Team Canada Takes on the World
2016/17 Season Preview
Following last year's successful Ski Tour Canada, the focus for the 2016-17 ski season for Cross Country Canada (CCC) and the National ski team is the FIS World Championships in Lahti, Finland on Feb. 21-March 5. Planning for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea is also part of the team's strategy.
The men's World Cup team of Alex Harvey, Devon Kershaw, Len Valjas, Jesse Cockney and Graeme Killick is truly a senior squad with age and experience. On the flipside, the woman's team, led by veteran Emily Nishikawa, features a much younger crew. The senior development team includes Cendrine Browne, Dahria Beatty, Olivia Bouffard-nesbitt, Maya Macisaac-jones and Katherine Stewart-jones, all hoping to become regulars on the World Cup after acquiring exposure and experience at last winter's Ski Tour Canada.
CCC'S high-performance director, Tom Holland, has high expectations, citing its objectives: “Six podiums, three athletes with top-10 results and a top-five relay result for the men.” He sees a “podium at the Senior World Championships” as a “priority performance target” and adds, “we would also like to see four top-10's at this event, with some development-team athletes in the top 30.”
To achieve these goals, CCC has replaced retired Head Coach Justin Wadsworth with veteran racer Ivan Babikov, who will share coaching duties with Louis Bouchard, Harvey's long-time coach and head coach of CENPH National Training Centre, along with Chris Jefferies of the Alberta World Cup Academy.
The new collaborative coaching structure must have “ongoing and consistent communication, both in program planning and execution,” notes Holland. Bouchard agrees that it is a different approach. “We don't leave everything to one person. We just split the work together. It's more like teamwork. It's different than a head coach doing everything.”
Babikov, based in Canmore, Alta., concurs: “I think it's a really good way to work – the three of us will each cover a little section across Canada.”
Bouchard will oversee the East and work with Harvey, while Babikov manages the reins in the West with the rest of the men's National team, and Jefferies will primarily work with the woman's team and the World Cup Academy.
Babikov is loving his new role with the team. “It's my new passion,” he quips, and as an Elite World Cup racer, he helps to keep things grounded, while Bouchard suggests “the athletes take more decisions on themselves. They know how to do it and how to be good. We just need to get them working together.” Early reports suggest that the men's team is training well together and in good shape going into this season.
Another key piece to the puzzle, Bouchard adds, is the logistical challenge of spending a racing season overseas in Europe. “Right now, we have a manager on the World Cup [Joel Jaques], so it makes everything easier. I talked about that a long time ago – when you have a manager on the ground in Europe, it's easier for all the coaches.”
Building the Future
On the domestic front, building the future of the National ski team remains an ever-present challenge for Cross Country Canada as World Cup racing takes place in Europe.
With Ski Tour Canada paving the way, Babikov hopes Canadian skiers can build on the momentum. “It's exactly what the sport needed here. When you have a home World Cup, there's way less pressure with [its] minimal travel and familiar surrounding. It was a great opportunity for the younger guys and fans to see such top racing up close.”
Another opportunity for young Canadian skiers this year is the FIS Junior/ U23 World Championships at Soldier Hollow, Utah from Jan. 30-Feb. 5. Holland believes this event offers some important opportunities and targets for the team, “. . . especially for our women . . . . Two top-12 results and two additional top-12 to [top-] 20 results at this event.”
Furthermore, two sprint spots are up for grabs for the First Period of the World Cups in Europe that will be decided at the Frozen Thunder sprints on Nov. 1-3. Holland explains, “Amongst the male sprinters in Canada, there are a lack of sprint starts – they need more races each season (12-14 sprint starts). Given that we have a larger 2016-17 quota (males: six versus four last year), this group of sprinters has an equal opportunity for the additional starts.”
Babikov notes the development pipeline needs attention: “It is a tough time and a challenge, of course, but hopefully with the new coaching structure and working together, we can bring some of the younger guys' levels up to be competitive at the world level.”
Bouchard believes clubs will play a key part in the long-term picture. “The only solution to produce the next generation of skiers is not just good training centres – ski clubs are super-important and probably the biggest part of the system. We have to work really closely with clubs for training and competitions. We need good training centres, but if the clubs aren't part of the equation, you're not there. We need to close the gap between the clubs and training centres.”
The World Cup circuit will be a similar schedule to years previous. Period One starts in Scandinavia, first in Ruka, Finland on Nov. 26-27, then to Lillehammer, Norway on Dec. 2-4, followed by stops skipping across Europe in Davos, Switzerland on Dec. 12-13 and La Clusaz, France on Dec. 17-18.
The Tour de Ski kicks off World Cup Period Two after Christmas and visits venues in Switzerland, Germany and Italy from Dec. 31, 2016 through Jan. 8, 2017. February provides a preview of the Olympic venue in Pyeongchang.
Period Three cumulates with Senior World Championships on Feb. 21-Mar. 5 in Lahti. Period Four of the World Cup is back in Norway for the Drammen sprints on March 8 in Oslo March 11-12.
Then the World Cup final is controversially scheduled to take place in Tyumen, Russia on March 16-19.
In North America, the pre-christmas domestic circuit kicks off with the USSA Supertour in Bozeman, Mont. on Dec. 3-4, 2016. The Haywood Noram then begins in Vernon, B.C. at Sovereign Lake on Dec. 1011, 2016, and stops in Rossland, B.C. at the Black Jack Ski Club from Dec. 16-18, 2016.
Canadian World Junior/u23 Trials pick up after the Christmas break and will be held in conjunction with U.S. Nationals on Jan. 7-10, 2017 in Park City, Utah at Soldier Hollow. The same venue will then host the 2017 Nordic Junior/ U23 World Ski Championships two weeks later from Jan. 30-Feb. 5, 2017.
Meanwhile, the Haywood Noram continues with Western Canadians on Jan. 20-22, 2017 in Whistler, B.C. in the Callaghan Valley. It's then to the Haywood Noram Eastern's to be held on Feb. 3-5, 2017 in Cantley, Que. – this year with the promise of good snow conditions after Nakkertok Nordic won Kraft's Project Play $250,000 grand prize, which will go toward snowmaking.
Finally, the 2017 season finishes off with Ski Nationals at Canmore Nordic Centre on March 18-25 and the USSA Supertour finals from March 27-April 2 in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Team Canada 2017: (back row l-r): Len Valjas, Julien Locke, Jesse Cockney, Graeme Killick, Chris Jeffries (coach); (front row l-r): Dahria Beatty, Maya Macisaac-jones, Emily Nishikawa, Knute Johnsgaard, Ivan Babikov (coach)