Over an illustrious World Cup career, Erik Guay set an example for how to be a successful ski racer, doing it the Canadian way: with determination, grit, respect, patience, tenacity and talent.
Now in a key leadership role — joining a movement along with a group of high-profile business leaders who replaced the Alpine Canada board of directors last fall — Guay is using those same attributes to influence, change and reshape the national ski racing landscape. The board has established a new vision, direction and, more to the point, a new team on and off the hill with the mission of becoming a top-three skiing nation by the 2026 Olympics.
Nearly nine months later, the board has a new team assembled, including the recent naming of Therese Brisson as president and chief executive officer, replacing Vania Grandi who resigned in May, while interim leader Mark Weissman resumes his role as director of the board.
Other key athletic additions include former U.S. Ski Team men’s head coach Phil McNicol as alpine director, Mark Tilston as the men’s head coach, Manuel Camper as the women’s head coach and a host of other domestic and foreign coaches added to the staff, as well as changes to the marketing department.
It was an admitted steep learning curve for Guay, the retired two-time world champion, who had no option but to drink from the firehose in an attempt to not only understand the national system, key players, and governance but, inevitably, to deal with the skeletons in the closet.
“There was a lot of stuff hiding under rocks. You know, you’re almost afraid to move the rocks because there’s going to be something under there,” the 25-time World Cup medallist said from his sprawling countryside home in Mont Tremblant, Quebec. “There’s been a lot of learning, but now I think we’re in a great place; we’re now level, have paid off our debts, the budget is balanced and the cash flow looks good. Therese has a good platform to start from.”
Ben Thomsen: frustrated but charging ahead
This promising path forward for Alpine Canada did not come easily, however, with tough decisions and some sacrifices along the way, including cutting a group of marquee athletes who had not met criteria.
When Alpine Canada recently released next season’s roster, it listed a group of three World Cup regulars as part of a group called “Athletes of National Interest.” Ben Thomsen, Candace Crawford and Mikaela Tommy headline the group who now need to “re-qualify” for the national ski team.
“These Athletes of National Interest are an important part of our sport and Alpine Canada will track their development and engage with them on their journey,” the statement read.
To the keen observer, this move by Alpine Canada resembles similar moves in the past, at a time when confidence in national direction was met with, at best, cautious optimism. Over the past decade Alpine Canada has, at times, appeared dysfunctional with a target-moving environment for athletes, coaches, directors and provincial association leaders.
The recent decision to cut marquee athletes was also met with some cynicism.
“It’s super frustrating and I do feel a bit cheated,” said Ben Thomsen, the 2019 Alpine Canada Audi Athlete of the Year, explained from his hometown of Invermere, B.C. “In no way was I in tip-top form, but I had such a string of bad luck. I have to take responsibility for my lack of results [last season] … but I was still surprised I didn’t get the coach’s discretion given the circumstances.”
The “circumstances” Thomsen is referring to dates back to a disastrous 2018-19 early season for the Canadian men’s downhill program. It saw Manny Osborne-Paradis suffer a gruesome leg injury at the Lake Louise World Cup, triggering, in large part, an early retirement for Guay the following day, as well as a season-ending injury to up-and-coming star Broderick Thompson around the same time, followed by the firing of head coach Burkhard Schaffer, followed by a bout of pneumonia, as well as a patella tendon tear for Thomsen … take a breath, it keeps coming … followed by his trusted serviceman suffering a double-knee injury and then a significant drop in team funding.
On the other side of the circumstance, Guay was engaging in an agonizing series of conversations over the past few months regarding the athletes being cut, a decision that he describes as particularly sensitive when it involved a teammate of nearly a decade.
“We spent so much time talking about this and debating,” Guay said. “But Ben was trending in the wrong direction last year and ultimately he’s not in the top 30. So if we opened the door for him, we would have had at least five other people arguing their case. Where do you draw the line? The simple answer was we’re sticking to hard criteria.
“Ben is capable of great results and getting on the podium but we had to make some tough decisions and that was certainly one of them. 100 percent we want Ben to succeed, it’s not like we’re against him. The plan is to support him as much as we can so if he’s looking for some kind of support we’re here, we have coaches who can film him and do video work or whatever.
“But this is a tough financial environment (and) ideally they should be part of the team but we just can’t afford them right now.”
Despite his disappointment, Thomsen soldiered on after receiving notification that he was cut from the team. After taking a few weeks off to cool his jets, Thomsen reconnected with his passion for ski racing and has started putting together his plan to race independently and has aspirations to race for years to come.
Fortunately for Thomsen, he has a template to follow in his former teammate Larisa Yurkiw. “Team Larisa” took the world by storm in 2014 after she was dropped from the women’s alpine program. Yurkiw learned quickly how to “pound the pavement”, raising enough money to compete at the highest level for two seasons to the tune of $250,000. Even with a sub-par knee, she qualified for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and in the process landed three World Cup medals and was the top ranked downhill racer, behind Lindsey Vonn when she finished her last (self-funded) season.
“I look up to Larisa, she’s inspired me so much. Hats off to what she did,” Thomsen said. “It opened up doors and gave hope to a lot of people. She showed that it can be done.”
Alpine Canada aiming for a much improved relationship with provinces
Part of Guay’s quick education this past season was understanding the relationship between Alpine Canada and the provincial sport organizations, particularly the “Big 4”: BC Alpine, Alberta Alpine, Alpine Ontario and Ski Quebec.
“The [national and provincial associations] have been working in silos and it’s something we’re working really hard to bridge,” Guay explained. “There’s a trust aspect that was lost years ago and it’s something we need to rebuild. We plan to work [with the provinces] to strengthen our system and become a stronger ski racing nation.”
Guay spent considerable time travelling around Quebec this past season, partly in his Dad-duty role with 12-year-old Logann, the oldest of his four daughters (side note: no surprise, she’s very fast), but also to attend U14, FIS and Nor-Am events. “I really got to see all aspects of racing in Quebec and there’s a lot of talent out there and a tremendous amount of kids ski racing at 12-14 years.
“It was fun to see and motivating. One area I think that needs to improve is the coaches need a little more help in developing … and that is in large part that we haven’t done a great job delivering coaches’ education. We want to make it easier to get the education in their hands and use technology to help.”
Therese Brisson inheriting robust team, support system
Financial stability has been the most significant challenge for Alpine Canada to overcome, but according to Guay, they are recovering.
And now with Brisson at the helm, he believes sunnier days are ahead under her day-to-day leadership.
“We did round after round of interviews (50 applications) boiling it down to a final of two strong candidates. From the very beginning Therese was everything we were looking for. She checks all the boxes: former athlete, knows how to win, constant learner, PHD, MBA, success in the business world — the list is self explanatory.”
The business acumen of Brisson was one of the critical pieces in accomplishing the goal of long term financial stability, which has been lacking for the organization. In 2019, Alpine Canada recorded a loss of nearly $2.3 million, partly due to sponsorship and fundraising money dropping and a bank line of credit ballooning.
But overall, Guay is optimistic for short- and long-term success for Canada’s representation on the international scene.
“We have athletes ready to perform now on the World Cup, I’m thinking of women like Ronni Remme, Laurence St. Germain and Valérie Grenier. They have the capacity to get on the podium immediately. Then there’s others that are mid level on their way up, like Johnny’s (John Kucera, men’s speed team head coach) group and Ameilia Smart who are knocking at the door to being consistent top 30 racers. Then there’s those who are 10 years out. And that’s something a lot of people say we have time to deal with but I think we need to deal with that now if we want to be very competitive down the road.”
“I think we have what it takes right now. We have some really good people in positions, and a good plan.”
With Guay’s influence and determination, a level head and an optimism for what comes next, Canada has set a course for a new direction.
And where Erik goes, Canada will follow.