Crashed Ice a smash hit
QUEBEC CITY (CUP) -- When you head out to watch a sport you only learned existed a week earlier, you tend to get concerned that what you're going to see will be similar to the late ‘90s return of roller derby, or the poor excuse for a sport that was Slamball, where basketball was mutated into something unholy through the installation of trampolines on the court. Fortunately, after getting on a bus for a trip to the 2008 Red Bull Crashed Ice finals, the good omens began to show themselves early, especially when a beer bong made an appearance no more than ten minutes into the trip.
Many of the students on the bus hadn't heard about Crashed Ice before the magic that is Red Bull's marketing department got them excited about the prospect of a sport that mixes downhill skating with snowboard.
“Dion Phaneuf told me about it,” joked sociology major Dave Lingwood, referring to the ads that had featured the Calgary Flames defenceman promoting Crashed Ice. “It looks like what would happen if you took Disney on Ice and pushed the cast down a steep hill, adding curves and jumps on the way down.”
Upon arriving in Quebec's historic old city and witnessing the first ‘crashers' taking practice runs down the course, Lingwood's opinion seemed to hold weight. Beginning almost at the door of the Chateau Laurier, the racers climbed up three flights of scaffolding and onto a launch ramp overlooking the frozen St. Lawrence River. The view was the last pleasant thing they would see until the finish line, as a seven-metre long, 45 degree ramp dropped them three stories down into the course and set them on the way to speeds that flirt around 60km per hour.
From then on it got even better. Racers on average took less than a minute to complete the 1500-foot course. This feat was accomplished by the course architects, who spent three weeks designing and creating a track that drops the crashers 56 metres through the old city from Chateau Laurier to the finish line in Place Royale.
“The course is crazy, I've never seen anything like it,” said finalist Scott Diver. “The one jump at the end is crazy; I broke my thumb on it just yesterday.”
Diver is one of 64 finalists who qualified for Saturday's final heats, and intends to race regardless of the broken extremity.
The Phaneuf ads are just the first step in a rise in exposure for Red Bull's fledgling new sport. The concept for Crashed Ice first developed a decade ago, when Red Bull executives first heard the pitch for a new sport based on downhill in-line skating, which was popular in Europe at that time. The first Crashed Ice event was held in Stockholm, Sweden in 2000. Since then the event has been featured in Finland, Quebec, the Czech Republic, Russia, Minnesota, and Austria.
2008's championship is the third time Quebec City has played host to Crashed Ice, and it's safe to say that the sport has grown among Canadians, considering this year's record attendance that saw 85,000 spectators cram in the winding streets of Old Quebec.
“It's a rush,” said trip organizer trip organizer and former Concordia VP of Student Life Samson Tshikuka. “Think about going down an icy ski hill with ice skates and having to deal with hairpin turns, crazy jumps, and 45 degree drops.”
Imagine doing all that Tshikuka describes, while wrestling with three other opponents in a lane five metres wide, and you get an idea why interest in this sport has risen steadily in the past years, culminating in this year's Crashed Ice final being televised nationally by TSN.
The crowd's patience was rewarded in true blue-collar style, when a racer with a mullet that would shame Joe Dirt served as the pacer for a few racers going down the hill on a practice run. These were followed by one of the fastest country processions ever put together, as the player's nationalities were heralded by flags from Croatia, Canada, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Finland.
Hip checking is standard in this sport. Any two or three crashers caught near each other as they progress down the hill will typically blow their chances of winning by shoving each other into the boards or the ice in a battle for position.
You could hear the skaters coming well before you saw them. The sound of steel blades rattling off ice hardened from the Quebec cold, though not exactly as smooth as a Zamboni-catered ice rink, sounded like a train passing through the old town of Quebec.
After all the crashing and shoving the players arrived, rarely on their feet, into Place Royal, their last crash coming when they slammed into the safety mats that marked the finish line.
One of these heats drew a match-up between two racers who held seven of eight Crashed ice trophies between them: Alberta native Kevin Olson, winner of the past two championships, and Stockholm legend Jasper Felder, winner of the first five Crashed Ice championships.
Olson led the pack until the second last turn, when he caught the edge of the track and was sent flying into the boards, his dreams of a title defense forgotten in an instant. The same fate befell Richard Bilodeau, who took the largest jump with too much gusto and flipped himself in midair, landing in a heap and allowing his three opponents to slip past him without incident.
Though he won that heat, Felder did not make it past the quarterfinal, falling during that race and opening the way for a new Crashed Ice champion to be crowned. That honour went to the 26-year-old Finn Pihlainen, a proud father of a three-week-old daughter.
For Pihlainen, who received a trophy for his efforts along with a $5,000 cash prize, it was time to kick back and follow the mob's example, telling a TSN reporter in his best English that, since the competition is over, it is now time for another exciting sport, called “Crashed Liver.”