A World Cup competitor at the height of her ski excellence, Sudbury native Angela Gougeon has weaved her way down the slopes of many of the most famed mountains in alpine history.
But if you really want to bring a smile to the face of the now 58 year-old resident of Collingwood, then get her talking about Nordic Ski Hills.
If the venue name doesn’t ring a bell, you are likely not alone. You are also, more likely than not, well under the age of fifty. Just for fun, however, veer off to the right, on your next trip south, once you reach the very bottom of the Highway 69 hill that signals the start of a journey to Toronto, working your way back to that mound of rock that you just descended.
Wander through the shrubbery and brush and you will find ski lift support poles, a string of lights and even the old electrical room for the venue. You are walking the territory that defined much of the Gougeon youth - not to mention those of several other local families.
“We just skied as families - the Jeromes, the Ghents, the Girolamettos, the Auvinens - up and down the t-bar, all day long,” said Gougeon, now Comeau and mother of two. “We did that every Saturday and Sunday - and just had so much fun.”
“I remember the lodge was kind of like a portable,” she continued. “My dad would give us a dollar to buy a chocolate bar and hot chocolate at break. Our lunch was a hot dog and a coke. As kids, we would feel so free. You had this feeling that it was just you and your friends out there.”
On so many levels, it was such a different world. Long before dreams of a national team came yearnings that were deeply rooted in the fabric of pretty much every child that enjoyed sport and outdoor winter activities in northern Ontario. “We would wake up on a Saturday morning, just wanting to be with our friends,” said Gougeon.
“I wasn’t waking up thinking I wanted to be a ski racer. I just wanted to go to Nordic.”
Across the region, similar stories were taking root. A competitive skier on a local level and future coach, Marc Laplante recalls the start of his alpine ski racing career. “Most of my skiing was here in Lively with the small team and (coach) Gary Foy,” he said. “We had those bamboo poles with iron bars to pound holes in the ice.”
And by comparison?
“The skies now are marvelous to ski on,” added Laplante. “You just have to think about a turn and you turn.”
For as much as Gougeon, Laplante and many more first experienced the speed of whistling down the hill in a very natural setting, the concept of ski racing would soon follow suit, largely thanks to the work of local volunteers and the city’s largest employer of the time.
“My dad and Ellis Hazen wanted sponsorship for a race series in northern Ontario,” noted Gougeon. Riki Gougeon was a four-way Canadian champion at a time when skiers combined their results from downhill, slalom, cross-country and ski jumping into one aggregate event.
A member of both the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame, Hazen was the consummate administrator and coach, a constant presence around local hills - “the guy”, as Angela Gougeon acknowledged. With the help of a little corporate goodwill, the Inco Cup ski series was born.
“Without that series, without that sponsorship, race skiers in Sudbury would not be what they are,” said Gougeon. “There were flags with Inco Cup, our bibs said Inco Cup - we had never seen this before. It was so professional - and it was because of the commitment of Inco to give back to the community.”
“Whenever we had an Inco Cup race, we had 70 or 80 bibs on the list,” suggested Laplante, reminiscing on race days that rotated between Adanac, Levack and Lively, not to mention the out of town treks to Elliot Lake, Searchmont (Sault Ste Marie), North Bay or Timmins.
“Lively, Levack and Onaping only had a handful of kids, but when it came to Adanac or Sault Ste Marie or North Bay, they had vans full of skiers travelling to the races,” said Laplante.
A natural progression of the highly successful Nancy Greene Ski League, the early race emphasis was not necessarily on winning. “They wanted to create fun for the sport, so Nordic would put the families together on teams,” said Gougeon, the eldest of four children in her family.
For a group that would show plenty of progress in the years to come, challenges could still be found on a local level. “Onaping, to me, was scary,” said Gougeon. “I didn’t have technique and this thing was short, but had a really steep pitch. I had no idea how I was going to ski down that thing.”
Technique and development would come, in part through the work of Marc Laplante and others.
“I had left Lively and went to coach at Adanac where we trained a couple of times a week,” he said. “There were so many young developmental squad skiers; they were coming out like crazy. There were a hundred or more kids learning how to ski - it hadn’t started slowing down just yet.”
Northern Ontario was making a name for itself in alpine ski, right across the province. Through the work of Gougeon’s father and many others, the region had lured coach Jean Bellumat, a superb technical coach, to Canada from France.
“A divisional team would be picked and head out east or out west,” said Laplante. “Young kids would have this tremendous experience. After I finished racing, when I was coaching, we had some really good talent.”
Angela Gougeon (Sudbury) and Judi Richardson from North Bay. Diane Pratte and siblings from Rouyn. Chris Heikkila and the Kreiner sisters from Timmins. National level competitors such as Gord Acton, John Mealey and Jeff Armstrong. Kate Pace a little later on.
“You can connect the dots on how northern Ontario, without a mountain in sight - arguably Searchmont - how could it produce so many downhill skiers at the time?,” asked Gougeon, rhetorically.
“It was community and it was financial support.”
And it was something even more intrinsic.
“The love of the sport comes after the love of just being out with their friends,” Gougeon suggested.
On hills across the north, hills just like now-abandoned Nordic Ski Hills, these loves were fostered.