Slopes hopes sky high

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

Crazy again?

Canada's national ski team has been chasing the shadows of the past for almost a generation now. It's not easy to surpass illusions of grandeur.

The further the skiers drift back into the mindbanks of time the larger than life become the tales of Jungle Jim Hunter and riding the Lauberhorn in beat-up Volkswagen vans, Ken Read and the Crazy Canucks, the joy of sleeping in phone booths, Nancy Greene, the Todd Brooker era, and Steve Podborski. They set cowbells ringing throughout the Alps from Austria to Italy and turned more than one Heidi weak in the knees.

Hard acts to follow.

They were heady times for Canadian skiing. But, speculation is, the best skiing team this country has ever had might just be the one heading into the world championships this weekend in Are, Sweden. It certainly has the potential to become the best, if it isn't already.

This season Calgary's John Kucera scored a super-G World Cup win at Lake Louise, Kitchener's Kelly VanderBeek won a super-G bronze, Manuel Osborne-Paradis skied to a downhill silver, Michael Janyk scored a second silver in slalom -- and that was just in the opening weekend of the season.

Nine World Cup medallists, including four young racers who mounted the podium for the first time this season, will lead a record team of 19 athletes who have qualified for the two-week Alpine extravaganza -- two more than ever before.

They do not live in flower-power vans, snarl at authority or throw themselves off the Hahnenkamm downhill like lemmings over a cliff. All they have been is consistently good and doggedly effective as the thin edge of the wedge that Read, now the Alpine Canada president, has promised will restore this country to a skiing power for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver/Whistler.

Read was a member of that Canadian team from 1974 to 1980 when it was known as the Crazy Canucks -- a moniker earned for its daring. Not to mention, it was pretty aggressive on the ski slopes, too. Translated: Think Bode Miller with better press clippings. But the skiers' exploits came on the downhill. Read was the first North American to win a men's World Cup downhill. Today, Canadians are even allowed to make a turn or two whilst speeding down a mountain. In fact, Read encourages it. Some of Canada's biggest hopes for future glory on the slopes lie with its slalom experts -- those finicky technicians who try to tame what is otherwise a wild freefall.

Of course, for anyone still insisting on crazy, Osborne-Paradis may have that covered, too. He once won a race with his boots on wrong. "I must've been eight years old," he said via telephone from Sweden this week. "I put 'em on and I remember it was so tough to get the buckles on. After I won I was in the lodge and one of my mom's friends looked and said, 'You've got your boots on the wrong feet, no wonder your feet hurt.' I was just a kid and I probably had a gallon of snot coming out of my nose."

He has become slightly more refined now. With veteran Thomas Grandi injured much of the season, Osborne-Paradis, at just 22, has become as close to a figurehead as it gets for this team.

"We haven't got anyone who's a frontman like a Bode Miller or a (Olympic champ) Benjamin Raich or Renatta Goetschl, who is challenging for a World Cup title or a discipline title. But we have good breadth," Read said. "We've had guys on the podium in all four ski disciplines. When you look at the top 10 in each of the disciplines we've got athletes who aren't that far off."

When Guay and Osborne-Paradis finished 2-3 in Val d'Isere earlier this month it was the first time since 1994 that two Canadians stood on the same podium. "It was really important for me to share it with another Canadian," Osborne-Paradis said. "It shows we're building something special. There's nobody bringing this team down. The camaraderie is great. There's nobody getting a big head about it. There's veterans on this circuit who think they're just sooooo great because they're in Europe all the time and they have so many fans."

In Canada it sometimes seems the last World Cup skiing fan turned out the lights the last time Brooker came crashing down a hillside.

Osborne-Paradis sympathizes. There hasn't been much to cheer. "The interest in skiing has always been there. Canada is a skiing country. But it's just recently that I've noticed people getting excited about it. Look, nobody really wants to watch people who ski bad." He laughs, adding, "if there's no Canadian skiing in an event than I really don't want to watch it and if there's one that has a chance to do well then I'll watch and cheer."

This is Team Egalitarian. It is giving Canada a reason to cheer. It is giving Canadians a reason to care. "Even if I don't do well," Kucera said, "we all know someone else always has a chance every race and that takes the pressure off one person."

Bourque, 21, captured the silver medal at the giant slalom in the Hinterstoder World Cup event in Austria.

VanderBeek is fifth in the World Cup super-G standing with six top-10 placings, including her first podium. "It underscores that we're still building. Last year, VanderBeek had two fourths," Read said. "This year, instead of being a few hundreths behind, she was a couple ahead and got a third place. It's finding those hundreths that make the difference.

"Alpine skiing is the most competitive of the winter sports so we have to be relentless in finding those hundreths. Our team is ... the youngest on the tour. It's encouraging. They're on track that they should deliver."

Read has set ambitious goals -- 12 World Cup podium finishes this winter and two medals at the world championships. "Those become the measurements that let us know where we are and how far we are from where we want to go," Read said. "You can't really anticipate when an athlete will step on the podium but we can anticipate that they'll get better.

"If someone had come to me before the year and said is Johnny Kucera going to win a race this year, I'd have said, 'Well, he'd like too, but I'm not sure that's achievable yet ...'"

When Kucera won at Lake Louise, the 22-year-old Calgarian became only the second Canadian to win gold in a World Cup held in Canada.

Rob Boyd won the downhill in 1989 at Whistler, B.C.

Kucera, in his fourth season with the national team, said there has been a noticeable shift in attitude. Instead of hoping to get on the podium, they expect it.

"We want to obviously beat or surpass expectations. I don't think it puts pressure on us because it's not something you think about when you're in the gate. It's one of those things the closer we get to (Alpine Canada's) benchmarks the more eager we are to reach them."

Eight times a Canadian has stepped on a podium with a quarter of the season still ahead.

Osborne-Paradis understands why Canadians might not realize how competitive this team has become. He didn't realize it himself until two weeks ago when, "after Wengen (a team official) said to me, 'You know this is the first race this season where I haven't had to pick up any prize money.' That's where it sunk in that, holy smoke, this has been a pretty good season. That shows how well the season has been going. We'd always had someone in the top 10. Every race we feel someone could be on the podium."

There have been setbacks. Genevieve Simard, last year's female alpine athlete of the year, has been underwhelming. Allison Forsyth, Grandi and Stefan Guay have been injured. Ditto Paul Stutz, Patrick Biggs, Julien Cousineau and Jean-Phillipe Roy. "We've been hit hard. In slalom we had five guys who could score points in World Cup slalom. Today," Read said, "we've got one (Mike Janyk). It reinforces that we've got to have more depth."

These championships are to Europe what the Canada Cup and hockey are to Canada. That was evident when the flight carrying the Canadians and other World Cup stars touched down Wednesday to be greeted at the airport by TV lights and flashing cameras. "It's different here," Osborne-Paradis said of the reception. "When you're doing well ... you can't go to the grocery store without someone recognizing you. It's like being an NHL player in Canada. Everybody knows you and (fans) freak out about it ... you can go home and nobody recognizes you. And, even if they do, nobody cares."

Read believes this team will make them care. If not this week, certainly by 2010.

"We've scored more World Cup points than ever, we had the most-ever podiums last year," Read said of a team that is sixth in the Nations Cup, ahead of France and Germany and just behind Sweden.

"Our ultimate goal is to put Canada back among the leading ski nations of the world. We want kids to know that, if they want, we've got a system that will allow them to become champions."

And, these days, they don't even have to be crazy to get there.

CANADA'S 2007 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP SKI TEAMS

MEN

Francois Bourque (New Richmond, Que, / Pin Rouge)

Thomas Grandi (Canmore, Alta. / Banff Alpine Racers)

Erik Guay (Mont-Tremblant, Que. / Mont-Tremblant)

Michael Janyk (Whistler, B.C. / Whistler Mountain Ski Club)

John Kucera (Calgary / Calgary Alpine Racing Club)

Manuel Osborne-Paradis (Vancouver / Whistler Mountain)

Jan Hudec (Calgary / Banff Alpine Racers)

Jean-Philippe Roy (Ste-Flavie, Que. / Mont-Comi)

Paul Stutz (Banff, Alta. / Banff Alpine Racers)

Patrick Biggs (Orleans, Ont. / Ottawa Ski Club)

Ryan Semple (St-Faustin-Lac-Carre Que. / Mont-Tremblant)

WOMEN

Emily Brydon (Fernie, B.C., / Fernie Snow Valley Racers)

Genevieve Simard (Val-Morin, Que. / Montcalm Val-St-Come)

Kelly VanderBeek (Kitchener, Ont. / Chicopee Ski Club)

Brigitte Acton (Mont-Tremblant, Que., / Mont-Tremblant)

Shona Rubens (Canmore, Alta. / Lake Louise Ski Club)

Emilie Desforges (Montreal, Que. / Mont-Tremblant)

Britt Janyk (Whistler, B.C. / Whistler Mountain Ski Club)

Megan Ryley (Toronto / Craigleith Ski Club)

CANADA'S 2006-07 WORLD CUP MEDALLISTS

Manuel Osborne-Paradis, silver, downhill, Lake Louise, CAN

John Kucera, gold, super-G, Lake Louise, CAN

Kelly VanderBeek, bronze, super-G, Lake Louise, CAN

Michael Janyk, silver, slalom, Beaver Creek, USA

John Kucera, bronze, super-G, Val Gardena, ITA

Francois Bourque, silver, giant slalom, Hinterstoder, AUT

Erik Guay, silver, downhill, Val d'Isere, FRA

Manuel Osborne-Paradis, bronze, sownhill, Val d'Isere, FRA


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