The McGill Red Birds Ski Club

A few stories about North America’s oldest downhill club

Name: W. Bill Thompson, Jackrabbit Johanssen Smith, Harry Pangman, Stirling Maxwell, Colonel Bovey, Major Forbes ... and more
Affiliated Discipline(s): Alpine, Nordic

The history of Canadian skiing is full of pioneers and visionaries, movers and shakers, heroes and stars. But few can compare to the members of the Red Birds Ski Club. Founded almost 100 years ago by a trio of McGill students who became friends while skiing and racing together, the Red Birds club has influenced, directed or otherwise shaped almost every facet of Canadian skiing and, in particular, ski racing. These are but a few of their stories.

Story by Dave Fonda, for the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame and Museum.

When Montreal Became A Major Ski Centre

In 1879, an adventurous Norwegian gentleman named M. A. Birch skied the gruelling 274-kilometre trek from Montreal to Quebec City. Ten years later, a group of McGill professors took to shouldering their Finnish-style ‘twintip’ skis, hiking up Pine Avenue and skiing back down to Sherbrooke Street. Their nocturnal demonstrations drew throngs of tony residents who lived in Montreal’s posh Square Mile district. The city has been a major ski hub ever since.

In 1904, the first ski club in North America was founded in Montreal.  The Montreal Ski Club and its members went on to introduce skiing to the nearby Laurentians. They also established the first ski house there when they made Mrs. Marshall’s boarding house in Shawbridge their official headquarters. The next decade saw skiing become an intercollegiate sport alongside boxing, track & field and lacrosse. In 1914, the McGill Ski Club was created with the goal of challenging mighty Dartmouth for bragging rights in the East. 

As skiing’s popularity grew, so too did the number of ski facilities in and around Montreal. 1920 saw the Montreal Ski Club open the city’s famous Côte des Neiges Ski jump. Seven years later, the Montreal and McGill Ski Clubs would have a major falling out over the use of the jump. Thus setting the stage for the birth of another, far more accomplished, illustrious and enduring ski club. 

Jackrabbit Johanssen Smith (right). CSHFM Collection 2022.

The Red Birds Ski Club door plaque (top). Bill Thompson, McGill Sports Hall of Fame induction. CSHFM Collection 2022.

The Birth of The Red Birds

In 1928 W. Bill Thompson, a 22-year old, chemical engineering student from McGill was Canada’s top cross-country skier. While competing in the second Olympic Winter Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland, he concluded that Canadians had much to learn about skiing and ski equipment. At the time, there were perhaps 4,000 skiers in North America. The preferred winter pastimes were ice skating, ice hockey, snowshoeing and tobogganing. Skiing was still largely seen as an exotic European pursuit that was best left to “young daredevils, sentimental Scandinavian immigrants,” and, of course, well-heeled university students. So Thompson recruited his McGill mates Harry Pangman, Stirling Maxwell, and their mentors Colonel Bovey and Major Forbes. Together, they founded the McGill Red Birds Ski Club with the aim of achieving three goals:

  1. Promote skiing in all its forms: jumping, cross-country, downhill and slalom racing;
  2. Encourage the development of these sports by helping to train McGill University Ski Teams; 
  3. Provide and maintain facilities and accommodations in the Laurentian Mountains, which were fairly accessible back then and where skiing had already started up. 

Left unwritten was the group’s primary goal of maintaining the friendships they’d formed through their love of skiing and competing.

“The Red Birds Ski Club is more than a club, it’s a way of life.” – Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen

The Red Birds Take Flight

The quintet chose the Red Birds name in honour of the mythical, footless, red birds that graced the McGill flag that flew above the downtown Montreal campus. They then established another tradition: henceforth members would be known by the order in which they joined the club. Thus, Thompson was Red Bird 1, Pangman RB 2, and Maxwell RB 3.

In the fall of 1928, the Red Birds set up their winter headquarters in a rented house in St. Sauveur. That November, they held their first meeting in the McGill Student Union Hall. To join their club, members had to pay a $5 initiation fee and a $10 regular membership fee. (Members of the McGill Winter Outing Club were admitted for free.) In return, the Red Birds ski club would train the members and prepare them to compete in the upcoming intercollegiate and invitational slalom and downhill races.

The Red Birds Ski Club flag. CSHFM Collection 2022.

McGill Red Bird George Jost was the first winner of the Quebec Kandahar Cup race. CSHFM Collection.

Origins of Canadian Ski Racing

The club’s on-snow training sessions were held on St. Sauveur’s ‘big hill’, which soon became dotted with sitzmarks or indentations that skiers left behind in the snow when they fell backwards trying to make turns, land jumps, or simply stop. It was here, while racing straight down the big hill, that the legendary George Jost developed his famous ‘Red Bird crouch’.

In 1928, the honorary Red Bird, Jackrabbit Johanssen set the first Dominion slalom championships course on nearby Shawbridge’s big hill. A true naturalist, ‘he used rocks and fences as gates and spruce branches as markers.’ “This,” he said, “would make for a real slalom and not ‘ballet dancing’ in a fixed groove around flags.”

“Bushwhack Racing at its Finest”

Tired of always losing to Dartmouth, the Red Birds decided they needed a bigger training hill with more challenging terrain. Jackrabbit knew just the place. Mont Tremblant was as big, as long and as steep as anything he’d skied south of the border. It was also in a snow belt. In 1930, Jackrabbit and a small contingent of Red Birds skied up the ‘mountain that trembles’ to assess its worth. They skied back down feeling ‘mightily impressed’.

The following year, Jackrabbit foreran the first downhill ski race ever held at Mont Tremblant. It was a hair-raising descent down a largely un-cleared slope that left at least one hapless competitor dangling helplessly upside down from a tree. To paraphrase Jackrabbit, it was Canadian-style bushwhack racing at its finest. 

[L to R]: Harry Pangman, Neil S., Jackrabbit Johannsen, Sterling Maxwell at Mont Tremblant, QC, on April 14, 1930
[L to R]: Harry Pangman, Neil S., Jackrabbit Johannsen, Sterling Maxwell at Mont Tremblant, QC, on April 14, 1930. CSHFM Collection.
Red Birds Ski Club Pin
Red Birds Ski Club Pin. CSHFM Collection.

The Red Birds Logo

By 1930, the Red Birds had a thriving club, a clubhouse, an active membership, a new racing hill and well-defined goals. The only thing they were missing was a badge, or in today’s lingo, a logo. The task of designing one fell to club co-founder, Stirling Maxwell, who worked as an architect, and Miss Betty Kemp, who would soon become his wife. Their distinctive design, which depicted a highly stylized red bird with winged feet would go on to grace countless pins, badges, sweaters, jackets, toques, cups, et cetera.

The Quebec Kandahar Cup Race

In 1932, the world famous Kandahar Club in Mürren, Switzerland, gifted the Canadian Amateur Ski Association a splendid silver trophy that was to be awarded to the winner of the first Quebec Kandahar (or combined slalom and downhill) ski race.

Since the McGill Red Birds were the only ski club with the mountain, the manpower and the skills to host 21 contestants from five different ski clubs, they were awarded the honours. The Red Birds have hosted Canada’s premier alpine ski race ever since.

The winner of that year’s competition was the Red Birds’ incomparable George Jost. 

George Jost, winner of the Quebec Kandahar Cup, 1932. CSHFM Collection 2022.

CSHFM Collection.

The Red Birds Popularize Lift-served Skiing

That same year, 1932, saw an ex-McGill ski jumper named Alex Foster revolutionize skiing. Foster took a second-hand Reo coupe automobile, a considerable length of sturdy rope, and a series of supports and pulleys and built the world’s first rope tow. “Foster’s Folly,” as it was called, ran from the base of the big hill at Shawbridge, up to the top and back down again. It cost skiers five cents a ride, or a dollar for the whole day. Lift-served skiing was such a huge hit with the Red Birds, that they effectively popularized it overnight. Skiing would never be the same again.

The Red Birds Help Launch Ski Trains

A lift of another sort would soon take shape, again, no small thanks to the Red Birds. While snow or ski trains were already up and running in the United States, it wasn’t until RB McTaggart suggested that Canadian railroads modify their schedules and fit their coaches with ski racks that train travel in the Laurentians finally took off. 

By 1939, the ski trains were carrying 40,000 paying passengers per year. And most of them traveled in winter. The le Petit Train du Nord’s once prim coaches now reeked of the wax skiers used to prepare their wooden ski bases. Meanwhile, outside, village church bells pealed all along the way as legions of French Canadian farmers, drawing sleds weighted down with buffalo robes, waited to whisk the eager skiers to their respective inns and lodges. Seemingly overnight, Quebec’s once sleepy Laurentians became a bustling, North American skiing mecca as ski hills began popping up everywhere. 

The convenience of rope tows and snow trains immediately attracted thousands of new skiers. It also caught the eye of wealthy investors like the American beer baron, Fred Pabst and lumberman, Joseph Bondurant Ryan. The two would forever put St. Sauveur and Mont Tremblant, respectively, on every skier’s map. And both could thank the Red Birds for that. Clearly, it was no ordinary ski club.

Inside ski train, 1926

The le Petit Train du Nord, 1936. CSHFM Collection.

Trophies displayed at the Red Birds Ski Club. Quebec Kandahar Cup [left] and The Ryan Cup [centre]. CSHFM Collection 2022.

The McGill Red Birds Quebec Kandahar Cup

The Quebec Kandahar Cup was first presented to the Canadian Amateur Ski Association in 1931. The cup shown here was gifted to the McGill Red Birds Ski Club in 1936, five years after they first hosted the annual Quebec Kandahar races at Mont Tremblant. 

This cup is made of solid, sterling silver and was cast by Henry George Murphy of London, England. Not counting the ebony plinth or base, it stands 40 cm centimetres tall and weighs just under one kilogram. The plinth bears individual silver plaques. Each one is etched with the name of a winner, the year in which they won and the club they represented.  The first plaque is inscribed:  1932 / George JostRBSC.

The Red Birds have awarded the QK cup every year since then, save for the war years (1943 – 45), and during an unfortunate spell from the mid Eighties to the early Nineties when Mont Tremblant management had lost all interest in hosting races. In 1992, the Red Birds joined forces with the Club de Ski de Mont Tremblant and revived the Quebec Kandahar Cup races.

Today, winners of the men’s races receive a Red Birds Quebec Kanadahar Cup Pin instead of a cup. Women, on the other hand, are still awarded the venerable Ryan Cup.

George Jost wins the 2nd Kandahar Cup

In 1933, a group of Red Birds set out for Mürren, Switzerland, to show the Europeans what Canadians had learned about skiing since the 1928 Olympics. Thanks to co-founder Harry Pangman’s superhuman climbing abilities and George Jost’s fearless downhill skills, the McGill Red Birds Ski Club did the impossible. They beat Europe’s best in the main event, and won the Akademische, a.k.a. the university championship of Europe.

A few days later, George Jost once again defied all the odds when he beat the world’s best and won the prestigious Roberts of Kandahar downhill race. True to form, the incredulous Europeans protested, claiming that George’s famous “Jost or Red Bird crouch” was really just “tobogganing”, which had been previously outlawed. But when they consulted the newly drafted rules, there was no such exclusion. And so RB George Jost won the Red Bird’s second Kandahar Cup, only this one wasn’t silver. It was gold!

The 1932 McGill Red Birds Ski Team consisted of Harry Pangman, George Jost, Frederick Taylor, Stirling Maxwell, Jack Houghton (captain), Frank Campbell, Walter Dorken, Peter Renold and Bill Ball.

The Red Birds Sever Ties With McGill

On February 4th, 1947, “it was agreed that the Red Birds Ski Club was to be independent of the McGill Ski Club (MSC) and in no way… under control of McGill.” Despite the break, the two parties concurred that the Red Birds would continue coaching the MSC. The Red Birds further insisted it be “a full-time coach who would operate under their guidance, taking advantage of their experience, expertise, and organizational strengths.” 

Since the club’s founding in 1928, the Red Birds have played a key role in furthering almost every facet of ski racing and skiing in the Laurentians and, by extension, the rest of Quebec and Canada. Their ski houses, first in St. Sauveur and later Mont Tremblant, were bustling hubs teeming with passionate skiers who were always ready, willing and able to spread the word.

What Didn’t The Red Birds Do?

For all their accomplishments, which are as numerous as they are incredible, the Red Birds were also singularly remiss when it came to women. From day one, it was an all boys club with membership strictly restricted to men. Period. True, women were first invited to compete in the Quebec Kandahar Cup in 1939. They were awarded their own trophy, the prestigious Ryan Cup, in 1963. But no matter how well heeled or well educated or well connected they were, no matter how well they skied or raced or coached or taught skiing, not one single woman was allowed entry into the strictly all male enclave until 2017. Incredible but true.

[see the complete list of previous winners of both the Quebec Kandahar and Peter Ryan Cups].

Roni Remme, winner of the Peter Ryan Cup in 2014. Photo courtesy of Alpine Canada Alpin.

For more on the Quebec Kandahar Cup, see The Stories Behind Canada’s Greatest Ski Race.

*A special thanks to Phil Gribbin for photos displayed in this story from the Red Birds Ski Club.

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