Zoricic's funeral celebrates the life of a remarkable young man

Pall bearers carry out the casket during the funeral for Canadian freestyle skier Nik Zoricic at...

Pall bearers carry out the casket during the funeral for Canadian freestyle skier Nik Zoricic at Islington United Church in Toronto, Ont., March 19, 2012. (LAURA PEDERSEN/QMI Agency)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:22 PM ET

TORONTO - A while back, Nik Zoricic and a bunch of his buddies sat down over a few beers and strangely, for young people, got into a philosophical conversation about funerals.

Their funerals. What would people say about them when they were gone? Would they have anything to say? Who would show up? And how many?

“Nik said, ‘There wouldn’t be many people for me,’” his friend, Luke Leon said at the jam packed Islington United Church on Monday afternoon. “Looking around, I guess he was wrong.”

He said there wouldn’t be many tears. “There hasn’t been a dry eye for nine days,” said Leon.

The Canadian skier, an enormous figure in his own world, almost unknown across the country, was put to rest Monday afternoon in a moving, emotional, celebration of a most remarkable life.

There is tragedy and sadness here for those who know and loved Zoricic, the Canadian ski cross international, and yet a sense of sadness from those of us who didn’t know him at all. If anything was clear Monday on a wonderful sunny afternoon, it was how special this young man happened to be. How he enhanced lives. How he made others feel better about themselves. How he lived with endless passion, pursuing the most demanding and difficult of dreams, with the character of a champion, an engaging presence that left everyone who knew him, loved, him, feeling better for it. Sport doesn’t define character in its athletes, often it reveals it: And if we can, if we’re capable, we should all strive to be a little like Nik Zoricic, to be that giant to the people who matter most to us, our friends, our families, our community, our teammates.

“Women wanted him, men wanted to be like him,” said Dave Ellis from Ski Cross Canada, in his eulogy Monday. He was kidding. Sort of.

Earlier, one of the speakers from the Craigleith Ski Club, where Zoricic and his father, Bebe were legends within that community — Zoricic as their representative around the world, his father as both Pied Piper and coach — pointed out how Zoricic could not go unnoticed. He would sign all the kids autographs, no matter how many were around, because he represented what they might want to be one day. He would smile for the photos, shake the hands, make everyone feel more important that day.

“Mothers would whisper ‘Check out that smile’” said Steve Brown in his eulogy. And what a smile it was. A smile, his friend Leon said, that couldn’t be forgotten.

Zoricic never made an Olympic team in this country and it wasn’t for trying. He spent years working hard as a downhill skier. He was great, just not great enough to qualify for the Games. He switched disciplines in 2008 after more than 20 years of downhill skiing. He finished 61st in his first ski cross event on the World Cup circuit. That might make others walk away. It made Zoricic more determined. Three years after that 61st place finish, he had his first podium finish at the World Cup level. The Sochi Olympics were on his radar.

“The sky,” said Ellis, “was the limit.” The crash at Grindelwald, Switzerland on the final jump of the World Cup ski cross race ended the dream and Zoricic’s life at age 29. The cause of death was severe neurotrauma.

“I’ve asked myself why — why did this have to happen? “ his mother wrote in a letter to her son, read by her daughter, Kat, at Monday’s funeral. She asked why and there, of course, was no answer. Now, there is a family clinging to every memory, every emotion, proud and sad, and all that goes along with losing some way, way too soon. The hugs, from the known friends like Jason Spezza, to those not so famous, were everywhere outside the church, long and gripping and so many with eyes of crimson.

Nik Zoricic wasn’t just an athlete, he was a renaissance man of sorts. He played hockey, baseball, golf, fierce tennis matches with his father, and oh, how he loved to cook. There was almost nothing he didn’t take on with some kind of verve. He was an ambassador of life, representing himself, his club, his family, his friends, never forgetting his roots.

“He left us doing what he loved to do, on a beautiful day in one of the most beautiful places on earth,” said Ellis.

The sun shone brightly on a gorgeous Monday in Etobicoke, the kind of day spring skiing was made for, a beautiful day to say goodbye to a beautiful man we hardly knew.


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