The legend of the 'Crazy Canucks' cemented in the savage beauty of Kitzbühel
Iconic Canadian skiers won prestigious downhill event 4 years in a row
There's been a lot of talk in the lead up to the downhill dash over the "Rooster's Comb" on the face of the Hahnenkamm mountain which looms above the historic ski station at Kitzbühel, Austria.
The course, known simply as "The Streif," or "The Stripe," is symbolic of the notion that speed and danger are most definitely ahead.
It's as simple as that.
This is the race that rings alarm bells with ski fans everywhere.
It's most certainly the one winter event that has given rise to a hefty portion of Canadian alpine lore.
WATCH | The Crazy Canucks were the kings of Kitzbühel:
The narrative revolves around an interlude at the outset of the 1980's which saw a band of upstarts known as "The Crazy Canucks" capture the most precious prize in this treasure of a ski race, not once, but four years in a row.
Before Ken Read won the downhill at Kitzbühel in 1980 and then Steve Podborski followed up with back-to-back victories in 1981 and 1982, and Todd Brooker capped the amazing run with the championship in 1983, no non-European had been the "Hahnenkammsieger" or champion of the dastardly race since it came onto the World Cup in 1967.
Kitzbühel requires skiers to be on a 'different level'
"I guess everyone wants to earn the respect of their peers at whatever they do," mused Brooker from his home near Collingwood, Ont. "All of us who raced Kitzbühel know what it takes just to compete there. And we know the different level you need to be on to actually win. It would be like winning the Masters in golf or the U.S. Open [in] tennis."
The only North American to win Kitzbühel since the Canadians did it is a skier from the United States named Daron Rahlves who prevailed on a dramatically shortened course, in what amounted to a sprint downhill, in 2003.
This is a race won by the legends of the sport. Included are the denizens of skiing's hall of fame, superstars like Jean-Claude Killy of France, Switzerland's Didier Cuche, who won five times, and the great Austrians Toni Sailer, Franz Klammer, and Hermann Maier.
'Skiing is Austria's hockey'
The 'Crazy Canucks' had been elbowing their way into the consciousness of the European ski community prior to 1980 with some wins on the World Cup circuit, but nothing like this. It was akin to a some Scandinavian hockey team winning the Stanley Cup and upsetting the dynastic Montreal Canadiens in their heyday.
It was unheard of.
"Skiing is Austria's hockey," noted Max Gartner, who is Austrian born and came to Canada to coach skiing in 1982. He went on to become the chief athletic officer and eventually president and CEO of Alpine Canada.
He knows what significance skiing has for Austria and what Kitzbühel's downhill means to skiing. He's well aware that the arrival of the "Crazy Canucks" changed the plot forever.
"Every young Austrian skier's dream is to win Kitzbühel, even more than the Olympics," Gartner reckoned. "To have Canada owning it was sure noticed."
It was more than just noticed. This swashbuckling squadron of Canadian skiers has been lionized over the years and the story has become a modern fable, not only in the eyes of rabid Austrian devotees, but back home as well.
"It adds something magical and special and it just never goes away," Steve Podborski said as he reflected on that time. "It's the one. If you want to know how good you are then go out and win at Kitzbühel then nobody else can tell you that you can't ski."
The Super Bowl of alpine skiing
The lustre of the downhill at Kitzbühel has developed over time. It's been broadcast live on television, via ORF, the national, public broadcaster, since 1959. In a country of 8.8 million people it has an average audience of two million in Austria alone. Estimates are that each year, the Hahnenkamm downhill is consumed by an audience of 260 million European TV viewers while about 100,000 fans actually attend the race in person.
Gondala cars transporting spectators to the "Startchuss" (start hut) which is perched above the menacing and cliff-like "Mausefalle" (mousetrap) are named after past champions.
I can recall the one time I visited Kitzbühel in advance of the 2007 FIS world championships which were held in Are, Sweden, and riding to the top of the downhill course in the Todd Brooker car.
"There's no question that carrying on the winning legacy at Kitzbühel is a huge motivation," Brooker said, with an obvious measure of pride. "It's such a thrill to join other Canadian winners in this exclusive club but beyond just our team to join the distinguished history of the race."
Peering out at the track, which is often shrouded in shade in order to add to the difficulty, I wondered at how anyone could possibly attempt to ski down it.
"I remember standing in the starting gate and thinking I don't have a clue," Podborski said of his first race there as a 17-year-old. "I can't imagine making it. So what do I do? It's called a leap of faith, I took a leap of faith and I made it."
That leap of faith and that devil-may-care attitude is what endeared the "Crazy Canucks" to generations of followers including the ski-obsessed, European, faithful. The daunting nature of this downhill was not nearly enough to deter the Canadians.
"It is a very unique layout with sections that take extreme courage from the skiers. More than any other course on the World Cup," Gartner reasoned. The 'Crazy Canucks' had a reputation for putting it all on the line and for risking it all. This was a style that was especially required in Kitzbühel. In order to win it requires full attack."
This heroic era of racing at Kitzbühel is not lost on the current generation of Canadian, speed, skiers.
Ben Thomsen of Invermere, B.C., covets the Hahnenkamm downhill like no other event. He had his best result there last season when he finished a strong sixth and he can't wait to go back for more in spite of the inherent risks involved.
"It's just the pinnacle for me and just thinking about it gives me this inspirational feeling of wanting to do everything I possibly can to be as fast as possible," Thomsen told me with a wide-smile plastered on his face.
"It comes down to two words…beautiful chaos."
The crowd is often littered with celebrities such as actor and former Governor of California, the "Terminator" Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as Formula One drivers like the late Niki Lauda or Canadian Gilles Villeneuve who watched the "Crazy Canucks" triumph here in the 1980's before being killed in a car crash in 1982.
Former Austrian champions like Franz Klammer, who won four times, and Herman Maier will also be there. American Lindsey Vonn, the most prolific female skier in history, will be a special guest this year.
They all gather to take in the spectacle that is Kitzbühel and to see the alpine gladiators defy the mountain in order to chase glory. It can be a brutal kind of extravaganza. Only the very few can win this race which demands so much of every skier. Many of the aspirants risk hurting themselves badly in the attempt.
Todd Brooker still savours his victory in 1983 but he also recalls the dark and essential side of the Hahnenkamm. Brooker crashed horrifically in 1987 and his "rag doll" tumble down the mountain left him unconscious with multiple broken bones effectively ending his World Cup skiing career.
"No other course asks for the same commitment as the Streif and no victory is as thoroughly earned," Brooker estimated. "The high degree of risk or perhaps the penalties you face for taking those risks are always on your mind. I'll never regret crashing because I was trying to win again. And being on the edge like I was…is exactly how you win at Kitzbühel."
That's the savage beauty of the Hahnenkamm downhill.
It's a victory that must be earned but one which earns immediate respect when it's achieved. It's that legacy of respect which the "Crazy Canucks" fashioned four decades ago that endures to this day.
"Those guys were legendary and remember Austrians are crazy about ski racing and their heroes," Gartner concluded. "The skiers are under total scrutiny and every step is reported on. Many Austrians felt if we can't win, it might as well be the Canadians. They're much better than the Swiss and the Austrians have adopted them to a great degree."
For alpine skiing, Kitzbühel is the biggest and most important race in any given season.
It will never be forgotten that there was a time when the Canadians conquered this fearsome race and became the undisputed stars of skiing's greatest show on earth.