Winter is an elemental part of the Canadian soul. Ice and snow. Wayne Gretzky and Nancy Greene. The Habs and the Crazy Canucks. Pierre Harvey and the Quebec Air Force.
You can ski or board in every province of Canada. Our nation is blessed with a range of destinations, from iconic world-famous resorts to small river valleys and the backsides of dams. You can ski everywhere in the Great White North.
But it is the smaller ski resorts that feed our passion, teach our youth and provide amazing access to the joys of winter – in some cases for more than six months of winter. It is these local resorts that have provided the foundation of a half-century of ski and snowboard excellence in the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, in World Cup, the X-Games and Freeride events, in the parks n’ pipes or ski racing training runs across our country.
Know where Mark McMorris calls home? Mission Ridge Winter Park in Saskatchewan, with some 150 metres vertical. Steve Podborski? Craigleith Ski Club in Collingwood, Ontario with 180 metres vertical. Edi Podivinsky? Snow Valley in Edmonton. The list of our champions from ski resorts of less than 200 metres is VERY long: Anne Heggtveit, Lucile Wheeler, Jan Hudec, Betsy Clifford, Kathy Kreiner, Brian Stemmle, Todd Brooker… and I can keep going.
Add to this, those champions that come from community based mountain ski resorts – such as Mt. Norquay above Banff or Red Mountain at Rossland, where a similar community spirit resides within the local ski club. The list grows even longer.
Operating any ski resort is a challenge. It is capital-intensive, requires innovative approaches to use facilities year-round and the expectations of consumers have changed – expecting man-made snow, excellent grooming and modern up-hill capacity. Smaller operations must operate within their means, but that doesn’t mean they can’t offer a great product.
The 80 metres of vertical at Buck Hill in Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis, has been a factory of skiing for decades. Not only does it introduce snowsports, it has become known as the home of the greatest female ski racer of all time: Lindsay Vonn. An 80 metre hill … and the driving vision of Erich Sailer who did not see a small hill, but an opportunity to make ski racing accessible.
Ski and snowboard clubs, with innovative leadership and a close, collaborative relationship with the resort, can thrive. They can offer a winter of thrilling action to the youth of the community. These clubs are not-for-profit. The key is to create the conditions for them to thrive – good coaching, inexpensive access. Encourage families to be part of the experience. Engage the business community. Young athletes, learning the skills of sport are motivated, understand work ethic and become leading citizens.
Over and over again, the impact volunteers at all resorts – big and small – is truly remarkable. Case in point: Castle Mountain, near Pincher Creek, AB and Pass Powderkeg on the edge of Blairmore, AB, exist today thanks to volunteers who rolled up their sleeves and did want was needed to keep the ski resort operating and available to the community.
Civic leaders must also think about the recreational assets available to youth and the general population, certainly to use efficiently and on a year-round basis, but to ensure they exist … that they are accessible. The local ski resort should be seen as an invaluable recreational asset of the community. A place which brings people together, that celebrates winter and engages youth in a positive and constructive way. The conventional view, claim many civic leaders is they cannot afford to operating these capital-intensive recreational facilities. Perhaps they cannot afford not to, for their citizens?
The smaller ski resort is at the heart of skiing, in every country. This should be a wake-up call to the industry giants: this is the base of your market. You lose it, you have lost an asset. Time to step up and support the smaller resorts. Charlie Locke, owner of the Lake Louise Ski Resort, is doing just this – investing in a ski resort in Manitoba and supporting a not-for-profit resort in Saskatchewan.
This is a battle for the soul of our sport. And for the soul of Canada.
Some of the most passionate and hardest working people I know operate ski resorts. It is a challenging industry, subject to the vagaries of the weather. But here are three concepts that I have seen gain traction to build community and sustainability:
- The Special Promotion to draw traffic: Norquay celebrated their heritage through “Toonie Tuesdays”, where for $2 a patron could ski for the day. The response was enormous – and the positive vibe from an incredible deal drove additional revenue into the ski shop and food & beverage, which more than made up for the reduced gate.
- Tap into volunteers: we have a phenomenal volunteer work ethic in Canada. The passion people harbor for the projects and places they love is amazing. Do not underestimate what a willing group of people will do or contribute to keep a special place open.
- Build a thriving environment for your ski and snowboard clubs: A great program will attract a crowd. Kids love the snow and love even more to be challenged. Structured programs such as ski racing or park and pipe form a bond with youngsters and their families. They become your core customer, returning frequently throughout the season for programs and competitions (which also attract outside clubs). Ski racing clubs are not expensive and with a commitment to help them thrive, can become invaluable partners in building the all-important passionate community base.
This blog was prompted by an article by Tyler Dawson in the National Post. You can read his post at: https://nationalpost.com/news/westlock-ski-hill
Thanks, Ken – for the article and important reminder.
Without the “grass-roots”, there will be no champions nor the base to support their development. This marvellous sport, as so many others, need not be an overwhelming and discouraging economic and logistic challenge to get started.
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Spot on Ken! I started skiing at small areas in the Ottawa area including the Rockliffe Air Base T-bar. Its been gone for a while now and had been located near down town Ottawa less than 5km from the Parliament! $5 lift tickets at that time removed the barrier to entry. We definately need to find more ways of supporting our local ski areas, it is an important part of the Canadian social fabric.
I briefly remember that T-Bar! You did great work at Edelweiss!
Great article Ken….vive la simplicité! Grass roots is the spark and the reminder of the essence of it all for all
I’m the Chairperson of the Pass Powderkeg Ski Society. Thank you for your support. Everyday is a challenge for us, but we continue, energized by smiles. Thanks for the mention as well.
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Thank you Ken. Your comments have inspired pride in the many community ski areas, operators, and volunteers across the country. There are resources available to every ski area to help explain and demonstrate the economic and social value of ski areas to civic and other government leaders.
Ski areas not only act as gathering places for families and friends in winter, snowsports introduce critical physical literacy skills for life for our children.
Thank you for this great article! We are volunteers for a non-profit group that will be operating Tawatinaw Valley, which was recently threatened with closure and featured in the National Post article. Your words are very true and we are glad to have you advocating for the smaller hills!
This blog really reinforces to me what a “family” the ski and snowboard community is! As a member of the non-profit that will be operating Tawatinaw Valley, I am extremely appreciative of the outpouring of support from that “family”. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you