Vancouver Sun: Raising snow sports to new level

This article was originally published on the Vancouver Sun website.

Canada’s Marielle Thompson leads compatriot Kelsey Serwa in the women’s ski cross final at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Photograph by: Sergei Grits , AP

Canada’s Marielle Thompson leads compatriot Kelsey Serwa in the women’s ski cross final at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Photograph by: Sergei Grits , AP

Who was Canada’s best male snow sports athlete last season?

Was it moguls skier Mikael Kingsbury, who set a record with seven consecutive wins on the World Cup freestyle circuit and won the Crystal Globe as overall champion? Or was it Alex Harvey, who won three World Cup races and became the first Canadian to win two medals at the cross-country skiing world championships, with silver and bronze in Falun, Sweden?

Where do alpine skiers Dustin Cook (a win and a third-place in World Cup Super G and a silver at world championships) and Manuel Osborne-Paradis (two World Cup downhill second-place finishes) figure in the discussion?

And is it even possible to compare results given the differences in size and competitiveness of the fields in the sports? Halfpipe, slopestyle and moguls are also judged sports, while ski cross and SBX are first to the finish line, alpine and cross-country are purely timed events.

Snow Sports Canada, the consortium set up two years ago to represent the sponsorship and marketing interests of Canada’s seven national snow sports organizations, believes it can be done.With the assistance from high-performance directors at Alpine Canada, Freestyle Skiing Canada, Biathlon Canada, Canada Snowboard, Cross Country Canada, Nordic Combined Canada and Ski Jumping Canada, it plans on creating a season-long, points-based system to declare a best of the best, starting with the 2015-16 winter campaign.


The competition will be charted on a new website that the organization is confident will result in wider public interest in the athletes and their sports. The website will include video content and interactive opportunities for fans and athletes.

Mike Spicer, a Snow Sports Canada representative, said the average skier can be “disengaged” from FIS events and how, in the case of freestyle in particular, they work and are scored.

“We can create something that’s exciting and engaging and has compelling content for consumers, kind of a one-stop shop for information.”

Specific details on just how the Snow Sports Canada Cup will be scored are still to be determined, and the organization is looking to land a title sponsor. But the plan is to award cash prizes to the top male and female athletes.

“The cash pool will be significant,” says Spicer. “We want to make it meaningful for who wins.”

Spicer and Freestyle Canada CEO Bruce Robinson said they’re not aware of any other winter sport nation that has a similar in-country competition for its athletes.

Chris Robanske, the North Vancouver resident who won the season-ending World Cup snowboardcross race in La Molina, Spain, thinks it’s a great idea.

“I’d never thought for one day that I would be able to compete against skiers or other snowboarders in different disciplines,” he said.

“Once they get an equation fully figured out, it’s going to be a cool concept to see how I’m doing on a bigger scale, against all of the Canadian athletes, because we’ve got some of the best in the world.”

Spicer and others concede the biggest challenge will be to come up with a points system that is fair and equitable.

“That’s why we want to engage (each sport’s) technical directors and key athletes to make sure we develop a system that levels the playing field,” said Spicer. “We need their buy in.”

Do they include results only above a certain benchmark, say top 20? Do they count only each athlete’s top five results? Do they give added weight to world championships? And for some freestyle and snowboard disciplines, where there are far fewer World Cups events than on the alpine and cross-country circuits, do those athletes count X Games, Dew Tour and AFP events?

Spicer said that in preparation for next season, the organization tracked results in 2014-15 using a rudimentary points system.

“We wanted to know if we could create a platform that works and the answer is yes. We had six of the seven NSOs (National Sport Organizations) with athletes in a top 20.”

He expects the system will likely need to be tweaked in the first couple of years. But he believes the Snow Sports Cup can be a legitimate competition.Off the top of this story we highlighted the country’s top male athletes, but the fight to be the top female athlete should be just as tightly contested.

Snowboardcross racer Marielle Thompson, who won Olympic gold in 2014 and the first three World Cups of the 2014-15 season before being sidelined by injury, would have to be considered a favourite.

But moguls skiers Justine and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe, halfpipe skier Cassie Sharpe, alpine’s Marie-Michele Gagnon and ski jumper Taylor Heinrich, who, in January, became the first Canadian woman to win a World Cup medal with a bronze, would all be contenders.

Peter Judge, director of winter sport for Own the Podium, said the initiative will provide a platform to engage the collective ski and snowboard community.

“Anything that helps raise the profile of these sports, and particularly around the awareness of individual athletes, is a good thing. It’s about trying to build stars. We had that years ago with the Crazy Canucks and with (pioneer freestyle skier) Jean-Luc Brassard.

“It’s a critical piece that can be built organically through a convergence of circumstances, or it can be done purposely through these kind of tools.”

Spicer said the possibilities with the website are endless. There will be athlete bios with connections to their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. And besides the overall standings, there could be athlete of the week, or month, awards. There will also be a fan voting component and perhaps even fantasy pools.

“The growth is exponential from there. It’s going to be a multi-year effort to really gain momentum.”

Spicer said the whole concept should be attractive to corporate Canada, noting that it’s a way to tap into the 5.2 million recreational skiers and snowboarders in the country.

“And that’s, generally speaking, quite an affluent community. So the appeal for the corporate world is significant and one of our key drivers.”

Like other CEOs in the Canadian sports community, Robinson understands the challenge of re-engaging corporate Canada after sponsorships and partnerships dropped following the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver/Whistler.

“The days of being able to put a logo on a uniform or put up a banner at a race course, when that’s all you had to offer, those days are done,” said Robinson. “Businesses are more sophisticated and demanding in seeing what they get in return (for sponsorship).

“We as sport organizations have to do things differently. We have to find better ways to create an experience for the Canadian public and the snow sports participants to be engaged with the sport and to engage with corporate partners.”

As slopestyle skier Kim Lamarre of Quebec said in Whistler last weekend: “We’re all great athletes, so why not get everyone interested in what we do?”