CALGARY – The fastest men on Canada’s alpine ski team are together again for the first time in some time.
Erik Guay of Mont Tremblant, Que., Vancouver’s Manuel Osborne-Paradis and Calgary’s John Kucera and Jan Hudec once made Canada a multi-pronged medal threat at World Cups and world championships.
Then came a hail of injuries picking off skiers at various points over the last few seasons.
The return of Kucera and Osborne-Paradis to racing this fall means Canada’s big four will all step into the start hut in Lake Louise, Alta., for the season-opening World Cup downhill and super-G races Saturday and Sunday respectively.
That hasn’t happened since 2009 at Lake Louise and their fellowship that season was short-lived. Kucera suffered a catastrophic leg injury racing the super-G at Louise that year.
Guay, Kucera, Hudec and Osborne-Paradis have all finished in the medals at Lake Louise at some point during their careers. The four men have 33 World Cup medals and three world championship medals between them.
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“It’s quite a bit of firepower if you look at the World Cup wins and world championship medals, so we’re excited to have them come out and attack the hill this weekend,” Alpine Canada president Max Gartner said Monday following the team’s introduction in Calgary.
Not one of those veterans are yet at optimum health or race form, however. Arthroscopic knee surgery on Guay and Hudec in September set back their preparation for the season.
Kucera and Osborne-Paradis are race rusty. Kucera hasn’t competed since breaking his leg at Lake Louise in 2009 and Osborne-Paradis’s last race was January, 2011, when he broke his leg in Chamonix, France. Kucera’s return to the team was delayed when he re-injured that leg and then suffered herniated discs in his back.
The injury bug continues to follow the Canadian team, which lost rising talent Robbie Dixon of North Vancouver, B.C., to a broken leg while training in Colorado last week.
“We almost made it to a season as a full team, which would have been really cool,” Kucera said. “That hasn’t happened in ages.”
Ben Thomsen of Invermere, B.C., Dustin Cook of Lac-Sainte Marie, Que., and the brothers Conrad and Morgan Pridy of Whistler, B.C., round out the Canadian team for Lake Louise. Jeffrey Frisch of Mont-Tremblant, Que., will race there as an independent.
Thomsen, 25, is one to watch. He was second on the 2014 Olympic course in Sochi, Russia, last season for his first World Cup medal.
This year’s Lake Louise Winterstart World Cup generated considerable international buzz during Lindsey Vonn’s application to the world’s governing ski body to race against the men there. FIS denied the American skier’s request, however. The women race at Lake Louise Nov. 30 to Dec. 2.
Guay, 31, is the one veteran on the Canadian team who managed to stay on his skis and keep earning hardware in recent years despite back problems.
“I’m no stranger to racing with a little bit of pain,” he said. “It’s not ideal, but I can make it happen.
At 17 career World Cup medals, the reigning men’s world downhill champion is four away from passing Steve Podborski’s record for the most won by a Canadian.
“I’d like to beat that record,” Guay said. “To say I’m the greatest Canadian in ski racing history would be a pretty special title to have. That being said, I have to focus race-to-race on getting there.
“I try not to let it enter my mind too often, but records are there to be broken. I’m sure Steve would agree that’s what they’re there for.”
Guay’s first World Cup medal was a silver in the downhill at Lake Louise in 2003, although he maintains he’s not suited to the hill and doesn’t race well there.
Osborne-Paradis won a downhill silver and gold, Kucera a super-G silver and gold and Hudec a downhill at Lake Louise during a four-year span from 2006 to 2009. Their coach wants a Canadian back in the medals at their home race after a two-year absence.
“We won’t walk out of there totally satisfied unless we see someone performing at a level where they can challenge for the podium,” Peter Bosinger said. “We’ve got a crew that is well-prepared and knows what it takes to win.
“It’s important for our team to have that strong corps of World Cup athletes who have performed at the top and have been on the podium and won races. It makes a big difference in terms of how we come into the season knowing we’ve got some confidence in our barn.”
Hudec, 31, was Canada’s top racer last season with a World Cup victory in Chamonix and a silver in Crans-Montana, Switzerland. The arthroscopic procedure he underwent in late summer was relatively minor for a man who has undergone six knee surgeries during his career.
“I’ve got enough tricks up my sleeve that I can make a run for it at Lake Louise,” Hudec said.
Osborne-Paradis says he’s never felt healthier, but faces the disadvantage of opening with a high start number because of his ranking. A top-30 start position is desirable because the course is generally smoother for earlier racers.
“I wouldn’t say it’s unreasonable to have a good result, but a good result is not a podium in my books right now,” Osborne-Paradis said. “A good result would be top 15.
With the Olympics in Sochi on the horizon, Gartner says it’s important for Canada to have experienced skiers who have demonstrated the ability to win.
Now it’s a matter of getting them to the start line in 2014 in one piece. FIS rules won’t allow Gartner to wrap his skiers in bubble wrap when they race.
“It certainly gives me a lot of sleepless nights thinking about all the things that can go wrong,” Gartner said. “The important piece is we’ve got a pretty good roster with a lot of experience going into Sochi.
“Managing the risk properly is important and picking the spots in a race where you attack is all critical. We want to have four guys at the start in Sochi than can compete for the win.”