For fun, for the sheer joy of being back on the most dangerous downhill in alpine ski racing, 53-year-old Todd Brooker carved into the mighty Hahnenkamm the other day. Not in the tuck position that carried him to victory all those years ago, but in a side-ski, take-it-slow kind of way.
It’s different now, he explained from the Austrian town of Kitzbuhel. He’s not just older and retired, a commentator with CBC Sports. The most physically demanding course on the World Cup circuit has also changed. There’s no artificial snow on it. Instead of being soft, the snow is hard-packed and icier, just the way the modern racers like it. And some of the course sections are wider with more turns in them. It’s not so much a drag strip as a high-speed technical race track, and maybe that explains it, Brooker said.
Maybe that’s why after the streak that saw the Crazy Canucks tame the Hahnenkamm from 1980 to 1983, it has now been three decades since a Canadian stood atop the medal podium in the place where the World Cup tour was born. Rob Boyd came closest in 1991, finishing third. Current world champion Erik Guay has posted the fastest training times all this week. That Guay or a fellow Canadian Cowboy could end the futility Saturday on the 30th anniversary of Brooker’s win would make for a compelling story.
But the mountain is not easily taken, and Brooker understands that as well as anyone who has skied it.
“That’s why winning it is so great, because the danger is so great, too,” said Brooker, who suffered a nasty crash there in 1987. “When I was younger I lived here for a couple of years. My dad [Chuck] was a player/coach with the local hockey team. I knew the heritage of ski racing and how it was a challenging event. That made winning even more special.”
Brooker’s triumph in 1983 came as a surprise. Although he had posted some respectable results elsewhere, he had yet to record a World Cup win. Finally, knowing he was within a fraction of a second of the leaders, Brooker threw all caution to the wind and “just pointed his skis down the hill.” Shy on skill, he won on courage. It was the Canadian way.
“I came from Blue Mountain [in Southern Ontario] onto the national team,” he said. “I was 210 pounds and I was told, ‘You’re doing downhill.’ Scott Henderson, who was the coach when Jungle Jim Hunter was around, had it exactly right when he said, ‘You want results right away. Downhill is where you can use nerve and daring; slalom takes years to develop skiers.’ We didn’t teach the technical side of skiing. Guys like Pirmin Zurbriggen and Marc Girardelli came along and they had strong technical backgrounds skiing slalom and giant slalom and they started winning.”
Ken Read, the first Canadian to win in Kitzbuhel, in 1980, described Canada’s fall from downhill skiing superiority as “a long story,” but broke it down this way: “There’s always a cycle. After us, there was a rebuilding phase. When it was really disappointing was in the late 1990s and early 2000s when we had nobody starting in the [Hahnenkamm] downhill. In 2001 to 2003, the eye was taken off the ball in the speed program.”
Brooker added: “After Ken and Steve [Podborski] retired, I was the only [downhiller] in the top 10 in FIS points. In 1985, I was the only Canadian in the race. We didn’t have the depth.”
Podborski won in Kitzbuhel in 1981 and 1982.
What’s different now is that Guay and his downhill teammates have the necessary skills and have been pushing one another. They’ve come of age on the current courses and have fashioned a track record deserving of a crack at the downhill of all downhills. Brooker, who will be on site for the race, would enjoy seeing a new Canadian added to the list of Hahnenkamm champions.
Read feels the same and remembered what he received for finishing first.
“Hahnenkamm is the German name for rooster’s comb, and the top of the mountain is shaped that way with red-coloured shale. When I won, they gave me a live rooster,” said Read, who forgot about the rooster until a year later when a large box was delivered to his Calgary home.
Inside was the rooster, stuffed and mounted.
It is now on display at the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.