The world of skiing is changing and Canada is changing with it.
This season, Canada has a new head coach and is hitting the Tour de Ski for the first time in four years.
New head coach Robin McKeever is bringing nine athletes, five wax techs, an osteopath, a coach, and a wax truck to Val Mustair. This is less bodies than Norway’s wax team, but it is still a big commitment from a country that has traditionally brought smaller groups.
“One, it’s not the same Tour de Ski that it used to be. Seven races in ten days versus a whole whack of them, and a lot shorter distance overall than what it used to be,” McKeever told FasterSkier during his Christmas break back home in Canmore.
Devon Kershaw’s podcast has talked a lot about how much easier the current Tour de Ski is compared to the early days. It is now down to three venues, with only two short travel days that are also rest days, and the race days are much shorter. Gone are the days of Canada renting a rock star bus for Alex Harvey, Kershaw, Ivan Babikov, and Lenny Valjas so they could get massages while driving to the next venue. Gone are long races like 30km over the mountain pass from Cortina to Toblach, while the women raced the downhill half.
McKeever’s second reason is the timing and the compact nature of the trip.
“We have a lot of our top athletes in the NCAA program and the one time that they can potentially come and race and not miss that much school is this time.“
Sam Hendry (U of Utah) and Rémi Drolet (Harvard) will take advantage of this for their first World Cup starts of the season.
A possible third reason for Canada’s return to the Tour is cost.
“It’s just expensive to compete against the best in the world and Norway showing up with two wax trucks,” McKeever said.
While neither McKeever nor Nordiq Canada’s High Performance Director Chris Jeffries directly said that the trip cost to athletes and the National Ski Federation is lower than the trip cost of World Cup period 3, it is tempting to read between the lines of what they did say.
McKeever: “We are not doing p3 unless we have red group qualified athletes, because we just don’t have the current funding levels to operate the entire year.”
The free Thursday to Sunday accommodation and per-diem for red group athletes is a small thing to rich nations like Norway and Russia, but it is a game changer for Canada. And a game changer for athletes who have to pay trip fees. For a longer discussion on this topic, check out Kershaw’s podcast from the Davos weekend.
Canada’s much-loved wax truck is distinctly smaller than either of Norway’s trucks, and was the Swedish truck until 2011. At that time, one Swede (name withheld to protect the guilty) said that this vehicle was ‘no longer useful’ at the World Cup level. It may not be ‘useful’, but it is hard to imagine producing competitive skis without the facilities it contains (vented wax benches, a grinder, ski storage).
All nine Canadians will experience their first Tour de Ski: Dahria Beatty, Katherine Stewart-Jones, Liliane Gagnon, Antoine Cyr, Graham Ritchie, Olivier Léveillé, Russell Kennedy, Drolet, and Hendry. Six of these have a World Cup top 20 result on their palmares, while Hendry is getting his first World Cup start, and Gagnon got her first starts in Davos before Christmas.
Long time ski fans will know McKeever from his athletes’ success as the head of Canada’s national Paranordic program, some skiers will remember his time as his younger brother’s guide, but you have to be Canadian to remember the junior who fought his way onto the National Team in 1990. Here is a teaser from an upcoming detailed look at Nordiq Canada’s direction.
“My whole goal in coaching, and this was from my upbringing, is about not only trying to create Olympic champions, but it is about creating good people. And if we support the people for who they are, and how they are, and try to guide them through that, as well as get them to Olympic podiums, then I think we’re on the right track.” — McKeever