The Untold (and Told) Crazy Canucks Stories

"We pushed to be the best in the world"

Name: Steve Podborski, Ken Read, Dave Irwin, Dave Murray, Todd Brooker
Affiliated Discipline(s): Alpine
Achievements: Multiple World Cup medals. One overall discipline title (Steve Podborski 1982 World Cup Downhill)
Active Career Period: 1979–1984
Induction Category: Alpine

Call it ironic or call it quintessentially Canadian. But for a good part of their racing careers, the original Crazy Canucks were either little known or largely ignored back home.

Though hailed and often mobbed as superstars in Europe, Dave, Dave, Ken and Steve were scarcely seen or heard of outside of certain select sports pages or ski magazines. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Winter Games that that Canada’s national broadcaster finally woke up to just how incredibly remarkable and successful they were. So, since you may have missed the Crazy Canucks the first time around, here are some of their greatest accomplishments and memorable moments, including some untold stories.

Note: This is part of a collection of stories on the Crazy Canucks, written by ski writer Dave Fonda for the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame and Museum. Visit Who Exactly Was On Canada’s Greatest-Ever Ski Team? and also The Crazy Canucks’ Collection: The stories behind their gear for more on the Crazy Canucks.

How The Crazy Canucks Got Their Name

In 1869, a cartoon character named Johnny Canuck hit the press raring to thwart (British) John Bull and (American) Uncle Sam’s annoying antics. During World War II, Johnny Canuck resurfaced as a dashing Royal Canadian Air Force pilot who fought and successfully foiled the dastardly Nazis. While the term, ‘Crazy Canuck’ was not unheard of in European alpine cultures, its popular World Cup usage is most often attributed to the legendary Serge Lang. The Swiss-born, French ski journalist – and World Cup co-founder – was a fan of Canada’s downhillers. Before Serge, the European ski press often referred to our men’s downhill team as the Canadian Kamikazes, with good reason. They skied frighteningly fast, were fearless and often crashed after taking seemingly unnecessary risks. Lang’s ‘Crazy Canucks’ moniker stuck, especially in Europe, long before most Canadians had ever even heard of them.

Ken Read en route to winning his first World Cup downhill at Val d’Isere, France. Ken Read Personal Collection.

Dynasty Maker: Ken Read Wins in Val D’Isère

On December 7, 1975, Ken Read, a 20-year-old, six-time Canadian alpine ski champion from Calgary, Alberta, did the seemingly impossible. He became the first North American man to beat the world’s best, on their own snow and in their premier alpine event, when he won the World Cup downhill race at Val D’Isère, France. The Europeans were not impressed. Even the Fischer rep, whose company equipped Ken with the winning skis, dismissed the triumph as a fluke. The Europeans’ response might have seemed reasonable had three other Canadians not also finished in the top ten. “We knew our team was competitive,” Read said. “We were pushing each other. And that, in a sense, is the key. But we didn’t have it instilled in our realm of thinking that we could actually win. And not just win, but win again.”

A Bonafide Team Emerges: Dave Irwin Dominates in Schladming

Thirteen days later, Read’s teammate, the utterly fearless, incredibly fast, but crash-prone Dave Irwin, upped the ante. He didn’t just win the World Cup downhill in Schladming, Austria. He crushed it. Hitting speeds in excess of 128 kilometres per hour on the icy, 3,510-metre track, Irwin finished 1.61 seconds ahead of his nearest rival. Franz Klammer, Austria’s heavily favoured ‘King of the Downhill’ finished a distant fourth just two places ahead of yet another Canadian, Dave Murray. The Europeans took notice.

Dave Irwin celebrating a downhill win in Schladming, Austria on Dec. 20, 1975. CSMHF Archives.

Ken Read, with coach Scott Henderson at Val d’Isere, France, in 1975. Ken Read Personal Collection.

How the Crazy Canucks Beat The World

Unlike the powerful Europeans who enjoyed enormous financial, logistical and fan support while racing every weekend close to home, the Crazy Canucks spent over 200 days a year on the road. They lived, ate, trained, slept and tuned their skis in cheap hotels. Despite being strong technical skiers — to make the national team skiers you had to excel in at least two disciplines — they focused on downhill, at Canadian head coach Scott Henderson’s behest. Henderson’s reasoning was simple. To win a downhill race, you only need to be the fastest once, whereas in slalom or GS there are two runs. Said Steve Podborski, “in hindsight, it was a very wise thing to do.” With little in the way of financial support, the Crazy Canucks developed a rare camaraderie that drove them to help one another even though they were competing against each other. 

Teamwork Made the Dream Work

From a European perspective, the craziest part of the Crazy Canucks’ winning strategy took place on race day, when everything was on the line. Said Podborski, “on race day, we would radio each other and share how the course was running; ‘this has changed, that’s changed, this is how you can beat them.’”. Said Ken Read, “we all had our own skillsets and weaknesses, but they complemented each other, in that everybody had their own specialty; whether it was Todd and his gliding, Steve who was just totally relaxed and very, very good on jumps; Dave Irwin who was very strong and skilled technically, or myself who was able to nurse speed through high-speed turns, you were measuring yourself against where they were strong. If you were putting all that together then you were actually pushing to be best in the world. Rather than just being the best in a particular type of competition.”

Screen shot of Dave Murray from the CBC video “The Legend of the Crazy Canucks Olympic Alpine Skiing Team”.

[L to R] Ken Read, Todd Brooker and Steve Podborski – seen here at Val d’Isere, France – teamed up to collect four wins in a row on the most coveted downhill race, the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel, Austria. Ken Read Personal Collection.

When The Crazy Canucks Owned Kitzbühel

“If you want to be the best downhill skier in the world, win Kitzbühel,” said Steve. For four years in a row, Kitzbühel’s legendary Streif, the steepest, gnarliest, most dangerous downhill track in the world belonged to four Crazy Canucks. Ken Read was the first to win there. Followed by Steve Podborski, who won twice, and Todd Brooker who won the last time. To give you an idea as to how crazy steep and challenging the Hahnenkamm is, from a standing start, racers can hit speeds of over 100 kilometres an hour in less time than it would take a Formula One race car. There are sections of the Streif with gradients of 85 degrees where racers are essentially in free fall. One such pitch ends in a near-90 degree turn that almost ended the life of Canadian Brian Stemmle. Kitzbühel is that steep. That insane. That dangerous.

Just ask Todd Brooker, who in 1987 suffered through one of the most spectacular crashes the sport has ever seen.

How The ‘Canadian Corner’ Got Its Name

As the world’s oldest, longest and fastest downhill race, the Lauberhorn in Wengen, Switzerland, has an especially storied past. Its various sections bear the names of bygone champions who soared, fell or died there. In 1976, the Crazy Canucks added a new name to the legendary track. On Jan. 10, 1976, one day after Dave Irwin crashed there, Ken Read fell while negotiating the treacherously hard turn just after the notoriously steep Hundschopf drop. The trail feints gently right then veers sharply left. Wham! Luckily, Ken came to a stop before he hit the safety nets that separate the icy course from the funicular tracks that lead up to the summit. Ken was still collecting himself, when Dave Irwin fell in the same spot. Battered, bruised, bleeding and unconscious, Dave came to stop at Ken’s feet. Luckily, a U.S. Ski Team doctor was on-hand. Dave was airlifted to a nearby hospital. The wicked turn was officially named the Canadian Corner.

Ken Read, charging to a World Cup win on the Lauberhorn, in Wengen, Switzerland, in 1980. Read is seen here in the “Minsch-Kante” section just above the “Canadian Corner”. CSHFM Collection

When Crazy Met Gonzo

While the White Circus was in Aspen, Colorado, in 1983, a friend of Steve Podborski’s made the suggestion to meet up with Hunter S. Thompson, the world-famous celebrity American gonzo journalist. Steve, of course, agreed. So the pair headed off to a bar where they met Jann Wenner, the co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone Magazine. “We all moseyed down to the ‘Froghole’ or whatever it was called, and hung out with Hunter for the evening; it was super interesting,” explained Steve. “He was an interesting man. He didn’t ski, had no interest in skiing at all. He was an intellectual, a bon vivant and not a sportsman. His mind and his creativity were his thing.” When Thompson discovered that Steve wasn’t just another jock, but a reader, knowledgeable and articulate, he warmed to the Crazy Canuck. “We hit it off really well and stayed friends for the rest of his life. It was pretty freaky, right? He was a real character. That’s why we hit it off, I suppose.”

Crazy Canucks’ Greatest Legacy: Winning

When Steve Podborski retired in 1984, The Crazy Canucks left behind a legacy that will be forever etched in glory. Read was the first non-European man to win a World Cup downhill, and the first to win the fearsome Hahnenkamm and the legendary Lauberhorn. Podborski was the first non-European male to win an Olympic bronze medal in alpine skiing. He is still the only North American man to ever win the World Cup downhill season title. 

Three of the core Crazy Canucks – Read, Podborski and Todd Brooker – also won the Hahnenkahm four times in a row. The fabled Lauberhorn’s notorious Canadian Corner is named after Read and Dave Irwin.

Todd Brooker
Todd Brooker. Alpine Canada Alpin.

“You can win. The path has been laid. It can be done. We grew up in the same towns and skied on the same hills that you did. You can point to all the reasons why you shouldn’t win. And we had all those reasons. But we still won.”

– Steve Podborski

Erik Guay (centre) and Manny Osborne-Paradis finished first and third respectively at the world alpine ski championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

The Canadian Cowboys Take Over

When a group of hot young racers emerged as the Canadian Cowboys in the late 2000s, not a single one was even born when Steve Podborski won the downhill title in 1982. Determined to forge their own identity, they shed the familiar yellow Descente suits and donned new, multi-coloured ones from Spyder. They awarded each other outlandish rodeo cowboy belt buckles whenever they earned a podium. And, off the slopes, they wore rakish cowboy hats and full-length duster coats. All told, the Canadian Cowboys won 12 World Cup races, one world championship title and 48 podiums. Whereas the Crazy Canucks were primarily World Cup downhill specialists, the Cowboys raced downhill, super-G, GS and slalom. For all of their World Cup wins, where they excelled was in the world championships. Also, unlike the Crazy Canucks, the Canadian Cowboys were a strictly closed shop that began and ended with François Bourque, Erik Guay, Jan Hudec, Mike Janyk, John Kucera and Manny Osborne-Paradis. 

“The Canadian Cowboys defined themselves as a very distinct group,” said Ken Read. “They had a lot of World Championship and Olympic success … and that’s actually quite a distinct contrast to us.”

The Return of The Crazy Canucks

After Manny Osborne-Paradis, the last of the Canadian Cowboys, retired in 2020 it didn’t take long before a new crop of young Canadian ski racers like Jack Crawford, Laurence St. Germain, Brodie Seger, Cameron Alexander, Ally Nullmeyer – and Erik and Jeffrey Read (sons to Ken) – started making headlines in Europe and at home. And the press, both here and there, went back to calling our Canadian ski racers Crazy Canucks. Not only had Serge Langs endearing nickname outlived the original four or six or however many you wish to include among their distinguished number. It cast off the tombstone the Cowboys had laid down, then rode the ski lifts up to the top of the course and roared back to life and onto the world stage with a vengeance. To paraphrase a Canadian anthem, and with apologies to the original lyrics, Long live our Crazy Canucks!”

Note: This is part of a collection of stories on the Crazy Canucks, written by ski writer Dave Fonda for the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame and Museum. Visit Who Exactly Was On Canada’s Greatest-Ever Ski Team? and also The Crazy Canucks’ Collection: The stories behind their gear for more on the Crazy Canucks.

"Rivals: Anatomy of the downhill". A Jalbert Production