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Canadian cross-country skiing's big gamble

Nordiq Canada is throwing out the books on traditional coaching and hoping it pays off sooner than later – literally.

CANMORE – There have been monumental changes at the cross-country skiing organization, Nordiq Canada.

And while the consensus within the nation's governing body is that change is good, the numbers start rolling in over the next few years will be determined if an innovative, all-in approach to its system has hit the jackpot or left with empty pockets.

It started with an organization-shaking head coach firing, followed by a switch in its philosophy toward what’s best for athletes. And although patience is needed for anything new, time is not a luxury at the moment.

New leadership, times have changed

In May, Nordiq Canada announced new leadership roles, naming Eric de Nys as the domestic high performance lead, Jessica Kryski as the integrated support lead, and Julia Mehre Ystgaard as the World Cup lead.

The changes are a result of a growing demand and what people are asking for, said Chris Jeffries, Nordiq Canada’s high performance director (HPD).

The “needs of generations have changed” and a focus is shifting toward a prioritization of individual athlete performance plans that is going to replace the idea of what a traditional national team looks like by eliminating a centralized training location, at least within the Canadian system.

“We’ve always been asking people to fit into a system rather than asking the system to fit for people,” said Jeffries.

“I’m motivated by change and like the idea of how to do something better.”

Jeffries, who’s been in the national system in coaching or as an athlete since the 1990s, was named the HPD two years ago. When he began that role, Jeffries described the national governing body’s Olympic system as “trying to stick a round peg into a square hole.”

“We have to be able to change our systems and I think one of the things you see in our sport system for the most part is … they’ve always been historically designed for the program, and how do we maintain a program,” said Jeffries.

“We don’t necessarily need coaches, we need people to help manage our system.”

Nordiq Canada’s headquarters is based out of Canmore, which is adjacent to the Canmore Nordic Centre ski trails – a top training ground in the country. Many athletes choose to live and train in Canmore – but not all.

Approximately 50 per cent of the National Ski Team (NST) are spread across Canada and live in areas such as Thunder Bay, Ont., and Quebec City, Que.

An example of the disjointed NST team is Antoine Cyr, the highest ranking Canadian man on the World Cup, who trains at the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre in Quebec under main coach Louis Bouchard. While Katherine Stewart-Jones, Canada’s top ranked woman, is based out of Canmore, and was mainly coached by Robin McKeever.

The double-poling away from a centralized system for the Olympic program has been a long time in the making in Canada.

“It kind of started with Alex Harvey post-2010 Games when he said, ‘I don’t want to live in Canmore, I want to live in Quebec,’” said Jeffries.

Harvey was the last big gun in the Nordiq Canada system, and the country’s most successful cross-country skier outside of an Olympics, winning five World Championship medals and 25 World Cup podiums before retiring in 2019.

His desire to train in eastern Canada began the shift, and more athletes began following their own systems, but Nordiq Canada, formerly Cross Country Canada, never truly made the leap to remove the centralized model during that time.

“We were kind of in this limbo where we weren’t doing either one as good as we could,” said Jeffries.

Today, several factors, such as the barrier of high living costs in Canmore and athletes sticking with their regional coaches are resulting in the new era coming into effect.

It’s an unconventional approach, a gamble for a truly untested sport system over a huge landmass, which eliminates “coaches” within Nordiq Canada. Instead, the governing body is supporting other national training centres, coaches and programs with 12 per cent of its budget. 

New lead for Nordiq Canada, Ystgaard said her role will be taking care of the World Cup as a coach on the ground overseas during the season, logistics, planning, and, generally, behind the scenes management.

Based out of Norway, Ystgaard thinks the new system will work.

“For anything new, the immediate reaction is to be skeptical, but after thinking about it and understanding what it means, I really think this can work,” said Ystgaard. “It sounds intimidating at first, but it makes sense in our country because it’s big and we’re trying to really find the balance between supporting the athletes in a good way and actually being able to be a useful resource for them.”

Unexpected dismissals

Shortly after the ski season ended, McKeever publicly stated he had been fired.

Nine days had passed when Nordiq Canada quietly posted about staff departures on its website before the former national team head coach took to social media to get the word out.

Para Nordic high performance director Kate Boyd was also fired from the organization. The media release said Chris Jeffries would assume the roles of both NST and Para Nordic high performance director.

The unexpected dismissals caught many by surprise, and the vague answer – or no real explanation into why the decision was made – was questioned.

In the middle of an Olympic quadrennial, McKeever was in the NST role a few days shy of two years following a highly successful 12-year stint as head honcho of the Para Nordic Ski Team. The 51-year-old has spent the last 35 years in the national team system in some capacity.

“I’m not aware of why I was terminated without cause from Nordiq Canada,” said McKeever, “but I will say that as a high-performance team, we, together as an eight-person group, set the values of humanity, clarity and ambition and I proudly led the World Cup team by that these past six months since it was established in the fall. I would question if those same values were actually put into place by the leadership in the decisions that they made.”


A post shared by Robin McKeever (@keeverob)

McKeever was tight-lipped about whether he would file a wrongful dismissal claim, noting his family is deeply connected to Nordiq Canada, such as his son, Xavier, being a member of the NST, and his brother Brian, being the head coach of the Para Nordic team.

When Nordiq Canada employees were questioned, the response was a refusal to comment on human resource matters or carefully choosing which words to say.

In following interviews with the Nordiq Canada staff, the message from the national governing body is that retooling its system is entering a new era, but will remain “100 per cent committed to athletes.”

Jeffries said they had to look at what skills are needed, what is the governing body’s role moving forward and the best way to deliver the mandate knowing there is a contraction in resources.

However, the big question remaining was why McKeever wasn’t part of Nordiq Canada’s future plans.

The reason: it’s more complicated than putting a finger on one single thing.

“Part of it is performance-based, part of it is financial, part of it is looking forward strategically and it definitely was not a single thing,” said Jeffries.

“It was a decision that was really hard and it really sucks and it’s the kind of decision you never want to make, but as the steward for our high performance system, I’ve learned over the last two years the hard reality is sometimes I will have to make decisions that people don’t understand or agree with or they don’t like. I also have a lot of information at my disposal that I will have to take into account and make decisions accordingly, so that I think we can do what’s best for the people in our system.”

Jeffries said after listening to the needs of athletes, individual athlete performance plans are going to be prioritized, so that those identified as NST athletes can be supported by their regional, full-time coaches, while still receiving financial assistance from the organization.

“Robin didn’t coach athletes directly anymore and Erik de Nys, as the next gen coach, didn’t coach athletes directly anymore and there was a huge positive to that,” said Jeffries. “We had trips and every athlete, every person felt valued. They felt like they had access to what they needed, they felt like there was no resentment, there was no animosity and the culture of our teams and trips drastically improved.”

The Outlook reached out to several current athletes by email who either did not respond or did not want to comment. However, McKeever’s Instagram post on March 30 announcing his departure was flooded with current and former athletes thanking him and leaving other comments.

Overshadowed in the McKeever fallout was the dismissal of Kate Boyd. 

Boyd was named the NST’s HPD in 2020, but moved to Para Nordic team’s HPD in 2022 following a shuffle in leadership roles that year.

In a written statement, she said being fired was “obviously disappointing and completely unexpected” and “it was not made clear why the decision was made to go in this direction.”

 “After celebrating 117 medals with our athletes and coaches, this is a finish line I never wanted to cross but the memories and friendships I have made leading this program is what I will take away and cherish for a lifetime,” Boyd said in the statement.

“I wish the athletes and coaching staff nothing but the best. I do take comfort knowing that while my time has come to an end, I do leave the program as being one of the best in the world.” 

Fractured Canadian system, former coaches speak

To better understand the recent direction Nordiq Canada is moving in with its system, a good source for insight is from those who worked in the old one.

For the past eight years or so, the head coach job of the national ski team has been more like a temporary placeholder. It has been about as in-and-out as it gets, with every few years someone leaving for various reasons such as job opportunities elsewhere, filling the leadership void temporarily, or being fired.

When referring to Canada’s head coach role, some called it risky, some said it’s been a mixed bag. For Erik Bråten, who led the Olympic program for three years before McKeever, he said he felt very alone and unappreciated.

From his home in Norway, Bråten told the Outlook over the phone he still has a hard time explaining to friends and family why coaching inside the Canadian system became a failure for him. 

Bråten, who is a former coach-of-the-year in Norway’s ski federation, quit voluntarily in Canada after struggling in the leadership role, which he said he didn’t think he was set up to achieve what he wanted with how that system was built. 

“It just felt like we didn’t know what we were doing, me included, and we didn’t really know what we were doing more on the system stuff,” said Bråten. “I never even talked to Nordiq Canada about training, we never even got there.”

Never officially named head coach, Bråten said it became unavoidable that he took the reins when he was the only coach left. When he quit, Canada was left without an official head coach during the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Bråten temporarily returned to work with individual athletes and their goals in China.

Though, there lies a big problem.

When coaching in North America, Bråten felt like he was starting from scratch and no prior knowledge had been passed down. It was odd to him because Canada has had a gold medal history of success in the sport for decades.

“I think there are a lot of good, functional coaches around Canada who didn’t know what I was doing for four years other than travelling around with the team in winter,” said Bråten. “I tried to get control of things without really understanding what that even meant. I didn’t even know when I was in control or not. So [there was a] lack of leadership [in Nordiq Canada], lack of direction, [and] lack of total control.”

Bråten added he thought McKeever was doing a much better job than he had because the Norwegian “was failing without doing the actual job.”

Justin Wadsworth, who was head coach from 2010-16, said at that time there was a big culture around winning, with the likes of Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw on the frozen tracks.

“It was a strong culture and a strong team and a very clear focus on what we were trying to achieve,” said Wadsworth.

Despite the success on the podium, he said a head coach always faces pressure.

Having worked with the USA cross-country team, and now Biathlon Canada, Wadsworth said working with less money than the big ski nations is challenging in a world where performance matters a lot. 

“Those podium results, at the end of the day, regardless of other things you do in your program, if you get a podium it takes care of a lot of the headaches,” he said.

Wadsworth noted he thinks North American coaches are best suited to coach North American athletes because of different cultures.

Following Wadsworth’s departure in 2016 from the former Cross Country Canada to spend more time with his family, Louis Bouchard took the reins – temporarily.

Head coach of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre, Bouchard acted as head coach for the 2018 Olympics, with his pupil Alex Harvey leading the charge, before the role was handed off again.

Bouchard said the national governing body has a history of hiring European coaches, but, in doing so, comes a risk.

“I don’t think they made plans to be there for a long time, they just wanted to try,” said Bouchard. “Then after one or two years, sometimes, especially with the results we had in the past, they got a better job or a better opportunity for their country [and left].”

Take Norwegian Tor-Arne Hetland, for example, who bolted in 2015 after a year in Canada to take a head coach position in Norway.

The unbalanced role of head coach in the Canadian system has been seeing its downfall since around 2016.

Bouchard added that Nordiq Canada’s new structure is different but looks positive. 

“When you see the history with Nordiq Canada with a head coach, it’s not like they have a head coach for 10 years in a row,” said Bouchard. 

Budget cuts, nervous for 2027

As the timeless Wu-Tang Clan song says “Cash rules everything around me”. 

But in this day and age, the big bucks aren’t flowing into National Sports Organizations (NSO) across the country and it’s become a major issue.

For Nordiq Canada’s Olympic stream, it will be working with at least $300,000 less in the 2024-25 budget than last year, which will have a direct impact on the ability to host big training camps.

The national governing body is playing it cool about the $300,000 cut this year – saying it has been anticipated – but in a few years, there could be trouble if its investment doesn’t produce dividends.

NSOs rely on government and performance-based funding to operate efficiently. Following the disappointment in this year’s federal budget, which the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees said fell well short of the requested $104 million annual increase to the sport system funding.

Without more money in the system in the next few years, big changes could be on the horizon at Nordiq Canada, said chief operating officer Megan Begley.

“There isn’t a big reason to panic because of the [Strategic Priorities Fund] until [the 2026] Games end and we go into 2027,” said Begley.

“The plan better have worked and if it hasn’t worked then we’re going to see a real big change.”

“The plan” being a $2 million investment into the Olympic stream program.

For the past few years, Nordiq Canada has been operating with Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF). The extra SPF funds – a little more than $2.1 million – are thanks to COVID-19.

A mix between government funds to help rebuild the sport and club memberships going “through the roof” when social distancing outside was just about all one could do, Nordiq Canada built the SPF to invest back into its high performance programming. However, the cash flow is not going to last for much longer.

The $300,000 cut is from dividing up what’s remaining in the SPF over the next two years from its four-year lifespan ending in 2026.

Much like their new athletic system, Nordiq Canada is rolling the dice on the SPF to hopefully spur performances at World Championships and/or the Olympics – where winning a medal would have a “massive effect on the Olympic high performance operating budget.”

For a better understanding of how performance-based funds can be a pivotal game-changer for NSO’s, look no further than in 2006 when a Canadian last stood on the podium for cross-country skiing at the Olympics.

In more recent times, and using a different sport such as Speed Skating Canada (SCC) as an example, its athletes won nine medals at the 2022 Beijing Olympics in both short and long track.

The season after Beijing, Nordiq Canada’s Olympic stream funds through Own The Podium (OTP) were $575,000 and SSC’s was $3,458,000 total ($1,790,000 long track and $1,668,000 short track).

“For us to get a bump, we need to be winning at World Championships or Olympic Games,” said Jeffries.

A big chunk of NSO’s funds come from OTP, by way of Sport Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee. Funding by OTP rewards performance-based results and funding distribution is based on the probability of success and is not distributed equally.

During the 2023-24 season, OTP sent $400,000 to Nordiq Canada’s Olympic stream (with the SPF, the budget was $738,000). The Para Nordic ski team, which has been dominant on the world stage for more than a decade, received $950,000. 

OTP has not publicly updated its 2024-25 funding numbers yet.

With bold changes have come big risks. Time will tell if the NSO has bet on the right horse.

Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

An award-winning reporter, Jordan Small has covered sports, the arts, and news in the Bow Valley since 2014. Originally from Barrie, Ont., Jordan has lived in Alberta since 2013.
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