From wooden skis to COVID challenges: iconic Calgary ski store looks back on 75 years in business

·4 min read
Ski Cellar Snowboard on 17th Avenue still has a neon sign of its original name, The Sportsman, displayed outside at the back of the store.  (Dan McGarvey/CBC - image credit)
Ski Cellar Snowboard on 17th Avenue still has a neon sign of its original name, The Sportsman, displayed outside at the back of the store. (Dan McGarvey/CBC - image credit)

Seventy-five years is a long time in the ever-changing world of ski and snowboard innovation.

It's also a long time to be in business in Calgary, with a retail landscape that doesn't stay the same for very long.

And Ski Cellar Snowboard has seen its fair share of changes since opening in 1946.

Founded by Al Compton, its first location was in downtown Calgary before moving to a store on 14th Street. It then settled in its current location on 17th Avenue in 1956. Compton was a founding member of Snow Ridge, which eventually became the Fortress Ski Resort in Kananaskis Country.

It started as a general sporting goods store focused mainly on hunting and fishing before transforming its basement into a ski shop and service department in the 1960s, which is where the name Ski Cellar Snowboard came from.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

"The original name was The Sportsman," said Dan Russell, co-owner and general manager of Ski Cellar Snowboard and unofficial company historian. Skiing is in his blood; his dad and grandpa both worked in ski shops.

You can still see The Sportsman sign at the back of the present day 17th Avenue store.

The Sportsman store changed hands in the 1970s when Hans Reinhardt, who had been running the ski department, took over.

Another two stores were added in the 80s and 90s in Bowness and on Macleod Trail as more partners came on board. There's now one in the Frank King Day Lodge at Winsport as well.

If you look closely you'll find bits of history — old skis, boots and equipment — dotted around the stores. Walls of faded photos and old marketing posters document the decades of changing tech, partners and staff members.

"In the '60s they started bringing in more ski equipment," said Russell. "We had Norquay, Sunshine, Lake Louise was starting out.

"It was a tough thing to get skiing but there were dedicated people. There were some real enthusiasts that really helped the shops along."

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

Russell says early in Calgary's ski scene, the only other store looking at skis — wooden skis, at the time — was The Bay.

"I still have a pair that were originally sold by my grandpa," he said. A long-time customer brought them in one day so Russell could display them on the wall at Ski Cellar Snowboard.

"We've tried to keep some of the relics around the store to show the evolution of skiing and snowboarding and what's changed," he said.

A lot has changed in the industry since the first pairs of skis sold at The Sportsman. Changes in technology, shape and size, and the advent of snowboarding, have made Alberta's ski hills more accessible.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

"It's allowed more people to get into the sport, a lot more intermediates to be out on the hill, more efficiency," said Russell. "Everyone can enjoy the hill now."

Russell says that along with the history, there's a lot of gratitude for the support from Calgarians and the ski community they've received over the years.

Recent changes

He says the last two years have been historic too, but in ways he'd rather forget.

"In my history, COVID is the most devastating thing to hit businesses across Canada. We shut down two years ago in March. Skiing was over within a few days," said Russell.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

"There were a lot of skiers out there looking for some good spring skiing and it didn't happen. It was devastating on the whole market. That's our spring, our final push," he said.

Russell says so far this season is looking better. There's been an increase in customers looking to get outdoors and keep active over the winter months.

"Skiing isn't just about the run down the hill. It's everything: the ride to the hill, going up the hill, having lunch with the family. The run is just a small portion of what skiing is," said Russell.

Russell says his grandchildren are skiing now. He's hoping to keep both the sport and Ski Cellar Snowboard in the family.

"Seventy-five years in business has been good and we're hoping to keep it going for longer."

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