The good news is, they’re training — actually on snow, training. The bad? The game of “catch up” has just begun. It’s like starting a best-of-seven NHL playoff series down a game or two. The series isn’t over but the chips are stacked against you.
Canada’s national alpine teams have been on snow in Saas Fe, Switzerland and Stelvio, Italy since late July with plans to move over to Zermatt with the speed team in September, picking up where they left off nearly four months earlier when the season was terminated due to the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions.
When the FIS recently announced it had moved up the World Cup openers in Soelden by a week, it put the Canadian alpine teams at a further disadvantage.
“We will definitely be behind the schedule but not to a place where I would say that we’re way off track,” said Phil McNichol, Alpine Canada’s high performance alpine director.
The former U.S. ski team men’s head coach with 42 World Cup victories during his tenure, McNichol is no stranger to adaptation and creative programming to achieve world-class results. And he has chosen the glass-half-full option in looking toward the season.
“We will need to work on training volumes and additional training opportunities but we should be pretty close. As things are playing out we will be right around 30 (days) going into Soelden now that it’s been moved up. You’re going to see Erik Read and others get into the start gate and they’ll be behind many nations who were able to stay on their trajectory of around 60 days (on snow).”
With the premature end to the 2019-20 season and the huge gap of no on-snow training, the Canadian teams may need to look at quality over quantity.
“From the outset we knew it was going to be a big challenge,” he said. “Not only were we facing some daunting financial challenges at the end of the season, but everything was shut down. As we were adjusting and looking at what else could be done in Canada it became quite apparent that it wasn’t feasible to get on snow in Canada and the window started to rapidly close.”
After shifting focus to training options in Europe, McNichol and the coaching staff successfully negotiated a special exemption with the EU, which would allow for early admission, but prior to departure, the EU announced its opening. McNicol aims to keep the document “in our back pocket if things get wonky moving forward.”
Revised race calendar the best route to fair play
It’s no surprise that the FIS continues to make European-friendly decisions without accounting for the ski nations who are unable to train within its own borders. The last active ski glacier in Canada, the Horstman Glacier in Whistler, B.C., shut down permanently and the T-bar removed in July due to deteriorated and unsafe conditions caused from glacial melt. And with the borders to the U.S. closed, the popular option for provincial and club programs, Mount Hood, is no longer an option.
“I’m working hard with the NorAm committee to delay the NorAms this year,” McNichol said. “But there’s still some continental debate about early racing, but I feel relatively confident that the majority of the NorAm calendar will come out starting late January to April.”
McNichol is in the early stages of developing an integrated national alpine structure in Canada, including the Next Gen program, a roster of 12 up-and-coming skiers who will continue within the provincial ski team – or NCAA – systems.
“All of those athletes need to use the NorAm’s as their focal point to matriculate forward in the national team structure and in their quest to make the World Cup. So that gives them some latitude to train in November and December and a good part of January to focus on the 25-30 NorAm starts.”
According to McNichol, the Quebec team is training now in France, with Ontario, Alberta and B.C. provincial teams all preparing for a Europe training block soon.
‘Level playing field’ not a reality
When asked if it would be realistic for FIS to get more involved in regulating the rules of engagement, i.e., the number of days on snow, in an effort to create a level playing field, McNichol provided a thoughtful response to the inner workings of the FIS.
“[The FIS] always have two things at play: the economics and marketing that’s driving things and then the athletic side, or what is better for the athlete in terms of development and preparation,” he explained. “Athletically it would be far better if the World Cup started later when the whole world is ready.”
McNichol believes the worldwide pandemic “shines a light” on some of the structural challenges within the FIS.
“People are thinking, ‘Who’s controlling this thing?’ … haven’t they noticed that some teams are training as in any normal year and then there are those on the sidelines? In general, the FIS operates in this amateurism. You look at the NHL, they are governed as professionals. FIS doesn’t want to take on that responsibility or liability just as they don’t want to be proactive with decisions right now as it’s easier for them if each of the race organizers and countries who are hosting World Cup races take on that decision-making.
“It would have been more of an NHL-style picture if the FIS said early on that they’re going to push the season back, start in Val d’Isere in mid December and move the end of season to April 15. This would give everyone an extra month-and-a-half of training. We know that Norway is training, Sweden’s training up north and we know that the Europeans fired their glaciers back up early. And in the U.S. they can organize some special stuff in Copper Mountain and use Mount Hood.”
McNichol also identifies sourcing local on-snow glacier venue as an important path forward for the Canadian alpine structure.
“Our board is shifting some of their thinking and energy towards the exploration of Canadian glaciers. That need became very apparent in a country that has the most glaciers in the world and we’re the only ones who can’t ski (in the offseason).
“But developing a glacier opportunity is a big endeavor and we have a lot of work to get ready for Beijing and Cortina in the next two Olympic cycles, so we’re going to have to do things that immediately impact us – and for me, the low hanging fruit is that we have to improve our possibilities in Whistler-Blackcomb, in Sunshine and Panorama, even in Sima [Yukon]. We need to turn over every stone with resorts big and small in how we can train as long as possible in the spring and as early as possible in the fall at home in Canada.”
In the meantime, McNichol’s half-full glass and creative leadership should help weather the storm.