Ken Read, Jim Hunter, Dave Irwin and Dave Murray. CSHFM Collection.

The Crazy Canucks

Who Exactly Was On Canada's Greatest-Ever Ski Team?

Name: Steve Podborski, Ken Read, Dave Irwin, Dave Murray, "Jungle" Jim Hunter, Todd Brooker (and others...)
Affiliated Discipline(s): Alpine
Achievements: Multiple World Cup medals. One overall discipline title (Steve Podborski 1982 World Cup Downhill)

In the mid-1970s, four otherwise ordinary guys from Abbottsford, Calgary, Don Mills and Thunder Bay did the impossible. They began beating the Europeans at their own game and became the best downhill ski racers in the world. Utterly fearless, surprisingly selfless, prone to taking risks and totally dedicated to skiing scary fast, Dave Irwin, Dave Murray, Steve Podborski and Ken Read were soon christened the ‘Crazy Canucks’. 

By the early 1980s, the Crazy Canucks had become so popular, famous and victorious, that alpine ski racing became Canada’s second-favourite winter sport as seen, at last, on national television. After the last of the original, core four retired in 1984, every Canadian ski racing hopeful was called a Crazy Canuck. It didn’t matter if they were men or women, or even if they won or stood on the podium. Confused? Don’t be. Here’s everything you need to know about the 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 The Untold (and Told) Crazy Canucks Stories and also The Crazy Canucks’ Collection: The stories behind their gear for more on the Crazy Canucks.

Alpine Skiing, B.C.C. 

Before the Crazy Canucks, alpine ski racing was a predominantly European affair. Competitions were staged in Europe and almost always won by Europeans of Austrian, Swiss, French, German or Italian descent. Occasionally, a young Canadian upstart such as Lucille Wheeler, Anne Heggtveit or Nancy Greene would come along and win, much to the Europeans’ shock and chagrin and to Canada’s surprise and delight. 

Canadian men also raced in Europe, but generally met with considerably less success. When Canada’s ‘King of the Mountain’, Ernie McCulloch went overseas, he soundly beat Europe’s best skiers only to be officially barred from Olympic competition for being a ‘professional’ ski instructor. Other Canadians, such as Bob Richardson, also bested the Europeans, but with little fanfare either at home or abroad. All that would change with the Crazy Canucks.

From left to right, Dave Murray, Ken Read, Dave Irwin; top, Steve Podborski. CSHFM Collection.

“We all had our own unique skillsets and weaknesses. But we complemented each other. Steve who was just totally relaxed and very, very good on jumps, Dave Irwin who was very strong and skilled technically, Todd Brooker and his gliding or myself who was able to nurse speed through high-speed turns.”

– Ken Read, five-time World Cup winner.

Steve Podborski and Ken Read at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany in 1982. CSHFM Collection.

The Crazy Canucks are born

Known for always skiing fast, taking risks and somehow surviving (on a shoestring budget, no less), Dave Irwin, Ken Read, Dave Murray and Steve Podborski would become known the world over as The Crazy Canucks. Polite, charming and utterly Canadian, they would go on to win so consistently, that they even won over Europe’s notoriously patriotic fans and press. Said Ken Read, “we were everybody’s second favourite. We’d show up in Austria, and people would say, ‘of course, we want our guy to win, but if he can’t then we’d like you guys to beat the Swiss, the French and the Germans.” When the 1980 Olympic Winter Games opened in Lake Placid, New York, even Canada’s hockey-mad CBC joined in. The Crazy Canucks not only made ski racing cool, they – and an equally impressive women’s team – made Canada an alpine skiing super power.

Dave ‘Thunder Thighs’ Irwin

Born on July 12, 1954 in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Dave Irwin grew up skiing at Loch Lomond, a local ski area founded by his father, Bill. One of seven Irwin family members named to the national ski team, Dave was a 17-year old slalom and GS champion when he earned his spot in 1971. Nicknamed the Kamikaze Canadian (for taking high-speed risks and often crashing) and Thunder Thighs (for his massive, muscular thighs), Dave was the second North American man to win a World Cup downhill. In 1975, at Schladming, Austria, he beat Franz Klammer, the reigning downhill champion, by nearly two seconds. Dave earned his second podium when he finished third in Whistler in 1982. Ken Read described Dave as, “our most skilled skier technically. He was strong as a bull, and the only one of us raised in a ‘traditional’ racing environment.” Despite his many falls and injuries, Irwin’s passion and unwavering commitment to ski racing inspired his teammates to always work harder, ski faster and never say quit. Dave retired from the national team in 1982.

Dave Irwin. Courtesy Toronto Public Library.

Dave Murray. Photo by Stephanie Sloan.

Dave ‘The Philosopher’ Murray

A quiet, reflective intellectual, Dave Murray was born in Abbottsford, B.C., on September 9, 1953. A natural talent, he earned his spot on the national team at age 18, just three years after he first started racing. According to Ken Read, “Murr’ needed a long runway into the season, but was an awesome competitor when he was on fire.” In 1979, he was the world’s third ranked downhill skier. Incredibly, the top spot would elude him throughout his long and distinguished career. During his 11-year tenure on the team, Dave racked up 15 top 10 finishes. He stood on the podium three times, finishing second, behind Ken Read, twice. Fellow Crazy Canuck, Steve Podborski called Dave Murray, “a thoughtful and gifted mediator who gave us balance and perspective that we wouldn’t have had without him. A deep thinker, he realized that skiing was just for the moment.” Dave Murray retired in 1982 and tragically passed away in 1990.

Ken ‘The Student’ Read

 A Canadian skiing blue blood, Ken Read was born to be a ski racer on November 6, 1955. His mother, Dee, the 1948 Dominion ski champion, was a pillar in Alberta’s ski racing community. His brother, Jim, was also a national ski team member, as are Ken’s sons, Erik and Jeffrey. A Canadian giant slalom and parallel slalom champion, Ken made the national team in 1973. Two years later, he would make history when he became the first North American man to win a World Cup downhill race at Val D’Isère, France. Known for saving his best for race day, Ken was also the first North American man to win both the notorious Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel and the prestigious Lauberhorn in Wengen, Switzerland. Ken notched five World Cup victories, all while earning a Bachelor’s degree in economics. He retired from the White Circus (aka the World Cup) in 1983 with 14 World Cup podiums, including five wins. The legendary Lauberhorn’s infamous Canadian Corner was named after Ken Read and Dave Irwin.

Ken Read. Courtesy Alpine Canada Alpin.

Steve Podborski. Courtesy Alpine Canada Alpin.

Steve ‘The Young One’ Podborski

The youngest Crazy Canuck, Steve Podborski was born in Toronto on July 25, 1957 and learned to ski and race at the Craigleith Ski Club. He made the national team in 1973. In 1976, ten days before the Innsbruck Olympic Winter Games opened, Steve shredded a knee. While recuperating back home, he vowed to “be the most prepared racer in the starting gate” when he returned. True to his word, and aided and abetted by his teammates, the Pod would become Canada’s most successful alpine ski racer. He won the most challenging downhill race in the world, the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel, Austria, twice. He also placed second there, twice. He was the first non-European male skier to win an Olympic medal (bronze, Lake Placid, 1980). In 1982, he became the first North American male to win the overall World Cup downhill title (a record that stands to this day). Named an Officer of the Order of Canada, Steve retired with forty-four top ten World Cup finishes, twenty podiums, eight World Cup victories, one Olympic and one World Ski Championship medal. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Pod put the ‘pod’ in podium.

Jim Hunter – The ‘Founding Father’

If you’ve ever watched videos of ‘Jungle’ Jim Hunter’s dryland training regimen on his father’s dairy farm, you can be forgiven for thinking, ‘so that’s how the Crazy Canucks got their name.’ After working on his explosive starts on a ramp inside a hayloft, he steps into the skis he’s mounted atop a pick-up truck so he can practice his tuck as Dad drives him around the countryside. Crazy. A gifted natural athlete, Jim Hunter was born in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan on May 3, 1953. At age 12, he quit hockey, moved to Calgary, Alberta and started skiing in earnest. Four years later, he made the national ski team and was nicknamed “Jungle Jim” because he threw all caution to the wind and attacked every course like no one else. A talented GS and downhill racer, he won Canada’s first world championship medal, a bronze, in the combined, in Sapporo, Japan. Jim Hunter retired from World Cup racing in 1977, with 17 top ten finishes and two podiums. Not bad for a flatlander who first skied behind a horse.

‘Jungle’ Jim Hunter. Alpine Canada Alpin.

Todd Brooker. Courtesy Alpine Canada Alpin.

Todd Brooker – The ‘Heir Apparent’

In 1977, yet another boy wonder from the mighty hills of Ontario joined the Canadian Alpine Ski Team. His name was Todd Brooker, and he was born in Paris, Ontario on November 24, 1959. Todd learned to ski and race at nearby Blue Mountain where he distinguished himself with his aggressive, pedal-to-the-metal style of skiing. Ken Read praised Todd for his “bull-moose strength, his natural gliding ability, his irreverence and his willingness to break the mould.” In 1983, Brooker topped the field in Kitzbühel. It marked the fourth consecutive time that a Crazy Canuck won the treacherous and unforgiving Hahnenkamm. Three years later, Todd would end his ski-racing career there after he survived what many consider to be the most spectacular, heart-stopping fall in World Cup history. Years later, Brooker would joke that, “everybody remembers that fall, except me.” In 1987, with 15 top ten finishes, ten podiums and three World Cup wins, Todd Brooker became the last of the seminal six to retire from ski racing. But the age of the Crazy Canucks was far from over.

The Dominant Canadian Women’s Team  

While the Crazy Canuck men kept making headlines with their spectacular wins and breathtaking crashes, Canadian women kept on winning races and earning podiums. Between 1979 and 1987, Laurie Graham and Gerry Sorensen earned 21 podiums and won 11 World Cup downhill and super-G races between them. They also brought home two world championship medals, one gold, one bronze and one world championship title. Their slalom and giant slalom teammates were also getting it done. In 1976, Kathy Kreiner won an Olympic gold medal in Innsbruck and earned an additional seven podiums, all in the giant slalom. And, post 1972, Betsy Clifford added three more podiums to her already impressive collection. Said Ken Read, “we were gender equal”. The women’s triumphs were instrumental in getting the CBC to cover ski racing. Back then, the only Canadian athletes winning international competitions were either figure skaters or speed skaters.” The Crazy Canucks, both the women and men, not only stood out. They stood tall, on the podium, week in and week out. 

Women’s National Alpine Ski Team c. 1985 [back]: Laurie Graham, Andréa Bédard, Karen Stemmle, Karen Percy [front]: Kerrin Lee, Liisa Savijarvi, Diana Haight. Alpine Canada Alpin.

CAST 1986 [back row]: Glenn Wurtele (coach), Don Stevens, Rob Boyd, Todd Brooker, Mike Tommy, Carl Pettersen (coach) [middle row]: Diana Haight, Andréa Bédard, Felix Belczyk, Chris Kent, Jim Read, Brian Stemmle, Kellie Casey [bottom row]: Karen Percy, Josée Lacasse, Laurie Graham, Karen Stemmle, Liisa Savijarvi. Courtesy Alpine Canada Alpin.

The Subsequent Generations

Soon after the Brooker, Graham and Sorensen’s generation retired, Canadians began cheering on a new crop of Crazy Canucks. Like the original, core four they came from across Canada. On the women’s side, we hailed Emily Brydon, Allison Forsyth, Kerrin Lee-Gartner, Britt Janyk, Kate Pace-Lindsay, Karen Percy, Liisa Savijarvi, Geneviéve Simard and Karen Stemmle. And on the men’s, Felix Belcyck, Rob Boyd, Thomas Grandi, Edi Podivinsky and Brian Stemmle, to name but a few, lit up the world’s toughest courses. Like the original Crazy Canucks, they wore the distinctive, yellow, one-piece Descente suits. And most of them earned their rightful place either on or atop a World Cup, world championship or Olympic podium. Thereby ensuring that Serge Lang’s colourful nickname would not only outlive its colourful originators, it would become synonymous with winning ski racers from Canada.

So … Who Exactly Were The Crazy Canucks?

Like all great Canadian success stories, Canadians are still debating who was or wasn’t a Crazy Canuck.

For Steve Podborski, “it was four guys: Dave Irwin, Dave Murray, Ken Read, and me. We called ‘Jungle’ (Jim Hunter) the original Crazy Canuck but he wasn’t there when we became The Crazy Canucks. Todd (Brooker) wasn’t there when Ken won at Val D’Isére. Were other people Crazy Canucks? Ya. But they were not the original ones.”

Steve’s longtime teammate, Ken Read, takes a broader view. “The ‘core’ group were Jim Hunter, Dave, Dave, Steve and me. Jim retired in 1977 and missed our most successful years. Todd joined in 1977 and began winning in 1982. The women were also part of the impact. Every Canadian ski racer was a ‘Crazy Canuck’. Today (2022), European media still post “Another Crazy Canuck emerges” whenever the team has a success.”

The Legend of the Crazy Canucks Olympic Alpine Skiing Team

The story of how a group of Canadian daredevils Olympic skiers broke the European stranglehold.

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 The Untold (and Told) Crazy Canucks Stories and also The Crazy Canucks’ Collection: The stories behind their gear for more on the Crazy Canucks.