Words: Eric Greene
A group of friends that first got together at small local Vancouver, British Columbia, ski resort Mt. Seymour before graduating to Whistler, the Wildcats were among the first bona fide snowboard crews to earn a global reputation. The crew's beginning can be traced back to one foggy afternoon when they packed two flats of extra-strength Wildcat brand beer up Mt. Seymour. A few backflips set to shitty techno music blaring from a battery-powered boom box, and the rest is history. A generation later, the 'Cats still command respect. They've added a handful of juniors to their roster and are set to release another film after a lengthy hiatus, where their intention remains as it's always been--to keep the fun in and the bullshit out.
The late '90s and early 2000s were a formative time for snowboarding, as it became increasingly exposed to and sought after by the corporate world. The Wildcats didn't pander to that. They cut the sleeves off their T-shirts and wore them on their heads. They dug snow caves and drank whiskey inside, rode GT snow racers off large jumps, smoked weed, listened to DMX, and went home with many women. It was a time when cash was flush in the industry, and the mainstream spotlight was beginning to shine light on the underground. Kale Stephens, Chris Brown, Chris Dufficy, and JF Pelchat blew up, and brands fought over the rights to endorse them. They were young and without formal representation or management, but they signed six-figure deals and were shown the money. They were global superstars.
Collectively, the crew put Whistler on the world map as a dream destination for living a hard lifestyle, on snow and off. A couple decades ago, the mountain town an hour and a half from Vancouver was an even smaller place with only a handful of bars. The Wildcats were regulars at all of them and received royalty treatment with free drinks and no lines, even when most nights ended with smashed glass and venue ejections. They constantly caused trouble, but with it they brought business and notoriety. Everyone knew of them and wanted to party with them.
Pete Andersen recalls one night after Devun Walsh purchased a townhome that became more of a flophouse for other Wildcats. "Dev was taking a six a.m. flight to Chile, so we decided to stay up all night with him, but he passed out around three." They repacked Walsh's luggage, and he landed in Chile with a board bag full of herbs and spices, random items from his kitchen, a Danzig CD, and no clothes.
One winter in the early 2000s, the Wildcats were invited to Nagano, Japan. Their accommodations ended up being what they describe as a crack house above an auto mechanic's shop. And it rained the entire trip. They found pink one-piece ski suits in the closet and wore them for a week as they tricked each other by filling water bottles with vodka and placing them bedside each morning. By the end of the debaucherous trip, they were superstars in Japan.
For a group who've been privileged to visit the best locations in the world with perfect conditions, they make a point of reminiscing highlights from disaster trips that didn't involve snowboarding, like the time Kale Stephens allegedly spent 48 consecutive hours in a Las Vegas strip club during the SIA trade show.
In the scope of snowboarding, the original Wildcats era was a lifetime ago. Some of the riders now winning X Games and Olympics events were barely born when Lil' Bastards dropped in 1999. With a changing of the guard in the professional snowboarding community, the Wildcats now represent a merging of generations, and the objective of their new film is to resist the mainstream attempt to make their sport too straight. The Wildcats still party better than anyone and make a point to showcase A-grade riding as entertainment, not something serious. What was once an elite crew of fame and coolness is now empowering new faces and a diverse collection of riders who share values of charging Northwest backcountry and being front and center at the bar when the lights come on.
These days, the original Wildcats maintain a new stage of maturity, sort of, and most are now family men. The children of the Wildcats are part of the first generation of snowboarders to enter the lifestyle through their parents. Until recently, almost every snowboarder has signed up to the sideways lifestyle through peers or influencers--not their parents. Digest the idea for a moment of having a father whose primary job has been to snowboard, and now they're taking you to the mountain every weekend.
JF Pelchat has been in so many Wildcats films he can't remember how many were released. "I've been in all of them, but I'll have to ask Devun how many there were," he says. (There have been five, excluding the upcoming film). Pelchat's last sponsorship contract expired in 2007, the last season he filmed for a project--Still Bastards. And last year, at 43 years old, Pelchat was one of the main forces that brought the Wildcats back together to make another movie.
Eero Niemela came from Finland to Canada in the early 2000s on the contest circuit. He was on the Rossignol team with Pelchat, Alex Auchu, Paavo Tikkanen, and Dionne Delesalle. "I got to know them from a young age, and they took me under their wing," Niemela recalls. He was adopted by the Wildcats as the foreign little brother and began spending entire winters in Canada, becoming an expert backcountry rider under the guidance of Walsh and Pelchat.
Another of the younger guys to come in at that time was Mikey Rencz, who was just approaching adulthood after several years as a professional contest kid. "The Wildcats were probably the biggest inspiration for me as a snowboarder--proving to me that snowboarding is a whole lifestyle and not just something you do," Rencz says.
Niemela agrees and adds, "All those guys were my heroes. I wanted to snowboard like them, be in the films, and party like them."
One of the most legendary original Wildcats is Tikkanen, who moved back to Scandinavia when his sponsorship deals ran out after years in Canada. Though he's not involved in the new film project, Rencz affirms that he's doing just fine. "Paavo is in Helsinki. He’s the exact same, except his teeth are a bit more yellow," he says.
Still Bastards was the only early film Rencz was featured in. "It's funny because out of all my video parts, kids still come up to me hyped on my Still Bastards part, which was easily my worst, but that's the power of the Wildcats," Rencz says.
Many professional snowboarders have rotated through the group before moving on to different areas of life, but Pelchat has managed to maintain his entire working career in the snowboard industry. During his tenure as a pro, he worked on design and product engineering concepts with his sponsors. Later, he patented his own product technologies and inventions, eventually leading to the launch of his brand, NOW Bindings.
Pelchat has become completely devoted to the daily operations of NOW and argues that it's a good time to be running a business. "Snowboarding is in a great place right now," he says. "It's never been so diverse." He has a point. Board design is increasingly creative, and the media spotlight is spreading across mainstream contests, banked slaloms, DIY events, pow-surfing, and everything in between.
"Snowboarding has so many points of entry these days, so almost anyone can relate to a part of it," Pelchat explains. He argues that the new generation of snowboarders is younger than ever before and believes the entire industry needs to adapt in order to accommodate the range of participants that currently exists. "Snowboarding is more creative than ever right now, and creativity is what's going to prevail at the end of the day," he says.
The Wildcats capture the true essence of snowboarding. They engage with the weekend warriors and relate to the everyday snowboarder. "The party side is important because most people party," Pelchat says. "We're going for the fun side of partying, like making fun of yourselves."
There is a general lack of regret among the crew, especially in regard to the mayhem from days gone by. "That's who we were at the time," Pelchat says. "It was a great time, and it's always been about a balance of work and fun, but it's an evolution to grow and obtain new responsibilities."
Devun Walsh explains that relatively early on he started to pump the brakes on the party lifestyle, hitting the gym and golf course instead of the club. "I couldn't keep up with partying seven nights a week," he says. "I gained 20 pounds on a trip to New Zealand, and I'm only 135 to begin with." During that trip, the crew wrote off two four-wheel-drive rental cars.
Pelchat will talk all day about his respect for Walsh and his ongoing career success. He argues that the snowboard world is adopting a stronger bond with elder riders, like in surfing and skateboarding, where there's more support and respect for those with career longevity. "Brands used to be known for turning their backs on riders when they got injured and picking up the next guy in line, but that mentality is changing," Pelchat says. Like him and his peers, perhaps snowboarding is maturing.
Rencz says of Pelchat, "He's one of the most passionate dudes about snowboarding you will ever meet."
Niemela adds that he's been inspired working on the project with some younger riders who are out there to push the limits, "but it's been amazing to see JF out there filming his ass off. The man has still got it!"
Rencz is now nearing veteran status and feels that the new Wildcats film is necessary for the good of the sport. "I think especially now, with how contests are giving kids and parents a hockey mentality, it's important to showcase a fun crew mentality and remind kids to not take snowboarding too seriously," he says. As a kid, Rencz appreciated the bond he saw in the Wildcats, where they had fun snowboarding, partying, and traveling together: "For me, that's exactly what snowboarding has always been about."
Walsh confirms that the original intention behind the Wildcats was to resist the seriousness that was emerging in snowboarding. "We originally started doing the Wildcats thing to put the fun back in snowboarding," he says. During a time when Walsh's career was pulling him in several directions, he chose to stay in North Vancouver to ride the local mountains with his friends rather than chase fame around the globe filming for mainstream productions. "It wasn't about focusing on the Wildcats over anything else," Walsh claims. "It was about doing something fun during a time where every other film was only about banger shots, which didn't feel like it was representing true snowboarding."
Walsh is still riding professionally at the top of the ranks and on par with the youth. "I guess I'm the only one who's still snowboarding for a living," he admits, adding that he remains close with guys like Pelchat, Chris Dufficy, and Kale Stephens, even without professional snowboarding being their common ground.
Dave Cashen is an original member who says the full Wildcats history is exposed in the new film with stories and interviews recounting how the crew came to be. "The crew was pieced together through multiple shred sessions at Mt. Seymour and Whistler back then," Cashen says, noting that the Wildcats really came together in New Zealand while filming for Lil' Bastards. Cashen's snowboarding career was sidelined a few years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer, but he's as involved as he can be in the new film. "I'm super stoked on the new guys who are involved," he says. "They remind me of us back in the day--chill dudes that have fun and love to snowboard. And they rip!" His battle with cancer put a lot into perspective for him, and he makes a point that the Wildcats experience was a huge part of his youth and the biggest influence on the person he is today. "Life is a journey, and we all grow and change," he says. "You hold onto certain memories and experiences that will forever be a part of you--some good and some bad."
When pressed with the question of how well the old boys can still party, Cashen assures that they know how to have a good time. "The hangovers are what separate the men from the boys," he says. "JF is still an animal when he lets his inner 'Cat out, and Kale is still a beast no matter what he’s doing." The party times are more selective and less frequent these days, but the party torch has been partially passed to the younger guys, who seem to be doing a fine job upholding the reputation.
One of the most recent additions to the Wildcats roster is Ryan Tiene. The Australian has spent a string of winters in the Whistler area, learning the backcountry under the guidance of his DC teammates, Walsh and Iikka Backstrom. After five seasons of filming with them, the Wildcats revival project emerged, and Tiene naturally joined the lineup. "Those guys had a massive influence on me growing up," he says. "Not just with boarding, but with having a good time while doing it."
Walsh is always an influencer and motivator to film with, but Pelchat was the most notable rider to climb back on the horse and show the young bucks that he could still impress after an eight-year hiatus from filming. "I think it [the film] is a nice change by showing more personality, behind-the-scenes, crashes, and of course, a little bar footage," Tiene says.
Whistler-based photographer Chad Chomlack has been working with the crew for the past two seasons. "I got to know the guys after we all started having kids," he says. "That's how I became real close with Dev, JF, Romain [de Marchi], Tadashi [Fuse], and DCP." Chomlack's son Jadyn is a sponsored snowboarder on the come-up in Whistler.
Chomlack mentions the spirit of brotherhood that he recognizes in the Wildcats. He's found them to be influential as individuals over the years, known for their snowboarding and party reputations, but also for their commitment to each other, through good times and bad. "It sheds light on the importance of living the shred life," he says. "It's not based on competition or self-promotion or your Instagram account. It's about snowboarding and being connected to each other and the mountains." The Wildcats' motivation is what impresses Chomlack. "I'll often comment on the work ethic of the guys," he says. "They get into the mountains every day, rain or shine, sober or hungover, and make things happen."
It's astonishing that arguably the most legendary crew in snowboarding history has created a full-length release after a 10-year hiatus. The new movie will likely be the final encore of the original crew in film version, which Niemela describes as, "Beers, cheers, and snowboarding." Collectively, the Wildcats have already assembled a squadron of wild kittens that they're getting on snowboards as young as possible. The gift they're giving to snowboarding is the insurance that there will always be crews built around the goal of having fun in the mountains. As they say: Wildcats never die.