For a March Break Saturday, the members-only Craigleith Ski Club was eerily quiet. Ski cross racer Nik Zoricic, a favourite son of the Craigleith family, had died during a race in Switzerland, and as the news spread, members were dumbstruck.
They had watched the Sarajevo-born Canadian skier run away from the competition since he was five years old, and signed their children up to learn from his father, Bebe, a beloved ski instructor at the club for the past two decades. Craigleith is in the Collingwood area, north of Toronto.
The wider skiing world bore its own sadness. But some voices were raising questions about the safety of ski cross, a young sport enjoying newly won Olympic status under a different set of rules than those governing traditional alpine disciplines.
And behind it all loomed the shadow of another death this winter – that of Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, who, like Mr. Zoricic, was testing the sport's frontiers.
Mr. Zoricic died after he took the final jump too wide in a World Cup race on Saturday, struck the safety netting and tumbled toward the finish line. Todd Brooker, a former top Canadian alpine skier known for suffering his own spectacular crash in Austria, fears the 1,303-metre course in Grindelwald, Switzerland, was too dangerous. It featured a massive final jump too close to the finish, he said, and safety netting that may have done more harm than good.
Aside from the course itself, Mr. Brooker lashed out at the sport's officials, whom he accused of "just making it up as they go along." But other voices from the competitive skiing world counter that any skiing involves risk, and Mr. Zoricic's death was likely a tragic anomaly.
"There are no regrets from anyone because he did what he loved to do," said Mr. Zoricic's father in a statement. "Nik was my inspiration. He gave me the energy to be a ski coach and support other athletes."
Friends say Mr. Zoricic was headstrong and ambitious when he skied. Though not especially prone to taking risks, he may have pushed the envelope more as he grew older. Yet Ski Canada teammates say he didn't do anything unduly reckless on Saturday, the morning he died.
Mr. Zoricic had been at Craigleith just two weeks earlier, barrelling through a giant-slalom course on the double-black-diamond hill named "Landslide." He was an approachable local star who often came back to the club on off days, his picture hanging on the Wall of Fame inside the main lodge, now framed by a modest memorial of flowers and a book of condolences.
For all the competitive fire, he is remembered for an unassuming, gentle and outgoing personality.
"Everyone kind of flocked to him," said Dave Campbell, the club's head coach. "When he's here, the kids have their Sharpies out and he's signing their helmets, their jackets."
Childhood friends laughed and cried remembering years of teenage socializing with Mr. Zoricic, but said he had grown into an important role model. He was "a little bit like a younger brother" to Patrick Brown, 34, a former Craigleith coach.
"Nik was sort of a prodigy," Mr. Brown said. "He just was so solid and so convinced in what he was doing."
After a rapid rise through the Ontario ski ranks, Mr. Zoricic's career stumbled briefly. His alpine results weren't improving, and he grew frustrated. But when he switched to ski cross in 2006, it "breathed new life into him," Mr. Brown said. He started reaching World Cup podiums, and narrowly missed qualifying for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
The Grindelwald course halted his rise. And while some skiers, like former alpine star Brian Stemmle, suggested in a radio report that Mr. Zoricic's accident may have been caused by pilot error – jumping too far to the right – Mr. Brooker said the final hill was so large that Mr. Zoricic couldn't see the other side of it.
"Nobody in their right mind would go off the jump in a direction that is going to take them outside the finish area," he said.
Mr. Brooker describes even the infamous Kitzbuehl run in Austria where he once took a rag-doll tumble as safe, with sloping landing areas to accommodate jumps. But he feels the way ski-cross courses are designed is "a little ridiculous," disconcertingly influenced by the high-flying X Games, with its death-defying tricks, backed by energy drinks. For example, the ever-growing ski-cross jumps tend to have flatter landings "where guys are expected to brake if they think they are going too fast.
"But it just doesn't happen when you get close to the finish and you're in a sprint to the end," he said.
Still, other skiers finished multiple runs safely. Teammate Chris Del Bosco, who raced in the same heat as Mr. Zoricic, only noticed the accident when he finished, turned and saw his crumpled teammate.
"For me, there was never one question about anything regarding that section of the course," Mr. Del Bosco said. "It was just one of those things, just a real tragedy."
Team head coach Eric Archer agreed, calling Mr. Zoricic's death "a very unfortunate accident," and adding the team wouldn't have raced if the course had seemed unsafe.
Whatever the cause, the crash was devastating. When the Air Glacier emergency helicopter service arrived, Mr. Zoricic had to be intubated because he was unconscious, and thought to have facial fractures, said Air Glacier's Bruno Durrer. Some 15 minutes later, Mr. Zoricic suffered cardiac arrest, and doctors immediately tried to resuscitate him. He was pronounced dead in an Interlaken hospital, a 10-minute helicopter ride from the hill.
"If you look at the pictures, the [force]he received on his head and on his neck, that was an incredible fall," Dr. Durrer said.
With a report from Catherine McLean in Winterthur, Switzerland