Canadian ski story compelling

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:23 AM ET

The little guy standing up to defeat his tormentor is always appealing drama. But when it really happens, it's compelling.

Canadians didn't have to know a mogul from a mole hill to bask with pride in the blast of success provided by the national men's ski team when it left the skiing world in its tracks 30 years ago.

Crazy Canucks (CTV, 9 p.m. tonight) is a film focusing on their 1975 breakthrough. In ways, it was the reverse of the Summit Series three years earlier, when the favoured Team Canada fought hard to edge the then-Soviet Union.

They were heady times. Women's skiing had Nancy Greene, then Betsy Clifford and Laurie Kreiner, but men's skiing hadn't even made the alpine radar screen.

Their ascension was sudden and shocking to European ski powers. Canadians could play hockey but they were merely a second-seed backdrop to Austrian, Swiss, French, German and Italian skiers.

Then along came UWO alumnus Ken Read (ranked 101st in the world a year earlier) to break through to win at Val d'Isere, France, and one of the greatest stories in Canadian sports history began to unfold. The Europeans could not believe it, minimizing the Canadian feats as acts of recklessness (they were named the Kamikazi Kanadieren, then Crazy Canucks).

When the Canadians continued to rack up breathtaking wins via their razor's-edge blasts through the chutes and compressions of the world's slopes, there was no denying it. Canada had become a men's downhill skiing power.

Wisely bereft of the well-worn romantic interest that often clutters up a sports history, the film deals with the lead-up, breakthrough and aftermath that winter, including conflicts that threatened a solidarity borne of being the little guy trying harder.

Faithful to the facts, the movie portrays Jungle Jim Hunter accurately as an off-beat guy who liked to don his uniform and ride atop the team van in tuck stance to replicate ski speed.

I remember interviewing him when he was a rookie at a World Cup race in Mont-Ste- Anne, Que. Already drawn to a high-risk, high-reward approach to his sport, the fellow who dropped a promising hockey career for skiing was critical of his older teammates' comfort level.

Now as the veteran member of the Crazy Canucks, he was caught between resenting his lack of success and the rising success of his younger mates.

Hunter won bronze in combined at the Sapporo (Japan) Olympics, but combined in skiing is merely an award for being average at more than one of the three alpine disciplines.

Accurate portrayals in the four-year filming project have Read as the quiet leader, Dave Irwin as the all-out risk-taker, Steve Podborski as the kid and Dave Murray as the peacemaker.

While Canadians seemed to relish the notion of their guys being wild and daring heroes who feared nothing, the skiers themselves hated the Crazy Canucks label.

"We didn't like to be seen as abandoning safety," Read said during a London visit.

"What really happened was we adapted. It was much like the Canada-Soviet hockey series. Canadians eventually came around and respected Soviet hockey."

Aside from a retrospective into one of the more fascinating eras in Canadian sport, the film helps underline truths valuable beyond sports.

Podborski honed his skills on a suburban Toronto ski bump much like Boler Mountain. Hunter came from flat Saskatchewan.

All were up against the ski machines of nations whose success in the mountains is at least as important as Canada's on the ice.

Yet the little guys fought their way quickly to the top of the hill by going down it even faster.


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