The current national cross country youth ski program, known as the JACKRABBIT LEAGUE, originated in Manitoba. Here’s the story.
Cross country (X/C) skiing has always been, until the early 60’s, a ski activity popular in eastern Canada, particularly in Quebec. The many resident Scandinavians made use of the relatively mild winters and excellent terrain to practise their favourite winter sport. Indeed, it has always been a way of life for them. Ski trains from Montreal transported weekend X/C skiers to the Laurentian Mountains throughout the 30’s and 40’s.
The most well known, if not the most famous, of these transplanted Nordic skiers was Herman Smith-Johansen, commonly known as ‘The Jackrabbit’. His story is remarkable. Jackrabbit was an engineer who travelled by X/C skis from village to village consulting with forestry companies. The Jackrabbit was born in Norway in 1876 and lived most of his life in Canada. He had a nice balance between work and play and throughout his life preached the maxim “everything in moderation”. It was a pretty good formula as he lived to 110 years.
I was one of the first skiers in Manitoba to make the switch to cross country skis. In my early 30’s at the time, I had competed in alpine skiing since my days at Queen’s University (1950-54) where I skied on the University team. I was a ‘4 way skier’ competing in all four disciplines, which included downhill, slalom, jumping and cross country. I competed for four years in eastern Canada at ski locations mostly in Quebec. And it was with this background in the sport that I returned to Manitoba in 1954 to work and play. The love of X/C skiing was always there but as there was no infrastructure (trails, clubs, shops) I naturally gravitated to the downhill scene at La Riviere , Riding Mountain and Fort William (now Thunder Bay). It wasn’t until the late 60’s that I ventured out into Assiniboine Park and skied down the frozen Assiniboine River. That was a challenge, for there were no trails or warm up facilities, just windswept drifts. Equipment and clothing purchases were made by mail order.
Slowly, more people were seen in the Winnipeg parks. St. John’s Ravenscourt School in Fort Garry created the first X/C school program. Early X/C races were held at La Riviere thanks to the energy and vision of Noel Later.
By 1970 the Canada Ski Association – Manitoba Division was expanded to include a X/C ski committee. I acted as chairman. Our committee grew and we had progressive ideas on how the sport should be developed in Manitoba. It was obvious to us that these were two very distinct sports. D/H skiers smoked and trained to develop big muscles. X/C skiers trained in the off-season by running long distances. D/H skiers were stocky and red cheeked. The X/C crowd was gaunt, forever conscious of food intake and training schedules. Once a friend drew Gary Coopland aside and quietly asked him; “Gary, do you have cancer?” Reply: “Oh no, I am a runner”.
By 1972 the X/C organization split from the alpine group and formed the Cross Country Ski Association of Manitoba, known as the CCSAM, a separate sports body recognized and funded by the Manitoba Sports Federation. It was then that X/C skiing became of age in Manitoba. We wrote our own constitution, developed our own competition program, developed our own trails, raised our own money and celebrated in our own smoke free environment. It was a heady time.
But we were missing a key ingredient – a youth development program. There was an obvious need in the community for such a service. We were adults with a light in our eye. We all loved being outside on the snow and in the woods. Ours was an ideal climate for the sport – long cold winters where there was not much doubt that the wax colour would be – either green or blue. Parks and rivers were all around us. Not far from the city were wilderness areas such as the Sandilands to the east, and the Carberry Hills and Spruce Woods to the west. We had a banquet of choices, and we made use of them all.
But what about the children? I had three and other friends had small kids sitting at home with energy to burn, their faces pressed to the windowpane. Enter the spirit of the Jackrabbit.
In the fall of 1973, Derry Riley and I decided to take on the ultimate X/C challenge – The Canadian Ski Marathon held annually each February. This was the biggest X/C ski event in Canada, a timed two-day course 160 km in length starting in Lachute Quebec and ending at Hull, just across the river from Ottawa. Each day was an 80 km course with aid stations approximately every 15 km. The terrain was hilly and forested. The participation was in the thousands. You could enter to ski one or more sections or enter the Courier de Bois category and ski the complete distance. We chose the big one in spite of our complete lack of experience in long distance skiing. The trail used for the Marathon was originated by Herman Smith Johansen. ‘The Jack Rabbit’ was very much a part of the event. He was in his early nineties at the time and, while he did not participate, he was the honorary patron and opened the event on skis wearing a racing bib. He was also the central figure at the closing banquet on the Sunday following the race. This commanding figure, dressed in a blue blazer, congratulated all the skiers and organizers with great enthusiasm, first in French, followed by English, Norwegian and Cree. All this was said in the space of 5 minutes while he waved his cane over his head and preached moderation in life, in spite of the physical excesses of the past two days.
I returned home filled with admiration for this extraordinary man. I had an idea. Why not create a youth program in his name? Later that year (1975), I received a call from Gary Coopland inquiring about a teaching program in the city for children. Gary – you have called at the right time, I thought.
And sure enough, by the following January, we held our first Junior Jack Rabbit Ski program. The time and place was Saturday morning from 10am to noon at Fresh Air Experience on Pembina Highway in Fort Garry. The coaches – Gord Konantz and Randy Stewart…and 10 Junior Jackrabbits, ages 10 to 12. The original group of JRs’ were Ken and Graham Coopland, Michael Davis, Alan Hrabinski, David Hyde, Dirk Kassenaar, Don Konantz, Ritchie Paterson and Clayton and Clinton Reece.
The original JR program was, and still is, pretty basic. The foundation of the program was fun. The word competition was not part of the vocabulary. The first hour was dedicated to instruction. The second hour concentrated on games. In between, 15 minutes was set aside to warm up and get current information on clothing, waxing and nutrition. The beginning age was 8 with the eldest child 15. The age bracket prevailed as the program matured.
Parents were encouraged to participate in the program. It was expected that not only the child was to be dropped off but the accompanying parent was expected to stay and get involved. In most cases, the parents were beginner skiers as well and they quickly found out that it was fun to be out there on the teaching grid learning about the fundamentals. And there was a more important reason to get the parents committed. We were going to need volunteers to help with driving, organizing events and fund raising. We had a special category for parents and older siblings. It was called Geriatric and anyone over age 15 fell into the category.
The high point of the morning was the games played on skis without poles. Games chosen were ones involving a chase, such as relays and tag events. The favourite was British Bulldog. No matter how cold or windy, the games prevailed.
After a couple of years, it became apparent that it took more than one season of instruction for a child to develop proper technique. And when it happened, it was instantaneous. Instead of shuffling, the stride became a long fluid gliding motion. It was as if a switch was turned on. And when it happened, the class would stop and the child who had suddenly got it would be given the ‘golden handshake’ by the coaches.
The teaching season lasted 2 1/2 months. As well as the Fresh Air Experience location, the Jackrabbits were taken to other XC ski locations around the city. To wind up the season, a banquet was held for parents, children and coaches, and awards presented.
In 1977 the XC Ski Association hired its first paid coach – Jack Sasseville. Jack was a former schoolteacher, a scratch golfer, and a good all-round athlete with excellent leadership capabilities. The start-up funds for our program were provided by the Winnipeg Foundation based on our submission of providing a winter recreational service to Manitoba communities. It was the intention of the newly formed Cross Country Ski Association of Manitoba (CCSAM) to form a network of Jackrabbit programs throughout the province.
Within 3 years, we had grown to a major winter sport in the province with a number of active clubs opening new trails and offering regional Jack Rabbit programs. Children with competitive spirit within the Jack Rabbit program graduated to the provincial team and competed nationally bringing home gold medals.
Jack went on to become a National ski team coach and was succeeded by Ted Bigelow.
In 1980, a national conference was organized by the Canadian Ski Association. Representatives from across Canada assembled in Toronto to plan the future of cross country ski development in the country. Of primary concern was the poor showing of our athletes in world competition. It was concluded that a ‘grass roots’ program was required to foster the sport at the earliest age possible. In addition, a coach development was needed.
Enter the Manitoba Jack Rabbit Ski Program. By this time, the program was a sophisticated development program complete with a manual for instructors covering technique, games, awards, clothing, nutrition, waxing, and general life style. It was tailor made for going ‘national’ which followed the next year when it was accepted by Cross Country Canada and sponsored by Air Canada. A national Jack Rabbit office was established and within a couple of years many thousands of children were sporting the Jack Rabbit badge on their ski jackets.
Gordon Konantz, Vancouver, B.C.
Gordon Konantz’s grandchildren are former members of the Hollyburn Cross Country Ski Club. Our thanks to Gordon for providing us with this article.