mini ramps, but they were kind of like vert ramps, big transitions, and then like, spines and stuff. And I remember just being so confused, like, “Where the hell do you get one of those?”
Do you remember when you started to go further away from your house, skating around your neighbourhood and beyond, and seeing other skateboarders?
Yeah, there’s a spot called Death Banks. It’s at a funeral home. Behind it, there’s just this huge, long bank. In the far corner, there’s a slappy curb. I remember hearing all about it from a few older guys that I knew in the neighbourhood. They’re like, “Death Banks, Death Banks, you gotta go to Death Banks!”
They were like the edge of the city to me, the furthest place I could imagine, and I convinced my mom to drive us down there after school one day. I remember being so excited, pulling up, and there were literally like 40 or 50 people in this parking lot. Definitely smoking, drinking, doing whatever. My mom was just like, “Wow, I didn’t know this was so popular.” She let us skate there for a couple hours, probably while she just sat in the car around the corner read her book. I remember being blown away, just seeing all these dudes ripping, like the NSH crew.
Northside Heads. They made a few videos back in the day.
And how old are you at this time?
Probably like 9 years old.
So your mom takes you and a couple of buddies to the parking lot of a funeral home across town, to skate the Death Banks with the Northside Heads. That was your immersion into skateboarding.
That’s it, like the first time. There was another spot downtown called Centennial Auditorium, which is still there, and people still skate there. Same thing, get out of the car on a Saturday and there were like 20 dudes jumping off this staircase. They’re skating a handrail and just going for it. It’s insane.
What did you think showing up to a skate spot like that?
It kind of felt like going into like EMB or something. There’s just like, all these people gathered there. There were no skate parks, you know? So, there’s just a bunch of dudes skating like one little plaza, and it was like pretty mind-blowing as a kid.
How long did it take you to feel comfortable, like you were a part of that scene?
I would say a good three months. But straightaway, all those older dudes were just so welcoming to me. And, you know, I was just a young kid, but they knew that I was into it. I was definitely pretty personable, you know, walking up to them, asking them questions, looking at their boards, talking to them, just like talking shit, you know, probably swearing, trying to be cool. I definitely got accepted like really, really early.
Did you catch on to the tricks of the day or were you still doing Bonelesses?
You know what, I never did Bonelesses. I still can’t do them. I never did them. I just always did 180s and Ollies. I just remember flying off the stairs there, and they’re all cheering me on, and I was just trying to Ollie like a seven-stair. Probably just riding off of it and splatting on the ground.
Being the youngest in a big family, at what age are you able to just bust out and go skate on your own or with your neighbourhood buddies, without your mom driving you?
Probably around 9. My parents were so consumed with work and all the kids and stuff like that. They trusted me. I would do the same thing I already did earlier on my bike—just go ride around the neighbourhood, along the river bank, whatever. I was a pretty good kid about coming home, but definitely would just go off and do my own thing.
Did you develop a good little crew through those early preteen and teenage years that you could skate the city with?
Yeah, for sure. My one friend, Bram, he lived like maybe 10 blocks away. I would always just go down there. Or he would come to my house and we would just go skate from there. We would just go downtown. We probably weren’t really allowed to go downtown, but, you know, I lived at the top of the bridge to downtown, one house in, and it’s downhill from there. So we would just bomb the bridge and be spit out into downtown. There were endless spots and craziness going on down there, so it was super appealing.
I don’t even know if I’ve ever told this story: So, we go downtown one time. And, you know, we’re probably like 11 or 12, skating this parking lot at the courthouse. There’s like a parking block. I remember thinking I was going to try to learn Frontside Lipslides. Next thing I know, I just woke up and I was in some lady’s lap. I had totally knocked myself out, and my friend just ran away because I had a huge gash in my head.
You know the spike that holds a parking block in place?
I guess I just stuck on the Lipslide and dove. I cut my eyebrow open and knocked myself out. So this lady had me in her lap and an ambulance came to take me to the hospital. They stitched me up my dad came to take me home.
How did you parents react?
They were just like, “What were you doing down there?” I think they’re just more concerned about my well-being, but maybe also just like, “We had no idea you were downtown, and your friends just left you high and dry. We thought you were like, maybe two three blocks away at the park.” Around the corner, you know?
When did you start getting into a little more trouble?
Definitely around that time. I mean, 10 to 12 was kind of like when everything started. Just getting exposed to everyone at the park smoking or drinking a beer, you know? And with all the older siblings, I just got intrigued by that stuff.
Had any of your siblings moved out of this house by this point?
No, but almost. When I was 10 my oldest sister was already like partying. I remember them having house parties at our house when my parents were out of town. And I was just like, this funny little 10-year-old that they’re supposed to be babysitting, and there’s like a full-blown house party, like 80 to 100 people partying and drinking.
So take us from like this point to living in Calgary, more or less on your own. How do we go from one to the other?
I pretty much just started hanging with the wrong crowd in Saskatoon. And, I mean, that’s a really long story. But fast forward a few years, I really needed to get away from that. To get away from my lifestyle there. I was failing in school and skating had kind of taken a backseat. I came to Calgary and tried to get my life together, and then skateboarding came back into the picture big time.
What age were you when you moved to Calgary, and why Calgary?
I moved here two weeks after my 16th birthday to go into a rehab program for youth. I was court ordered there. Because I’d been getting in a lot of trouble with the law in Saskatoon. And yeah, I pretty much had an ultimatum—either go move into a foster home, go to juvenile hall, or, you know, get my act together. So I did that and went through that program. After that, I just I fell back in love with skateboarding. Because I had a lot of free time, and I didn’t have very many friends here in Calgary. And I just started skating like, non-stop. I would just skate every day after school until like 11 or 12. I lived on my own from 17 on and all I did was skate.
And then you started making some friends.
Yeah, I just started meeting people at the skatepark. I spent a lot of time at Millennium Park. You just get to know people, with Millennium being in the middle of the city. Kids from every corner of Calgary would all meet there because it was the only skatepark. Since it’s such a far distance for most kids, they spent a lot of time there. They’d come down and stay for like three, four, or five hours. Leave, go get a piece of pizza together, go back and skate some more. That’s where I met most of my friends.
It’s such an interesting change to watch happen in Calgary, from that time to now. Now there are parks all over the city.
Oh, yeah. I feel like lots of the kids don’t even know each other now.
But it’s cool to have your local park and crew, and it’s going to be neat when they all start running into each other all over the city as they get older. When did you start working at The Source indoor park?
When I was 18 or 19. I worked there for like, two years. The dream job was right by my house and yeah, I pretty much had the keys to the fun factory. We would just skate all day and pretty much just do whatever we wanted. Again, met a lot of good friends there. Learned how to use some tools; maybe some management skills, and some retail skills. Interacting with kids and parents, teaching some skateboard lessons, stuff like that.
That’s where I met you, and I remember showing up to work in there and you’d have already been there skating all morning by yourself before opening, just drenched in sweat.
That sounds about right. Yeah, I probably would have been going to work early to skate and staying late, too.
I remember around that time you were getting ready to go on a trip to Barcelona with friends. I think you were just procuring a bunch of blank boards and getting ready to go. I always look at that moment as a defining moment, or like a reflection of what you still more or less do to this day. You were going on a skate trip, just making it happen on your own, which is the way you’ve always done it. What motivated you to do that?
What’s really funny is I didn’t follow skateboarding closely; I just loved doing it. Whereas I think a lot of kids, you know, watched every video and this and that. I had a few friends who really paid attention to things. The DC Video was a big one for those guys. The skating that Brian Wenning and Tim O’Connor and all those guys were doing. They really wanted to go to Barcelona, and I had just graduated high school. They were like, “You’re so into skating, we want to go and skate but we also want to do some tourist stuff. We’re going to go to Europe for like two months, you should come.” The one guy didn’t skate that much. But he did enough. The other guy was like, pretty into skating. And I was head over heels into skateboarding. But you know, I didn’t know that all those spots were in Barcelona. I watched a few videos, obviously, but I didn’t follow that closely. I didn’t have time. I just wanted to skate. But then, as soon as I went, I was completely addicted to traveling and finding new spots and meeting foreign skaters and watching foreign videos and learning a lot more of the culture that went along with it.
Before that trip, did you have any like goals or aspirations to be sponsored or do something in skateboarding? Were you even thinking about that? When did that come into your head?
Probably around that time. I was literally eating Kraft Dinner and frozen waffles and spending all my money on shoes and boards. So I think the idea of being able to get some support was obviously appealing. As a young kid, it’s also maybe a bit of a stamp of approval, more like a status thing. When you’re young, I mean. I don’t think about it like that now, but I think that’s a big thing for young guys and girls. For me, I kind of failed at a lot of things at school. I went to rehab at that point, and I wanted to succeed at something. I think that still comes with me today. I want to succeed at whatever it is I want to do.
When did when did you start to feel that maybe you could get some support? Who got behind you to give you the shoes or the boards that you needed?
Judah Oakes gave me my first break. He started giving me éS shoes through Timebomb Trading. I remember I sent him a video first and it was all at Source park. He was like, “Ah, it’s pretty cool, but you’ve got to skate some street man.” It was spring and I think I sent him another tape like a month later, and probably over eagerly sent him another one a month later, and was just like, “Here’s what I’ve got,” here’s like, 20 seconds, you know? He sent me some shoes, sent me some more shoes, and I was just like, “Hey, man, like, am I sponsored? Can you just say yes or no? Just tell me.” He’s like, “Yeah man, I got you.” I was over the moon. It’s kind of funny because the shoe thing, I think now, it’s kind of the last piece of the puzzle for a lot of people. But since I got his approval, soon after, I started getting Blueprint boards. That was after I went on a trip to London. I met some of those guys, skating with Tom Knox, Jacob Harris, Nick Jensen, and Danny Brady.
So how did you start riding for Blueprint?
I just I watched a lot of those videos and they skated a lot of cool spots. I met those guys in the UK when I went on a second trip to Europe. I just thought the aesthetic of the brand was really cool. S&J had just started distributing Blueprint in Canada too. I thought to myself, like, “Well, I’m not good enough to get this brand or this brand. Maybe I can get like some of these boards because it’s like a smaller, random company for Canada.” That’s pretty much how it worked out, they started sending me boards. I worked at Skaters at this point, and they were buying a lot of éS shoes. Anything that the shop could sell definitely helped. It was probably one of those kinds of deals in the beginning, trying to get the shop I worked at to buy those boards and it worked. I definitely tried to sell them to everyone.
How did the Blueprint relationship developed over time? What other sponsorships or relationships developed around this time?
Just going on trips and meeting new people. I went on a trip with Russ Milligan, who I’d never met. Then he helped me get on Venture. And I still ride for Venture today. It’s been like 10 or 12 years. With Blueprint, I think I just kept showing up in the UK and probably forced myself on those guys a little, you know. I definitely skated for Blueprint for like, five years, and they probably didn’t really know who I was until the last year and a half or two years. I pretty much just kept showing up and sending those guys footage and just trying to be in the mix.
I think you just doing it because you wanted to do it, showing up, going places on your own dime, being polite, being cool, not partying, skating hard—all that added up to a guy companies and people could depend on to make things happen. We see skaters travel all over the world and tend to think, “Oh, they’re traveling on the shoe company’s dime, the board company’s dime.” Fact is, I know that wasn’t the case for you, and I know it probably isn’t the case for a lot of skaters then and now.
Yeah, I mean, I remember the first time I ever got like some financial help from a sponsor. I was going to China for a month, and I’d asked éS for some travel budget. They sent me a huge box of shoes, all blue suede, along with a cheque for $800 to go towards my ticket. At this point, I’d already been talking to Adidas and trying to, you know, get shoes there because I knew that I wanted to skate them. I remember getting that box of éS shoes. I had to give Judah a call, because I knew I was going to skate Adidas by that point. I sent them back the shoes and the cheque. That was me leaving. They even told me I could take the cheque, take the shoes. Go to China. If I wanted to skate for Adidas when I got home, that’d be fine. But I just knew in my heart I just wanted to change and I just couldn’t take the money. So I just paid my own way.
Wow. Take us through to the demise of Blueprint and what that was like.
I mean, things were getting a little bit weird there. I finally got the OK to be announced on the team. I had a video part that I’d worked on for a year and a half with Jacob. It was meant to come out on Transworld. Things were really up in the air though. And, yeah, we all decided to quit Blueprint one day. It was like two weeks before my welcome clip came out, the entire team quit. And I just couldn’t be part of it without my friends. I knew deep down that with it being in the wrong hands I just couldn’t be involved. I had no board sponsor for probably like, six to eight months. At this point, I was already fully on Adidas. So I was just getting Krooked boards, Magenta boards, anything I could get. Cliché boards. I tried to get on Polar. Tried a bunch of different things.
What brought you to Habitat?
Mark Suciu. I was on a trip with the whole Adidas team in Madrid, and he and I just got along really well. He just told Brennan Conroy and Joe Castrucci that I would love to skate the boards and maybe something could work out, and Silas Baxter-Neal also gave me the okay. So it was because of those guys vouching for me.
I talked to Brennan on the phone and told him my situation. He told me he was down and that if I worked hard that I could get a board one day. That was a huge eye-opener for me. I never thought I would have my name on a board. Once he told me that, it was just a major goal for me.
What’s it been like riding Habitat over all these years, getting that board, and up to present day?
They’ve always really included me in everything. You know, just even something as simple as being on their Instagram page is huge, when you’re just a kid from Canada, you know? I mean, they could have picked any other person and it probably would have been better for them. It’s been super good. Those guys are all super cool. I’ve gone on like 10 trips with them, to New York, Philly, some West Coast trips, Spain a couple times. And any video project, you know, they keep me in the loop. I might have a couple clips here and there and a handful of boards. They just really support me and it’s this cool, small little family. They’ve made some of the best videos, so I’m completely honoured to skate for them.
What was it like to get that board with your name on it?
I mean, I still can’t believe it. It’s just such an honour to work with Joe. I’ve always love his art. To have his stamp of approval. And I got to choose what I wanted on it. I wanted my family crest. We had a little party at Ninetimes in Saskatoon, and it was just unreal to have all my friends show up, and to have a wall full of my boards, it was just mind-blowing. There was an ad in the magazine. I had no idea that would ever happen. It was kind of completely out of sight, out of mind. It was so foreign for a Canadian—that doesn’t really happen unless you’re in California jumping off 20-stairs. It’s completely different, don’t get me wrong, but for a kid in Canada, it’s pretty mind-blowing. I’m pretty lucky. To be honest, a bit of luck and the stars just aligned. I could name 50 to 100 skaters in Canada that deserve that and more, and I don’t know how that aligned for me, but it did.
Tell me about your relationship with Adidas over the years, how it’s evolved since first getting on.
Anything to do with the skate side of things has been unreal. Nothing but support. If I want to work on a project, I present it. Trips I want to go on, people I want to work with, filmers I like working with, photographers—they’ve just been nothing but supportive of what I want to do. I don’t think that’s very common, for people to have that type of support. That I can’t take for granted. That’s been a huge help and a part of my success. The support they’ve given me, the platforms they’ve given me, stuff like that. On the work side of things, the team manager side of things, it’s a struggle, it’s hard. Canada is a small place. It’s a small skate market. I don’t think people realize that. Especially for these big brands, based out of the States, Germany, or somewhere else. When they look at the dollars and the market here in Canada, it doesn’t always translate into giving a ton of support, activations, whatever you want to call it. Demos, local support, events—sometimes these bigger brands get flack for that, for not doing enough, but I mean, there are more people in California than Canada, and it’s not always the easiest pitch to do something here. I know people see a lot of stuff going on in the States, brands building parks, doing demos, all this stuff, and sometimes Canada is just a bit off the radar. That goes for skateboarders being sponsored, brands working here—it’s interesting. I’d say a brand like Vans, they use Canada as a sort of test market, and that’s why you see a ton of events and support. It’s great. I hope other brands start doing more of that, especially Adidas.
Let’s talk about Ninetimes. Where did the idea to open a Calgary location come from, and what did it take to get it up and running? [Editor’s note: the distance between Calgary and Saskatoon is around 600 kilometres / 375 miles]
Jason [Gordon, Ninetimes owner] lived here in Calgary a decade ago for a year and a half, and he’s always had a lot of friends here. We always kind of joked that there wasn’t really a hub, a skateshop here, a place to do video premieres, a place to meet up to go skate. Less of a retail store and more of a community centre in a way.
I think it’s worth mentioning that Calgary has had a lot of skateboard/snowboard shops over the years that have supported the scene, but it’s been a long time since there was that one spot that was just focused on skateboarding, the spot that everyone could get behind.
Yeah, I think Calgary was really missing a place like that, especially with the parks being spread all over the city now. You also couldn’t get a lot of the newer niche brands anywhere in Calgary either, which was odd to me. I’ve travelled so much and seen so many awesome skateshops around the world that had more of a community vibe, and just trying to be more involved in their scene. I knew Calgary could use something like that, but I also knew there were a lot of roadblocks for other people trying to do that, or at least parts of that. So I kind of felt, it might sound weird, but a bit of a responsibility to try to create something with more of a community vibe here. Just to get more skateboarding going, to have kids want to skate street, want to film, want to work on projects. We try to premiere local videos, just support the scene.
Skateboarding has done so much for me, and I just wanted to try to give back a bit. That was pretty much the idea behind it. Jason’s been one of my good friends for a long time, and I’ve always respected what Ninetimes has done. So it just got to a point where we knew we had to try this.
What was the community’s reaction when you opened?
We’ve had nothing but really good support. We’ve had an immense response and I’m just floored every single day by how many people want to support us, to wear our t-shirts, it’s just mind-blowing to me. It reassures me that it was the right decision. It’s been a ton of work, I’ve learned a lot, I’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices in my personal life, but at the end of the day I wouldn’t change it. I’m just really grateful for all the support.
It seems like you’ve had so many people jump in to help over the last two years since you opened. So many helping hands down to do whatever they can for the community.
Definitely; I’m shocked by how many people want to just lend a hand. I get emails with graphics all the time. People reaching out, kids wanting to work for free, people just asking what they can do to help all the time. And now with Covid-19, wow, I mean, even from someone saying, “Keep the change, you guys need it,” and the orders that come in where I know the person doesn’t need stuff right now, but they just want this place to stay open. Which is pretty crazy.
What have you done differently over the last couple of months, and how’s it going?
We launched a new webstore, so just learning the ins and outs of that, just how to manage and keep up with that. We’ve had five times as many emails, calls, Instagram messages—it’s pretty hard to sell skateboard stuff over the phone. Skateboarders care about the shapes, fits, everything. I’ll talk to people for 30 minutes on the phone, selling someone their first complete, when they’re just not sure what to get. But we’re seeing a ton of people—I know it’s spring and it’s somewhat common—just pick skateboarding back up again. There have been a lot of challenges, but some great responses. You know, some people call and order a complete and then show up five minutes later, wondering if it’s ready. But then the patience of other people making an online order, when it maybe gets delayed over the weekend, but when we email them to apologize just because we’ve been slammed, they’re so cool, just saying, “Don’t worry about it at all.” It’s nice to see people with that amount of patience and understanding.
What do you think things will look like when you get reopen, at least for now, in a week or two?
We’re definitely seeing a ton of support across the country through online orders. I think that’ll continue, maybe not as much, but I think in-store will be huge. I think people really like the social interaction of coming in here, visiting, just popping in while out walking the dog.
Do you think you’ll still do in-store pick-ups and deliveries?
We’ll see. I really don’t know. I hope people just want to come here though. I know Calgary’s big and spread out, but I hope they come by to see the store, the vibe, just hang out, get a better feel for what we’re about, more than just a grid of products on a website. That’s not why we started this. Starting a skateshop is probably the stupidest business decision if you want to make money. If you were in it for the money, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
But has it been rewarding?
100%. I don’t know any better, I don’t know any different. What else would I be doing? I was skating by myself last night, skating along, thinking to myself, “Man, I love this shit.” Like, every aspect of it. I love setting up a kid’s board. I love telling someone about a set of wheels. I love skating by myself. Talking to team guys. Going filming with them. Editing things. I just love every aspect of this. I wonder if I’ll ever be so consumed by anything else? Is there literally anything else that will consume me to this level?
I don’t know the answer, but that’s the perfect way to end this. No more questions.
Interview and photos by Jeff Thorburn