Running a ski club is a “labour of love”, according to the Smithers Ski and Snowboard Club president Cormac Hikisch, but one that is also tremendously rewarding.
As the club president for past five years – and a former competitor for the same club in the 1980s and early 90s – Hikisch is encouraged by the growth and stability of the program, even during Covid times, and with the announcement of two high quality coaches is brimming with excitement.
The Smithers club recently announced that Leslie Firstbrook has joined as the program director and Dillon Prophet, the U14–U18 lead coach. Firstbrook’s coaching resume is long and impressive, including the Alberta ski team, the Osler Bluff club in Ontario, Nakiska and one season with the Whistler Mountain Ski Club.
Prophet, also an experience coach, has worked with clubs in Alberta and spent two seasons as an assistant coach with the Quebec ski team.
“We’re so excited to have such quality coaches taking the helm,” Hikisch said. “This leadership role will define and build our club programming and provide oversight to all club coaching and athlete development.”
According to Hikisch, the Smithers team is very much looking forward to travelling after a stalled season with Covid restrictions keeping the local ski team training on the same slope every weekend. “It was like groundhog day at the ski hill, but coaches Dick Eastmure, Claire Challen, Clay Collingwood, and Jessica Hall all did a great job getting creative and keeping the athletes challenged, having fun and learning.”
“We’re really looking forward to out-of-community competitions this season, like the BC Winter Games, the Teck Open Races and Whistler Cup in April,” he said.
Active and engaged executive
“We have a great mix of former club alumni and some new blood as well [on the Board], and a mixture of professionals, Hikisch said. “It’s a really keen group for fundraising, organization and all the factors of a non profit. We’ve done some great work with grants; we received a Nik Zoricic grant for safety netting, a local forestry service grant, NDIT supported us for a major cabin upgrade and ViaSport … new gates, radios. We’ve been successful on a lot of fronts.”
But what excites Hikisch the most is the stability and retention of the skiers.
“The momentum of all of our athletes returning is so exciting,” he said. “To have four girls punch into the U18 age group is awesome. “We want to help create skiers for life – first and foremost – and to have an avenue for that calibre of racing is important to us as a club. The number of athletes who have returned just shows that we’re helping them create that passion and to put the effort in. That’s really exciting to me; I’ve seen so many young boys and girls stop playing sports too young.”
All ski racers enrolled with the club returned and the club has grown to over 120 competitors for the 2021-22 season. “It’s the most we’ve had in a generation,” Hikisch beamed.
The club is preparing for trip to the Mt Sima, Yukon, next week. “We’ll based out of Whitehorse with six days on snow planned and also we will utilize the Canada Games Centre for our off snow training.”
The Smithers club continues to prove the value of community, team effort, creativity and quality leadership can propel an organization to great heights.
Smithers Club executive team (2021-22)
Cormac Hikisch (President), Dave Bobb (VP), Ben Weinstein (Treasurer), Jeanne MacNeil (Registrar), Matt Sear (Alpine Chair), Mike Sanborn (Snowboard Chair), Lara Collingwood (Fundraising), Margaret Groves (Director), Gavin Murdoch (U10 Coordinator), Ryan Willman (U10 Coordinator), Charla Kilback (Secretary). And new member Joanne Devlin-Morrison (Fundraising).
It’s what every business, every team, every athlete strives for. Without it, the path becomes less clear, the outcomes less predictable, and the road bumpy. When there’s a positive growth-oriented culture in place, the necessary leadership direction crystallizes.
Creating a positive culture in any workplace is much easier said than done. And when you have it, cultivate and maintain it, a take a step further.
This is the fortunate position in which former World Cup racer Mike Janyk finds himself as he settles into the role of executive director for the Whistler Mountain Ski Club.
Janyk spent the previous five years as the program director of the Grouse-Tyee Ski Club, wearing down the tread on his tires during a 120km daily commute on the Sea to Sky highway … but coming out the other end having developed and refined his approach to running a club and ensuring consistent growth is attained.
The creative-minded 39-year-old commented that his experience and time with Grouse-Tyee was exceptional, with personal and club growth attained over the five years. Janyk pointed towards a creative culture within B.C.’s largest ski club — located in North Vancouver — where all members played a role in the successes behind a “top-shelf” coaching leadership team.
Implementing a slogan “Dare to Care” with the Grouse-Tyee club, Jaynk’s focus was to inspire young skiers to “develop confidence, physical literacy and exceptional skills” all under the overarching focus of building “skiers for life” a core component of Alpine Canada’s long term athlete development plan.
“I don’t think I can take the slogan with me so we’ll need to come up with a new name,” Janyk said with a chuckle. Now with a much shorter commute, he has returned to his home club in Whistler, coming full circle back to where it all started in his ski racing journey.
“I have to pinch myself a little,” Janyk admitted. “I’m humbled by it … and stoked and excited on the other side of it too.”
The 14-year national team skier, three-time Olympian and world championship medallist with 27 World Cup top 10s in slalom to his credit, Janyk is well versed in the high performance pathway for elite skiers. But his approach leans towards holistic development and creating programs and leadership which applies to every club member, at all levels.
“Of course we need to keep a focus on high performance pathway and strive for excellence but I want all members to develop themselves,” he said. “Helping all of our athletes tap into the emotions around performance and working on mindfulness and body awareness and those kind of things.”
When Janyk took over the reigns of the Whistler club in mid May, he inherited a well-oiled machine from interim leader Bob Armstrong, who managed the club for nearly a year after Mark Tilston – Mike’s brother-in-law – took over the role as men’s head coach with the Canadian ski team after leading the club for many years.
Now as the face of the Whistler Mountain Ski Club – one of the most recognized ski clubs in North America – Janyk intends to use his experiences to develop the next generation of athletes, with a focus on physical literacy, confidence building and superior skiing skills at the core.
Since retiring from World Cup ski racing in 2014, Janyk has been involved in a diverse range of activities connected to the sport, including the Mike & Manny Foundation, a funding and skier development initiative, alongside his former teammate Manny Osborne-Paradis. The highlight of the program was an annual four-day ski camp with all expenses covered for 10 to 15 young ski racers from across Canada.
“I have a technical eye for the sport, so that helps,” Janyk said. “I know what it took for me, and for my teammates—the work ethic—and so I can help guide a lot better, because I have an understanding of what it takes.”
Coaching Culture Hotbed
Janyk quickly discovered a robust coaching system in B.C., which was organized, strategic and collaborative. Attributes that work well with his personality.
When Janyk took on the role with Grouse-Tyee, he was unsure of the system set up for coaches and the nuances of coach development but soon learned of the collaborative and forward-thinking system which challenged him personally to refine his approach.
According to Janyk, coaches in the province take pride in their professional development and role in guiding youth skiers. “B.C. is a real hotbed of coaching,” he said.
Janyk’s vision of the sport and its direction should be aligned with Alpine Canada, who announced this week its five-year strategic plan labelled “Made for Canada – The Future for Ski Racing in Canada,” with the goal of progressing into a top 5 alpine nation at major events (i.e. Olympic Games) as well as continuing its dominance in ski cross and para-alpine.
Alpine Canada CEO Therese Brisson, now with 10 months at the helm, said the strategic plan identifies earlier talent identification, increased fan experiences “that excite Canadians”, a stronger brand presence with a broader audience … and increased excellence in coaching, member services and safe sport.
“In a year that we celebrated 100 years of ski racing, we took the opportunity to rethink our strategy to ensure it best meets the needs of our athletes and carves a path towards a better future for the broader ski community,” Brisson said. “The plan articulates the vision, priorities, and commitments needed to be a world-leading ski racing nation and achieve our dual mission to increase podium performances and inspire growth in participation and fans.”
Part of the strategy is to continue to “develop a pipeline of national team caliber Canadian coaches”.
At the grassroots level, Janyk – now a development level certified and performance level trained Alpine Canada coach – is clear about what he envisions as the pathway for the sport and how to guide not only young skiers and coaches but also general members towards a goal, with purpose.
Quoting English literature in one breath and commenting how cultural changes could push Canada to the forefront of the ski world with the next, Alpine Canada’s CEO Thérèse Brisson remains optimistic for a brighter future.
Canada’s alpine team endured challenges likely never to be repeated after a season of a few highs and even more lows.
“In terms of athletic performance it was extraordinary,” Brisson said on a video call from her home in Mississauga, Ontario. “But extraordinarily challenging … and Canada had an extreme competitive disadvantage with the travel restrictions and quarantines.”
“You know that Charles Dickens line ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’? It was a bit of that for sure,” she said.
Nine months into the job as the leader of Alpine Canada, Brisson was more than impressed with the team’s ability to adapt.
“The athletes, teams and coaches responded with incredible creativity and resilience,” she said. “I was very proud of the teams and think that we had a great year in terms of athletic performances.”
Brisson cited the continued dominance of the national ski cross team – which garnered a crystal globe (Reece Howden, men’s overall) and the emergence of the next wave of ski cross talent, particularly on the women’s side.
Brisson was equally excited with the athletic performance with the alpine team – even though the group finished 10th in the FIS Nations Cup with roughly 10% of the World Cup points of world-leading Switzerland and less than a third of the total points of the U.S. Ski Team who also had similar travel and Covid-related challenges.
“Holy smokes, some great performances,” she said. “Marie-Michelle Gagnon finding her way in speed on the podium and remarkable performances with Erin [Mielzynski] and Laurence [St-Germain] both moving up their rankings before an Olympic year.”
The Canadian men’s team, which endured an injury-riddled campaign sprinkled with some notable finishes from up-and-coming racers, had a relatively mediocre season with one racer in the top 50 overall World Cup standings (Erik Read, 48th) and three in the top 100. The top overall discipline rank was Erik Read’s 20th in giant slalom and James Crawford’s 24th overall in super-G.
Gold Medal Pathway to 2026 and 2030
According to Brisson, the focus of Alpine Canada remains on effective delivery of a strategic plan and a renewed focus on funding all aspects of this plan.
At a recent national summit, which brought together national and provincial staff, coaches and directors focussed on a “Made for Canada: Strategic Plan 2021-2026.” The four-day zoom meeting covered the plans and strategies of high performance program delivery between the provinces and Alpine Canada.
The talent identification process of NextGen skiers and the “Podium Pathway” of the long-term athlete development model – mixed with current economic and systematic challenges – were discussed by technical and executive leaders.
“Our winning aspiration is to be a world-leading ski racing nation, that is inspired by the passion of Canada’s ski team,” Brisson said. “We are going into an Olympic year poised for podium performances for the first time in a while. And I’m very excited about the next group, we have some younger athletes who will be gaining more experience as they move towards 2026. And then the 2030 group … they will quickly become the NextGen and there’s a group of about 18 athletes there that we’re really excited about.”
According to Brisson, Alpine Canada pays less attention to the FIS Nations Cup – where alpine leaders such as Switzerland and Austria have a substantially larger roster – and focus more on podium performances at major events such as the world championships and Olympic games.
“That for us is world leading,” she explained. “This isn’t as much as a Nations Cup points discussion but I tell you we’re here to win. That’s a bit of a cultural adjustment. We don’t want skiers trying to ‘make the team’ as we want to win and we make no apologies for that.”
Shared vision for a ‘Gold Medal Profile’
With the focus squarely on major event podium finishes, Brisson commented the relationship between Alpine Canada and the provinces is crucial to developing talent from the bottom up.
“For athletes to have podium potential at a major games we know that they need to have the sufficient training, volume and world-class coaching … and they need to be ranked high within their age,” she explained. “How we work with the provinces to enhance their programming [is important] so that they’re ready to continue to make progress.”
“If we’re not capable as a nation of developing athletes to be in the top 20 world ranking their age or younger, the chances of those athletes making a podium later on is something like less than 0.4 percent.”
With Alpine Canada’s selection process targeting athletes at ‘C team’ and above status, the heavy lifting for development of those skiers is driven at the provincial level, which oversees club and regional programming.
“We need to re-orient our system to help athletes progress to that level with the right intensity, coaching and competitive exposure. A lot of that work happens at the provincial level so we need to be clear about what that podium pathway and the gold medal profile looks like.”
Brisson’s vision of the podium pathway is an evidence-based approach which looks at the holistic view of the composition of a top-level skier, and the steps required to reach that level.
“We need to look at all aspects of sport performance from fitness levels to psychological and emotional profiles, lifestyle and habits,” she said. “We need good evidence and data profiles and we see this is as our role as the national organization to help everyone understand what that looks like. Part of the summit was socializing some of that work so that everyone knows and understands the path.”
Brisson also looks to a future with more domestic skiing, bigger and better events and a more cost-efficient process to developing future champions.
“We need to create scale and affordable access to training domestically,” she said. “We have the best training conditions in early winter and spring. If we can create scale and long term partnerships with the key resorts that could really unlock the secret sauce that we need to develop athletes domestically in a way that would be really different and more effective.”
Notable men’s national team staff changes
Nick Cooper – After seven seasons leading the B.C. Ski Team, Cooper was appointed as the head of the men’s Kombi/Europa Cup team. Cooper will be assisted by returning coach Elias Jonsson.
Conrad Pridy – Former World Cup racer who has been coaching with the Whistler Mountain Ski Club for a few years will take on the assistant coach role with the men’s speed group.
Mark Tilston – last season’s men’s head coach has a shift in responsibilities to lead performance sciences as well as program, logistics and budget for the men’s program while providing coaching support across all men’s groups.
John Kucera will continue to lead the men’s speed group assisted by Chris Powers, Conrad Pridy, and Serge Dugas.
Dusan Grasic, men’s technical head coach, and men’s strength & conditioning and assistant coach Agneta Platter have both left the organization to pursue other interests.
Alpine Canada staff changes
Jeff Thompson – added as Vice-President of Domestic Sport Programs and Events. Thompson spent his career in senior leadership positions within Canadian sport. Former head coach with the National Ski Academy in Collingwood, Ont., and Executive Director of Alpine Ontario. Spent the last 18 years with as the Chief Sport Officer for Golf Canada. See full article.
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.
“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.
“Passion and motivation are not easily taught. This situation has maybe taught us how to appreciate what we have and get the best out of it.”