Nobody likes math. It’s a necessary evil that we all grin and bear.
But to fully understand this story – and the direction of alpine ski racing in Canada – I will need to present a few numbers and formulaic introductions to help paint a picture.
The first is 10,000. This is the minimum World Cup points needed for a country to win the Nations Cup. For perspective, Austria scored 11,581 in 2019 and 10,725 in 2018. Switzerland finished first overall in a shortened 2019-20 season with 8,732.
The next number is 40. This is the volume of athletes required to score such points. I know you math buffs are way ahead of me for this next number, which is 250 … the average World Cup points that each of those skiers are required to obtain in a season.
For a top-three position in the Nations Cup, the benchmark is roughly 6,000 total, involving 25 athletes scoring 240 points each.
The Canadian alpine team had 13 skiers earn World Cup points in 2019; Erin Mielzynski led with 207 and Ben Thomsen next with 147. The average points per athlete were 119 (135 for women’s team and 67 for men’s). In the shortened season, the totals were far lower (833 World Cup points combined).
To add to the numerical shock, the Swiss national team announced 96 athletes to their team for 2020-21 — 10 more than the previous season. Compare that to the recent naming of 19 to the Canadian alpine team, plus an additional 12 “Next Gen” athletes who will be racing with the provincial teams and/or NCAA programs. These are staggeringly different numbers between these two red-and-white nations.
The math discussion is over, mostly. Take a breath now, maybe stand up, shake your arms, and I’ll get back to a more logical discussion and the humanity part of this equation.
McNichol: Shockingly disjointed system
When Alpine Canada stated its intention to become a top-three skiing nation by the 2026 Olympics they must have known these numbers. Surely they understood this mathematical reality, which will be required to meet this goal.
The formula is fully understood by Phil McNichol, Alpine Canada’s high performance director and former U.S. ski team head coach. In a recent interview, McNichol walked me through his approach, philosophies and this empirical data.
McNichol’s pedigree has been established in an earlier editorial, but one accomplishment not yet mentioned is the five World Cup discipline titles to go along with two overall titles during his time with the U.S. men’s team. Yes, having a roster of Bode Miller, Daron Rahlves, Marco Sullivan and Steve Nyman was an all-star team of point-producers likely to make any coach look good. But he’s proven he knows how to get over the finish line with proven results.
But McNichol’s outlook is also based on historical evidence to go along with his 35 years of ski racing leadership. And when he inherited the alpine on-snow responsibilities in Canada earlier this year, he was shocked at what he found in the depths of the development system.
“The Canadian [system] is not integrated and not set up as a national alpine program,” he stated frankly. “We’re not collaborating at all really, to be honest, and it’s shocking. There’s no national conference, there’s no ongoing forums to talk about implementation of national philosophies and provincial adaptations to integrate a fluid system.”
McNichol’s primary goal is to develop — or more realistically re-define — the national development pathway and to set up a collaborative environment within Canada’s vast and complex walls.
“Whenever there’s a vacuum of understanding people will naturally fill the hole on how to proceed,” he said. “Perception is reality. So one of the things I’m pursuing is to start talking [directly] to the alpine community. If we’re going to start talking about systematic changes we need everyone to know what we’re talking about; we need every parent, athlete and coach in the country to understand our philosophies and understand where we’re going.”
A secondary challenge for McNichol and team is to improve the delivery of existing Canadian philosophies and programs.
“We need to both innovate dramatically and think outside the box as well as revisit some really good ideas that we haven’t stuck with over the years. Canada is exceptional in its intellect, and its ability and skill level in sports science, coaching and other areas which should constitute more success but what seems to happen, from my perspective, is these great ideas get abandoned before they’re fully applied.”
Of particular interest is the Alpine Integrated Model (AIM) and its various iterations since it was first established by a group of sport scientists, alpine experts, coaches and industry leaders in the last 1990s. The document and its supporting materials have been mimicked, adopted and borrowed by other ski nations for years.
“I have dusted off the AIM document, it’s a tremendous piece. It was adjusted and used in Norway and continues to be used there and you can see what success can come to light. It needs to be used long enough to have an impact. The Snow Stars program was also a fabulous document and program and now it’s not being used properly.”
But McNichol sees some positive developments and ultimately, hope.
“We are making progress, the new Long Term Athlete Development website can be a platform for collective national interaction and oversight and unification. But we need to be bold enough to step back and say ‘OK, let’s look at our system, it’s not about where you live in the country, it’s about being great as a country.’ If all the provinces and all the folks who have had their hand in the soup came forward and put their historical scar tissues aside and re-engage and get beyond our geographical challenges, we can move towards an effective national system for ski racing.”
With optimism in the air for the first time in years thanks to a stable and influential board of directors and a renewed leadership group on and off snow, McNichol is excited at this opportunity to break down walls and barriers.
“The bottom line is that we have actively moved national programming to the provinces,” McNichol explained. “But have we collectively, and in the conscience of the alpine community, recognized, adapted and acknowledged that national team programming now happens in the province?”
Is die Schweizer skimodell the answer?
How does Alpine Canada double its pool while at the same time double its World Cup points? Essentially, they need to tackle both the quantity and quality challenge simultaneously. They need more athletes scoring more World Cup points. And in quick time.
In terms of best practices in other parts of the world, McNichol is looking towards Switzerland for inspiration and possible direction.
Switzerland won the Nations Cup this past season for the first time in decades, finally dethroning the mighty Austrians. The Swiss alpine system, according to McNichol, is regionalized through cantons, similar to Canadian provinces. Starting in the early 2000s the Swiss converted a “combative” system into a national program with constant and progressive improvement. “They were fragmented and not working together but now, obviously they’re much better and have proven this can work,” he said.
“The one thing we do have is people who are passionate, motivated and we have athletes, good athletes all the way up and down the system,” McNichol concluded. “But the system is fragmented, it’s not fluid, so people are exiting in all different ways. Some [athletes] see the national team either as a boat that already sailed or this huge divide and they look elsewhere.”
Clubs, zone teams need to play a role in the rebuild
McNichol believes the first step towards better national unity and structure is a more collaborative approach between the provincial teams to both increase the volume of athletes as well as service the NorAm elite skiers more effectively. This will in turn lead to more structure requirements at the club and zone level to support athletes on the high performance path.
“All the athletes need to feel supported and that the workload and focus at the provincial level is not taking away support from the developing FIS skiers in that province. Do we need to look at BC and Alberta working together in a more western approach to get some density? Ontario and Quebec in the east? Collectively we need to push to find a way for the national team to do it or we have to get the provinces together, but we have to figure out something. BC [provincial team] last year did a great job pushing athletes forward, but at what cost to them?”
The approach then this shifts down the system.
“I’d like to see the clubs and zones step forward and be the pockets of the high performance FIS level skiing. This will allow the provincial teams to do their job and not be too stretched.
“Our goal is to keep kids in the system, and be better prepared for athletes to move off and on various teams as they develop and still feel supported all the way. Performance isn’t a straight line. We can’t be everything to everybody but we need to all collectively catch athletes on this rollercoaster and all together keep pushing them back into the pathway.”
McNichol clearly has recognized the challenges in the Canadian alpine system and now the proof will need to be in the pudding.
“We need to be effective in how we adjust [the system],” he said. “I believe that we need to optimize domestic training, we need to optimize bringing more athletes together in high performance, high quality training in the summer. Then we can cut it down tighter to more complex pathways, refined groups and better programs.”