Nordiq Canada had a changed-filled month of May, culminating with Stéphane Barrette taking over the CEO role for the next five or six months, with the possibility of permanence if both parties are happy.
The former CEO Shane Pearsall was an administrator with experience in both business and sports federation leadership. Barrette is a skier: “Cross country skiing is an intense passion of mine, and has always been.”
Barrette is well known to the Canadian coaching community from his previous role as Directeur du développement des athlètes et entraineurs (Athlete and Coach Development Director), but much less known in the broader community. He is also known where he lives in Montréal for his leadership in starting a new organization, Ski de fond Montréal, in 2019.
Barrette’s had a brief racing career on the national team. It ended abruptly when he was unable to fund another year. He has since spent his time working behind the scenes in the ski community. His race results make interesting reading, mostly to determine who else was on the World Cup scene in 1991/1992: Bjørn Daehlie (now a clothing manufacturer) and Vegard Ulvang (co-inventor of the Tour de Ski) dominated the results at the SilverStar, Thunder Bay, and Cogne World Cups Barrette competed in.
There are other names to remember. Alain Masson went on to partner with Lucy Steele and produce numerous fast skiers in Whitehorse. Yves Bilodeau has been a central figure in the Canadian wax truck. An American competitor named John Aalberg went on to take leading roles at two Olympic Games (and would have been the TD at 2020 Nationals/SuperTour finals, a reprise of his role at the 2005 World Cup at the same venue). Jochen Behle and Marco Albarello would become head coaches of Germany and Italy respectively.
Barrette spoke to FasterSkier on May 25th, his first solo day as CEO after Shane Pearsall handed over the reins, to talk about his own past and the sport’s future. Barrette is fluent and well-spoken in English, but his first language is French. FasterSkier as lightly edited using “” to be clearer to readers who may not be able to read “in the time” as “dans le temps” and all that expression conveys.
So who is Stéphane Barrette?
“I would definitely be considered a late starter, not just to ski but racing-wise. I started to train and compete when I was 17, which is obviously very late. I was never part of skill development programs, in Canada what we call Jackrabbits and bunny rabbits. I met some people who were quite into cross country skiing, showed me different aspects of the sport that I started to enjoy more and more, and found myself some skills in it. I tried competing, I liked it, and went from there. I had started the degree in physical education and I took a pause to compete full time for five years, of which two of those years I was on the Canadian team. I had a really rapid ascent, but a short career. By the time I was 25, times were really tough in those years, the early 90’s. I refer to the economic environment. I basically could only count on a $700 grant from Québec government while I was a senior national team member. Obviously, things have changed a lot since then on the national team and support that athletes are getting, but those days the support was just not there.”
Barrette chose to answer a very open question with skiing before moving on to minor details like jobs and family. If there was any question about his passion for the sport, there is the answer.
“I had to put a premature end to my ski career and then I finished my degree in 1994. From then, I was offered a position of Executive Director and Quebec team coach with the Québec Ski Federation. I accepted that position, at that time it was a seasonal job starting from late fall to spring. In the summer, I was a mountain bike coach for the Bromont racing team, and I did the two together, switching from cross country skiing with Ski de Fond Québec to coaching in mountain biking in the summer for a few years until we were able to get a bit better funding and increase our sources of revenue at the Québec Ski Federation so that I was point able to quit the mountain biking and engage myself completely in cross country skiing.”
NC is facing its own funding challenges in an uncertain economic environment. Barrette’s personal experience means that he is not likely to forget the human element of chasing high performance.
In 2006, Cross Country Canada had increased funding in advance of the 2010 Vancouver Games, which funded the creation of new development positions that went to Mike Cavaliere for the west and Barrette for the east. After 2010, Barrette was promoted to his current permanent role.
On his first day in charge, Barrette had the vision clearly in mind.
“We have a dual mandate. Our mission, simply put, is to put more Canadians on skis, which attends to the masses, and get the report as popular as can be, and have as many Canadians benefit from our sport. And then put Canadians on the podium, which is the high performance goal.”
The first mandate, growing the sport:
“It started with a rebranding of Nordiq Canada, to reflect that mission that we are not just about high performance, that we recognize the importance of promoting the sport across the country. The more people that enjoy cross country skiing inevitably will have some trickling effect on the competition side of things, whether it will encourage more people to become volunteers in clubs, race officials or coaches. And obviously through the skill development programs, have more kids try cross country skiing. We’re doing an assessment with our stakeholders in the community as to how we can best help the community in that regard. We are not pretending to having all the answers now, we also have to hear from the community. It’s them who are much closer to the ground, the grassroots, the basic needs of recreational skiers, so we did a number of surveys this past year to collect that information and have a better idea of how we can be of assistance in that area. It is often around designing common tools that everyone can use. It wouldn’t sense to ask each provincial federation to come up with their own when there is a common need. Think of marketing materials, it shouldn’t be any different in selling cross country skiing in BC, or Manitoba, or Ontario. Obviously, there are some local nuances, but generally speaking about the virtues of the sport, it’s something we can do nationally.”
The second mandate, high performance:
“We need to have a plan. Which we don’t currently have per se, or as explicit and detailed as it should be. Making sure that everyone throughout the community in different roles are all aligned. We have some basis, we have been taking decisions, whether they pertain to selection criteria, what we are going to prioritize each year, but not in long term. That is a process that we will launch imminently. The first step is to look at the different instances we intend to use to lead that process. I am referring to the High Performance Director, right now we have a HP Manager, who is Joel Jaques, who hasn’t given up his old job. He is doing a dual role right now, trying to keep up with all the technical coordination of the national team, as well as acting in lieu of an HPD. We need to resolve that situation, regarding the leadership of the whole area. Another aspect of that is our High Performance Committee, we are giving it a second look to make sure that it will best reflect the needs we have, that it will be as representative as possible of the different stakeholders that collaborate with us in the direction of high performance. These are the first steps that we are looking at, almost as we speak. When we have these two very important elements in place, they will contribute to starting to lay out the plan to lead a collaboration with all our stakeholders.”
Barrette is much more blunt than his predecessor and he communicates a sense of urgency and a passion to be better.
NC has partnerships with many organizations, both on the participation and racing aspects of the sport. Here are his quick-fire answers to what is going on with three partners.
XC Ski Nation (a skiing organization that specializes in video education):
“No changes, we need to touch base again soon to reassess our partnership. No update, just business as usual.”
CANSI (Canadian Association of Nordic Ski Instructors):
“We’ve had recent contact with CANSI, and we have agreed to collaborate on their next edition of their instructor manual. We are just waiting for their most recent draft, we have agreed to look at them and sit down with them and maybe make some suggestions or share thoughts on it. For the goal of coming to more of a consensus on the key principles of teaching technique and the technique itself in all its declinations. We have also offered to engage in some discussions with the CANSI board to look at if we could do more in terms of collaboration, complementarity, and working together. We are really looking forward to seeing what we can do together.”
USA (a geographically smaller country mostly on the southern border):
Definitely, it could be training camps, which I know we have done in the past. Definitely common racing events, it is still in the cards to have events that are both Canadian NorAms and SuperTour events. And just taking advantage of where the US is in terms of development, which is quite successful. Now we see the men catching up to the prestigious female team with the successes of the junior boys at the world championships the last two years. Actually three years, because I was at World Championships two years ago in Goms where they were second in the relays, just two seconds back from Norway, and we were just, oh boy, and three of these guys are just 17, so we knew the future was bright for these young males. We will see in the next years on the world cup. It just shows that to get better we don’t need to be in Europe all the time, we have really super strong competition just down south that we should take advantage of as much as we can.”
How can NC help clubs in Canada:
“Sharing stories. Sharing examples and best practices. We’ve talked about that with this new initiative in Montréal. We are going to share stories and how things evolve. Share some ideas and we’d like to hear from others, and the things they have tried. It’s about building the community, and providing that communication between clubs. Sometimes there are things you have not thought of, new ideas, and you think maybe that could work here. Sometimes that is not the case because the environment is too different, but at least you have that information. Part of our mission at NC with respect to recreational skiing is also that. How can we better connect clubs from across the country to be able to share ideas and best practices and learn from each other.”
Lessons from starting a club:
“I don’t know if I learned that much. I’m not saying that presumptuously, it confirmed some assumptions, educated guesses that I was making. That itself may be presumptuous to say because it has only been a year, and it will take more than a year to confirm if those ideas and expectations are real and turn into a trend. Basically, Montreal is very particular, in that it has about, I think the exact number is 195km of groomed trail on the island, all of which is free of any fees, because it’s maintained by the city and is paid for by taxes. You can just park on the street and go. There’s trails everywhere in town. We are one of the very rare major cities in North America, with a population of about 2 million, including the suburbs, that has a real winter. By real winter, I mean pretty much guaranteed snow from mid-December, sometimes early December, to typically early April. A long enough, consistent winter season with snow that you can build programs and events in the city. With such a strong population, the model for the club is to try to attract as many members as possible. We have a category of membership that is actually free, which we somewhat subsidize. You can’t expect to get a training program and show up for practices two times a week for a free membership, but we at least provide representation. We do surveys sometimes towards our members, and we collect feedback that we present. Most of the time to the city of Montreal, for surveys that pertain to appreciation of the ski trails in Montreal, suggestions for improvement, sometimes it’s about safety, make trails and some intersections more safe. Sometimes just suggestions for improving the quality of the skiing. We are more or less in regular contact with the city and we are seen more and more as a direct contact when they have questions about skiing and how to improve it. The idea is to grow our membership to the point where it become very attractive to potential sponsors and partners. It’s already started to some extent, and we hope to see it grow going forward.”
Building a Community:
There has been a lot of passion and anger over the national team selection, with a definite feeling that ‘they’ are getting it wrong in the social media reactions.
“What you just brought up was actually the speech I delivered to staff this morning. It is very current, it is very appropriate. There seems to be a culture of an us versus them, we need to appreciate that we are all part of the same community and going for the same goals. It means not everybody cares about high performance, but a lot of people do. In terms of recreation skiing, we need to talk about it more so people appreciate that we can’t achieve 100% on both all of the time. It’s a matter of balance, and it’s a matter of priorities, and those priorities can change [over] time. [For example] we might assess that recreational skiing now is doing pretty good based on the goals we had set. Yes, we could do more, but right now high performance is more of a priority, so we invest more, and focus more, in the short term on high performance. It is something that is not clear to a lot of people, I get those questions from NC staff. Imagine with our stakeholders throughout the community who have those questions. There’s no miracle recipe to resolve all of these challenges at once, even though we come down to the same thing all the time, we talk about communication. It can seem a little simplistic to say more communication, but it comes down to that. We need to communicate more and we need to communicate better.”
Some of the emphasis is lost in transcription, but there is a strong ‘it starts with us’ feeling in Barrette’s voice. He clearly wants the NC staff to bridge the gap and move towards replacing ‘us and them’ with ‘us’.