Next ski generation emerges to take cross-country torch from Harvey, Kershaw

The Canadian Press

Remi Drolet's first World Cup cross-country ski races were Alex Harvey's last.

As he chugged across Quebec City's Plains of Abraham, Drolet could hear race commentators hailing the swan song of the province's sports hero.

"Just so many fans out there cheering so loud, you couldn't hear yourself ski or even think at all," Drolet recalled.

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"I remember being really far back in the race and hearing the commentator yell."

The teenager finished in time to see Harvey step on the podium.

"I crossed the finish line and saw him do his classic ski guitar right in front of me and that was super-exciting," Drolet said. "It was really emotional."

Harvey's retirement a year ago marked the end of an era in Canadian men's cross-country racing.

He and Devon Kershaw, with contributions from Lenny Valjas who also retired after those races, produced a batch of historic world championship and World Cup medals for Canada.

When will the men's team be that deep again? Perhaps it won't be long.

Drolet was among the Canadian teens firing a shot across the bow of their sport at the world junior cross-country ski championships in Germany earlier this month.

Ranging from 16 to 19 years old, Drolet, Olivier Léveillé, Tom Stephen and Xavier McKeever were the first Canadians to win a relay medal placing second behind the United States.

Only two Canadians — Harvey and Marie Josee-Pepin — have won world junior medals in the 20-and-under competition.

Drolet also finished just off the podium in fourth in the men's 30k in Oberwiesenthal. The 19-year-old from Rossland, B.C., raced the anchor leg of the March 6 relay.

McKeever, a 16-year-old from Canmore, Alta., led off followed by 18-year-old Léveillé of Sherbrooke, Que., and 17-year-old Stephen of Calgary.

"We were the youngest team in the top 10 in the relay," Léveillé pointed out.

Since his retirement in 2018, Kershaw has helped Canada's head coach Erik Braaten at the last two world junior championships.

Kershaw was impressed by the fearlessness of Drolet and company in Germany.

"I knew these kids were not just good, but incredibly good," he said.

Kershaw ranked second in the world in 2012 and captured world championship team sprint gold with Harvey in 2011.

They came the closest to winning the country's first Olympic medal in men's cross-country skiing. 

The duo placed fourth in the team sprint and Kershaw was fifth in the 50k in 2010. Harvey finished fourth in the 50k in 2018.

Harvey, a two-time world champion, Kershaw and Valjas demolished the notion Canadian men couldn't beat Europeans in the sport.

"When I started competing in cross-country, it was because of them," Léveillé said. "They showed us everything is possible. We can do it, with hard work."

Stephen says he felt inspired knowing American men his own age had won relay gold in last year's world junior championship as well.

"Seeing the Americans do so well, you don't have to be born in Norway or Finland or Sweden to be a good skier," he said.

"We really thought we had a chance. We just wanted to fight and not give anyone respect because of where they're from, if that makes sense."

The four would have raced in Canmore's World Cup Friday to Sunday, with Stephen, Léveillé and McKeever all making their debuts.

The races were cancelled because of COVID-19, as was the March 14-15 World Cup in Quebec City.

McKeever and Stephen posted top-20 results against 20-year-olds in individual races in Oberwiesenthal.

"Xavier and Tom so young, so to have individual results of 17th, which they did each is fantastic," Braaten said.

"They both have two and three more years as a junior. We're seeing a lot of great individual potential there."

Kershaw, who now lives in Norway, mentors Canada's young skiers when they're in Europe.

"I spent a week last summer in Norway training with him," McKeever said.

"I was supposed to be part of this international junior camp, but we found out I was too young to participate two weeks before we left for Norway, so instead I got a one-on-one training camp with him."

"I would say Devon is probably the biggest passer of the torch."

Kershaw says there's no guarantee all four will race an Olympic relay together a decade from now, "but it's not hard to imagine that one or two are the future of the sport in Canada.

"When I say future, I mean week in and week out like Alex or I or Lenny at his best who could win World Cup medals and contend on the biggest stages," he continued.

"There's no reason why a couple of these guys can't make that happen."

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2020.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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