From Jungle to Crazy Canucks
Jim Hunter’s commitment made it possible for Canadian ski racers to compete with the rest of the world
Whistler writer Janet Love Morrison has spent the last two and a half years working on a soon-to-be-published book on the Crazy Canucks, Ken Read, Dave Irwin, Steve Podborski and David Murray. Her research efforts have taken her across Canada and Europe to interview former teammates, coaches and competitors. This is an edited version of her chapter on Jungle Jim Hunter, the Calgary skier who set the stage for the Crazy Canucks’ success.
By Janet Love Morrison
It was the spring of 1963 and 10-year-old Jim Hunter was in a coma. He had been jumping on his bed with his younger brother Lorne in the basement of the Hunter farmhouse. Jim hit the low ceiling and landed head-first on the cement floor. At the hospital in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, three days later, he came out of the coma — but his memory was gone.
After several weeks in hospital Hunter’s memory returned. He went back to school in the fall but was labelled slow, dumb, retarded.
"I wore a silly helmet to protect me from getting another blow on the head," recalls Hunter. "Living in a small town, it wasn’t long before everyone said ‘Look at the retard, look at the idiot.’ I don’t remember any teacher that cared, they all put me at the back of the classroom."
Lloyd Hunter needed to help his son. On Christmas day in 1964 the three Hunter boys, Clare, Jim and Lorne, found skis under the tree. Saskatchewan isn’t exactly blessed with a lot of inclines to slide down on skis, so at first the boys tied a rope around one of their horses and took turns being pulled around the farm yard. Then they tied the rope to the rear bumper of their half-ton pickup truck and pulled each other up, down and through the prairie ditches.
"Soon my dad saw how much fun I was having and he suggested an Easter ski holiday to White Fish, Montana." On the third day a ski patroller approached me. He said: ‘I’m taking your lift ticket because you’re dangerous.’ I didn’t doubt it for a moment. I wasn’t able to turn, I didn’t know how to ski. My idea of skiing was going as fast as I could go, feet wide apart, balanced between two skis, in and out of the ditch. No one ever taught me to turn my skis.
"I knew I was already going to be in trouble with my dad because I had busted the tips of my skis, and getting in trouble with my dad was a greater fear than losing a lift ticket.
"Then the head of the ski school came out and rescued me. He said: ‘Let’s you and me have a race. I’m going to make you a deal. If I beat you to the bottom of the run, you can go as fast as you want.’
"I know he didn’t take the race seriously, but when he stopped to look up the hill, I passed him.
"My dad also turned up at the bottom. I knew that meant trouble. He asked where I’d been and what had happened to my skis. The instructor said: ‘Mr. Hunter, if I were you I would put him in ski racing. I’ve never seen a kid feel so comfortable skiing so fast.’
"At that age I had no fear. I should have had fear, but I think that, with the human spirit, when you have found something that you can excel at, you are naturally inspired.
"My dad thought about it, and he thought a lot about hockey. We boys had done as well in hockey as we could in Shaunavon, so he decided that if we were going to get looked at in hockey we would have to move to Calgary, Regina or Saskatoon. He chose Calgary because the mountains were close."
On Sept. 3, 1964 part of the Hunter family moved to Calgary. Lloyd and Marilyn, Jim’s older sister, stayed to work the farm. Peggy, Jim’s mother, moved to Calgary with the three boys and took a job at the Foothills Hospital. On weekends Peggy and the boys drove 600 miles round trip to help Lloyd and Marilyn on the farm.
"My mother paid a huge price. She died in 1981 — I think of fatigue.
"Mom would pick us up from school. On the way we would stop at the A&W in Medicine Hat. We would get to the farm around 11 p.m. and we would go immediately out into the fields. I can remember at seeding and harvest time it was like that. And then we would be in the fields when the sun rose on Saturday. Sunday we would go to church together, eat a family meal around 3 p.m., then get in the car and drive back to Calgary. That’s how we lived for three years. One year we made 31 trips."
In Calgary, Hunter joined the Skimeisters club. At 12 years old, it was a late start for ski racing, but he was determined.
"I got my inspiration from Nancy Greene. I was 13 when she came to Calgary as a guest speaker for a banquet at the Skimeisters club. My dad had a rule that we had to be in bed by 9:30 p.m. every night, regardless of how old we were. It was 9:10 p.m. and he said it was time to leave. But the trophies hadn’t been awarded yet, and Nancy was doing all the presentations.
"We put our coats on and the coach came back and winked at my dad and said, ‘I think you should stay.’ So we stood at the back and waited. The last award was for the most improved or promising skier, and Nancy called my name out.
"I went to the front, she got down on one knee, looked up at me, handed me this trophy and asked, ‘Do you like racing?’ I said, ‘Yes, I love it.’ She asked, ‘Do you think you can be a World Cup racer?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Do you think you can be an Olympian?’ I answered ‘Yes.’ From that point on it was just a case of doing it."
Hunter began a rigorous weight training and conditioning program, something he became famous for later in his career. But he showed his commitment to ski racing right from the beginning.
"I was 12 when I went to races in Banff. I stayed at the Little Yellow House for $1.50 a night. I was the only kid staying there. Every other kid was staying at the Rocky Mountain Lodge for $28 a night, but my dad didn’t have the money.
"Sometimes I had to ask for a job during the time I was there. It was humiliating to work as a busboy in the lodge, clearing tables, washing dishes, serving meals until 8 or 9 p.m. I served the kids I raced against. They purposely dropped their plates on the floor so I would have to clean them up.
"And then there was my biblical and spiritual beliefs. I’ve had six Bibles burned by fellow ski racers who resented my faith. These kinds of things build character and determination in the soul that says, ‘You think Kitzbühel is tough?’ That’s a walk in the park compared to the verbal abuse I’ve had to take.
"Of course, I didn’t make it easy on myself. Someone with a poor self image will walk around and brag, and that’s what I did. I was an obnoxious brat.
"I remember when I was in junior high school and every kid would brag about a new bike. I bragged that I had a motorcycle on the farm. I made it all up. Eventually I trapped myself, when I said it had a reverse gear. Motorcycles don’t have a reverse gear.
"But I did this for attention, because I wanted someone to tell me I was okay, that I was descent, that I was good. Somehow, despite this, I found a way to get through it all. I felt this was all a result of knocking my head."
At 15 the Skimeisters decided to send Hunter to Portillo, Chile for a summer ski camp with Rossignol. The Skimeisters paid $700 and Lloyd Hunter paid $700. When the camp was over Rossignol gave Hunter three pairs of skis and his $700 back for being the most promising racer. His father made him give the cheque to the Skimeisters.
The following summer, 1967, Hunter attended a ski camp on the Kokanee Glacier near Nelson, B.C. The Griffen Summer Ski Camps, as they were called, might be described as the nucleus of the Canadian national ski team program.
Founded in 1966 and named after Canadian Ski Association administrator Bob Griffen, the camps had two purposes: to train current national team members and to bring together developing skiers from across the country where coaches could identify new talent.
The camps were isolated, accessible only by foot or helicopter. The location was rugged and so was the experience. The camps started in late June and ran until the beginning of September. Fifty-five to 60 racers were registered in the six camps, which ran for an intensive 10 days each. Mornings started with breakfast at 5 a.m. Then skiers carried their equipment a mile and a half to the ski lift on the glacier. The rest of the morning was spent training on the snow.
"We skied like crazy until around 10 a.m. After a lunch break we would ski until noon. For the last run of the day everyone had to go up and sideslip the glacier to smooth it out for the following day," recalled Hunter.
By 1 p.m. everyone was back at camp, where they spent most of the afternoon working on conditioning.
The camps themselves were just a cluster of white canvas tents on wooden frames. Each tent had a wooden floor and contained eight bunks and a wood-burning stove. When the camps first started, in June, snow covered the ground. By the end of August some greenery and rocks appeared.
"I remember Keith Shepard on top of the outhouse trying to lasso a grizzly bear," recalls Dan Irwin, a national team skier from Thunder Bay, Ontario.
"Everyone did their share of setting up camp. We trained as a team. It was a time of great bonding."
"It was at Kokanee Mike Culver gave me the nickname Jungle Jim, because I swam in the glacier lake and I built a bobsled track," Hunter says.
He’d also developed a bit of a reputation as a fanatic. When he was 14 he rode his bike from Calgary to Nelson, cycling 100 miles a day for four days. At the family farm in Saskatchewan he set up a starting gate in the hay loft to practice starts. And he would strap himself to the top of a pickup truck, driven down country roads at 60 mph, so that he could experiment with aerodynamic positioning.
Hunter also dedicated himself to ski for God’s glory. He considered himself a missionary on skis — Christ was number one and skiing was his way of serving.
It was at his first Griffen camp that Hunter met Larry Nelles, a coach who gave him the opportunity to excel.
"I think of any one person that had a bigger influence on me it was Larry Nelles. He not only ran the program, he inspired racers," Hunter says.
Nelles and Griffen wrote the first ski coaching manual in Canada, in the early 1960s. At about the same time, the first team supplier program was organized and corporate sponsors for the team were found, including duMaurier and the Bank of Montreal.
"The Crazy Canucks — the whole development really started on the snowfields of Kokanee Glacier with Gary Battistella and Larry Nelles," Hunter recalls. "I learned the work ethic from my father, and technique from Nelles and Battistella."
"I’d get Jim to do exercises in the evening while he was watching television," Nelles explains. "I’d get him to sleep in a crouch with his helmet and his ski poles and his ski boots. I’d say, ‘I want you to be a part of it.’"
Nelles was instrumental in establishing the CAN-AM racing circuit, a series designed to prepare young North American racers for the World Cup.
"I felt that when a kid went to Europe he had to know how to ski or he’d be spending all his time just trying to keep up. I felt the toughest program had to be here," Nelles says.
In 1972, after six years at the Kokanee Glacier, the Griffen Summer Ski Camp moved west to Whistler Mountain, which was easier to reach thanks to a paved highway and lifts. But it wasn’t all easy; the white canvas tents made the move, too, where they formed the core of the camp below the Roundhouse restaurant.
In 1968 Hunter made the national ski team as an "espoir," a hopeful, where he caught the attention of head coach and program director Al Raine.
"One of the smartest things Raine did was in ’68-69 he brought over three French guys and two Swiss guys to race in the Pontiac Cup," recalls Hunter. "They just destroyed us in every race. These guys would beat us by 8-10 seconds. No one was close to them, and they were the B-team.
"I remember all of us looking at each other, we thought we were hot stuff. We realized then that we were nothing. It inspired me."
The following season 16-year-old Hunter was invited to join the national team in Europe, to prepare for international competition — just four years after he had started racing.
His first year was spent with the B-team. Still young and full of potential, Hunter focused on the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.
His second season, 1970-71, was a year of transition, as A-team veterans like Shepard, Gerry Rinaldi, Peter Duncan and Irwin were challenged by young racers such as Reto Barrington, Derek Robbins, Culver and Hunter. Midway through the season some of the older skiers were let go, and the pressure moved to the younger racers.
In the spring of 1971 the World Cup circuit crossed the Atlantic for a giant slalom race at Heavenly Valley, California. It was here that Hunter placed ninth, earning his first two World Cup points. A few weeks later he won an FIS giant slalom at Whistler. These two results made Hunter the heir apparent to lead the Canadian team to the Sapporo Olympics.
Hunter finished 20th in the Sapporo Olympic downhill, the best finish ever by a Canadian male in Olympic competition.
"I blasted out of the start and rushed into the turns," Hunter recalls. "I rocketed through the finish and I was sure I had won. It was a cruel shock when I hadn’t.
"We left the ski area and didn’t get back to Sapporo until 6:30 p.m. It was one of the most miserable bus rides I’ve ever taken."
Hunter finished 11th in the giant slalom and 21st in the slalom. But at the closing ceremonies he got the surprise of his life when officials announced the results of the combined event. Italian star Gustavo Thoeni was first, Swiss Walter Tresch was second and Canadians Hunter and Barrington were third and fourth respectively. Hunter’s bronze medal was an FIS medal for Olympic competition, rather than an actual Olympic medal.
Hunter continued his success at the first giant slalom of the 1972-73 season. He placed fourth at Val d’Isere, France — his first top five finish and the best World Cup result ever for a Canadian male.
"Jungle made it possible for us to compete against anyone in Europe," Raine says. "He played a huge role; his religious drive, he had a tremendous drive. He believed he was chosen by God. He went a long way and he wasn’t afraid of the Europeans."
Hunter’s fourth place finish established him as a contender on the World Cup circuit. The next GS was at Madonna di Campiglio, Italy, and after the first run Hunter was in first place.
Just before the second run, Hunter found the inside of his goggles had become moist. They were new "no-wipe" goggles that had just been introduced. Shaking them was supposed to clear the moisture.
Hunter handed his goggles to head coach Scott Henderson to clear them, but Henderson was not aware they were the new goggles and wiped them with a cloth. Hunter put them on and they were so scratched he couldn’t see the first gate. Angry, he took Henderson’s goggles and got into the start gate.
Hunter blasted down the course, but three gates from the finish his outside ski slipped, hit a rock and he was out of the race. Hunter was devastated. At that moment he didn’t have any desire to race again.
"Life got very complicated after that, I was so close," he remembers.
The following month, at Wengen, Switzerland, Hunter pulled the ligaments and tendons in his ankle while racing in a slalom. He returned to Canada to rehabilitate his ankle, recovering in time to win the giant slalom at the 1973 Canadian championships that spring.
The 1973-74 season began with a summer camp in South America. Hunter was now the veteran of the team, the one to beat. Challenging for places on the World Cup circuit were young skiers like Paul Carson, Doug Woodcock and future Crazy Canucks Dave Irwin and David Murray. And soon Henderson would shift the team’s focus from Hunter’s specialty, GS, to downhill.
"Jim Hunter formed the core of the Crazy Canucks. Much has been left unsaid of the contribution of Jungle to our initial success. He was our motivation to succeed and the enigma of Canadian ski racing. A talented athlete, he clawed his way to the top through hard work. He did it alone."
– Ken Read