Canada's men's Alpine skiers 'coming of age' ahead of anticipated Lake Louise return
Event features men's downhill, Manny Osborne-Paradis retirement run and super-G
The body language and chatter from athletes and coaches was enough for Phil McNichol to understand the importance of this week's return of racing to the Banff National Park ski resort in Lake Louise, Alta.
The lone Canadian stop on the World Cup Alpine skiing circuit will host a season-opening men's downhill Saturday and super-G on Sunday after taking a season off during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the women's competition next weekend. Friday's opening downhill was cancelled due to too much snow on the course.
"You can tell they're really excited to do what they do in front of Canadians and at home," McNichol, in his second season as Alpine high performance director with Alpine Canada, told CBC Sports. "Growing up, the [Canadian] athletes have competed in North American Cup events and other events here, so there's a certain comfort level and Lake Louise has an even deeper calming effect, especially with first-race jitters.
"For the Europeans, they compete all year at home. This is a big trip for them to come to North America, do a couple of weeks of training and race. They're fired up to be back."
WATCH | Manny Osborne-Paradis previews Lake Louise and his final run:
The absence of the popular Lake Louise event was not only felt in the local community from an economic perspective but challenging to a sport that fights to get noticed in North America in the best of times.
"I'm new to Alpine Canada and it's no secret we struggle to have the monetary means and support in such a small niche sport, even though we are a strong winter country," said McNichol, who previously worked with the U.S. men's Alpine team. "We need these [World Cup] events and have to be relevant in people's minds and eyes, so Lake Louise is important."
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For the first time, the International Ski Federation awarded Lake Louise a second downhill for the men's program, a format McNichol noted has been "effective" on the women's side for 12 years and should benefit Canada's skiers familiar with the run.
Thomas Dressen of Germany beat Italy's Dominik Paris by 2-100ths of a second in the men's downhill the last time it was contested at Lake Louise on Nov. 30, 2019.
Calgary's Jeff Read was the top Canadian in 46th, followed by Brodie Seger and Cam Alexander of North Vancouver, B.C., in 47th and 48th, respectively, while Toronto's Jack Crawford placed 57th.
Canadian men's coach John Kucera, who won the Lake Louise super-G in 2006, and McNichol are expecting improved results this weekend, given Seger and Crawford's breakthrough seasons last year, as the Canadians and others begin work for the chance to be named to their respective countries' Olympic teams for Beijing in February.
The 25-year-old Seger finished fourth in super-G at world championships last February, missing a bronze medal by 4-100ths in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. Crawford, 24, also shone at the competition with a fourth-place performance in the Alpine combined, a demanding discipline that requires athletes to be speed and technical experts. He is also 24th in the super-G world rankings.
WATCH | Seger just misses world championship podium:
At 27, speed specialist Broderick Thompson of Whistler, B.C., is the oldest men's team member. He was ninth in super-G at his debut worlds earlier this year after two years sidelined by injury and could break out this season, McNichol pointed out.
The 24-year-old Alexander returns from a knee injury sustained in last year's opening downhill in Val-d'Isère, France, and like Broderick, said McNichol, should be able to optimize taking his speed from the steep sections at Lake Louise into the long, rolling glide sections of the course that lends to their strength.
"This group is coming of age in the speed events, and in talking to the foreign coaches that have seen them on the glaciers or in training, people are noticing," McNichol said. "They are quite competitive amongst themselves and you're going to see some of their highlights from last year more consistently and moving from those personal bests."
McNichol added Lake Louise is ideal for a season opener with all the elements, from steepness, terrain changes, technical jumps and challenging glide sections.
"It gives you what downhill asks for," he said, "and this year, the organizers and course crew went out of their way to build extra terrain into the hill with how they put the man-made snow on the hill and groomed it. There are more rolls and off camber features and a different look than we've seen."
Before Saturday's race, there will be a retirement run in the downhill from Canada's Manny Osborne-Paradis, who left the sport in October 2020 after 13 years of World Cup racing and 11 medal podium finishes. In 2006, a 22-year-old Osborne-Paradis finished second in the downhill at Lake Louise.
Twelve years later, his career ended on the same course when the North Vancouver-born Osborne-Paradis hit soft snow during a 2018 training run and catapulted head over heels into a safety net, snapping his tibia (shin bone) and fibula (calf bone).
WATCH | Osborne-Paradis discusses his decision to retire:
"Thinking about the journey from being a four-year-old skiing on Mickey Mouse skis, to standing on World Cup and world championship podiums still gives me goosebumps," Osborne-Paradis said in a statement released by Alpine Canada. "It's going to be really amazing to have my wife [Lana] and two kids [daughter Sloane and son Toby] there to see my last run at Lake Louise."
Marie-Michèle Gagnon 'fit and ready'
Next weekend, the Canadian women will be led by veteran skier Marie-Michèle Gagnon, who is coming off a stellar speed campaign. The 32-year-old from Lac-Etchemin, Que., ended a five-year podium drought last January when she won super-G bronze in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, and went on to place sixth at worlds in super-G.
Gagnon, who ranked 11th in the world in super-G last season and 16th in downhill, had solid workouts through the summer and is fresh off a training cycle in Copper Mountain in Colorado. "She should come into [Lake Louise] fit and ready," McNichol said.
Roni Remme of Collingwood, Ont., returns to the slopes after a year away from the World Cup circuit that included racing at the University of Utah and earning her degree in bio medical engineering.
Remme reached her first World Cup podium in February 2019 with a silver medal performance in alpine combined at Crans-Montana, Switzerland, and was fifth at worlds in the same event in Åre, Sweden.
Later that year, the 25-year-old placed 36th at Lake Louise in downhill and super-G.
Remme competed last weekend in Levi, Finland but didn't qualifying for the second run in slalom on consecutive days.
"Happy to be leaving Levi behind me, we'll give 'er another go next year," Remme said in an Instagram post. "There's not much to say except the grind continues and it's a long season."
McNichol is also encouraged by Toronto's Ali Nullmeyer after the 23-year-old placed 14th in slalom in Levi following a career-best 12th last March in Åre.