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A ski pioneer from coast to coast

Legendary Canadian Ski Hall of Famer Lorne McFadgen's legacy looms large over Blackcomb Ski School

From Wayne Gretzky winding down on Broadway to Michael Jordan taking the last jumper of his career in Washington, it's fairly common to see legends ply their trade in a new and unfamiliar locale late in their careers.

Such was the case with Lorne McFadgen.

A legend in Eastern Canadian ski circles, with a quarter century at Talisman Resort as its vice president of operations and ski school director, McFadgen made a late move west to serve as a ski instructor at the Blackcomb Ski School in 1990.

Though he didn't take on any fancy title here, McFadgen's work in Whistler led to two Westerners—Hugh Smythe and Pique's own G.D. Maxwell—submitting the nominations that led to McFadgen's posthumous induction into the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame.

It was far from the first industry accolade for McFadgen, who was the first inductee into the Blackcomb Hall of Fame and was enshrined in the Canadian Ski Instructors' Alliance (CSIA) Hall of Fame in 2000.

The ceremony was officially slated to happen in early April in Collingwood, Ont., but COVID-19 postponed the event.

Still, there's no time like the present to look back on a Canadian ski legend who made an indelible mark on Whistler.

Early days

Born in 1935 on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island, McFadgen's progression across the continent was far from linear.

Originally drawn to hockey, he learned to skate on Atlantic Canada's icy ponds before his family moved west, settling in the Rockies and, eventually, Vancouver. Transferring his skills on blades to skis, McFadgen immersed himself in skiing, earning his certification from the Professional Skiers of America and teaching at Mount Baker.

Though he had steady employment with BC Tel, McFadgen chose to pursue skiing, while it was still in its relative infancy as a recreational sport on the continent. McFadgen moved his wife and daughter to Vermont's Mount Snow for a season before taking the assistant ski school director job at Mont Tremblant under another big industry name, Ernie McCulloch, who is commonly considered one of the fathers of modern skiing in North America.

In 1965, McFadgen arrived at Kimberley, Ont.'s Talisman Resort, which had only opened in late 1963, as he came to run the ski school and its retail shops.

In a 2004 feature for Pique, Maxwell said this of Talisman: "It is another of the many pimples people in Toronto sublimate their skiing Jones on while dreaming of bigger slopes..."

McFadgen's daughter Shauna McCabe remembers constantly being on the hill at Talisman in some capacity, eventually progressing to ski racing and teaching as her father's passion rubbed off on her.

"We had great times on the hill. He taught me, of course, to ski, and when I was too young to be on skis myself, he put me in a backpack carrier and skied with me on his back," she recalls. "I got the feel of skiing."

'He wanted ski school to be more than just ski school'

It was at Talisman that Rob Butler, himself a CSIA Hall of Fame member, first crossed paths with McFadgen.

Brought to the small slopes roughly 150 kilometres from Toronto, Butler recalls learning under McFadgen, not at a ski school, but at Lorne McFadgen's Ski College.

"He wanted ski school to be more than just ski school. That's why he called it the ski college," he says.

Butler describes McFadgen as forward-thinking. He was an early adopter of instant replay at a time, in the late 1970s, when there was an on-hill video station well before smartphones and GoPros.

"You're talking reel-to-reel," Butler says. "He put, on the hill, a small wooden box with a TV in it.

"The idea was he would shoot video and instead of you having to go inside, you could stop at this post on the slope, open the doors, and there was a TV and you could see yourself right there on the hill."

For many, Butler recalls, McFadgen was the face of skiing in Ontario. At the time, instructors owned the ski schools and sought to draw the masses to the slopes to learn.

In addition to serving as the CSIA president, attending Interski—described by Smythe as "the Olympics of ski teaching"—four times as a skier and twice as a delegate, McFadgen was also a tireless promoter of skiing. He would regularly cross the country leading into ski season to promote the sport on behalf of the Canadian Ski Association, wrote a ski column for local and national newspapers from 1964 to 1987, and hosted a show on CBC radio.

"I was finding a way to make a living out of skiing," McFadgen told Maxwell in 2004. "I'd go into the U.S., Cleveland, Detroit, areas with big ski shows and I'd be skiing on wet decks, rolling ramps, whatever. While I was there, during the daytime, I didn't have much to do so I'd make myself available by knocking on doors of radio stations to see if somebody wanted to talk about skiing.

"I did a few tours across Canada, sponsored by Coca-Cola and Air Canada, that were professionally set up. I didn't have to do any door knocking, just go from interview to interview. We did 24 cities in 24 days."

Butler likens McFadgen to other ski school instructors like Jim McConkey and Stein Eriksen who were adept at putting feet in boots (rather literally, as he was a renowned bootfitter) and butts on chairlifts, and says the owner-operator system of the day was a major factor in his ability to flourish alongside contemporaries like McCulloch, Réal Charette, André Schwarz, and Mike Wiegele (who last week was awarded the Jimmy Spencer Lifetime Achievement Award by the Canada West Ski Areas Association).

"Lorne was part of the golden age of ski instructing," Butler says. "They were the big names when being a ski instructor was really significant, and it was the best job on the mountain. It hadn't been taken over by corporate guys looking to make the snow school into a cash cow delivering a 50-per-cent gross margin, paying nothing."

In addition to his on-mountain coaching, McFadgen also served as a CSIA evaluator. All told, his coaching tree also included another CSIA president in Peter Schwirtlich, as well as 2001 CSIA Hall of Fame inductee Doug Leeming.

Back out west

McFadgen was a Whistler regular, often coming to visit close friend Don Guthrie in the summers after Talisman shut for the season.

Their wives became best friends on those trips, and in 1990, the McFadgens came west.

"He just loved Whistler, adored the place. I could see how a lot of people looked up to him," says McCabe, who herself spent five years in the resort. "I'm glad he got to spend so many years there."

Having McFadgen in the Blackcomb Ski School was a major get by director John Birrell, then-president Hugh Smythe recalls.

"He had a phenomenal reputation in the east. He was extremely well known and well thought of, from my memory of it, and John was very excited that he was going to be joining the ski school," Smythe says. "It was great for the Blackcomb Ski School to have somebody with his credentials joining the crew."

One of McFadgen's contemporaries at Blackcomb, Terry "Toulouse" Spence, says he learned a lot from McFadgen's example.

Spence notes that McFadgen was regularly the school's top-rated ski instructor, and while his experience and knowledge played a part, it was his preparedness and enthusiasm as well. McFadgen, he remembers, kept a detailed notebook for each and every client.

"He was an inspiration to me. I saw in him a guy that was willing to go and take care of difficult clients as well as the easy clients," he says. "He set the bar high for all of us. He showed up for work every day and he always had somebody.

"He never said 'OK, I don't want a beginner lesson.' He took a beginner lesson."

That attitude and approach tracks with McFadgen's daughter, McCabe, who saw him follow up with clients—even in the offseason.

"He would spend summers writing cards to them, keeping in touch and following up on their lessons and what they learned. He immersed himself in ski teaching," she says.

"He enjoyed seeing people catch onto the sport and improve year after year, get better and better."

The right foot

Apart from his dedication to on-mountain teaching during the day, McFadgen was just as committed to the sport in the evenings, taking appointments as a bootfitter to ensure clients and others could ski comfortably.

"When he had the place [Talisman] back east, people used to come from all over if they had boot problems and he'd solve them," Guthrie says.

Guthrie remembers how McFadgen would "level" people, essentially making the boots work for the few people whose feet point in, not out.

"He could take a person's boot and put it on a grinder and grind off so many degrees," Guthrie says. "He levelled them, and their skiing became a lot easier."

Lengthy commitment

McFadgen's late-career work at Blackcomb, including teaching well into his 70s while battling Parkinson's Disease, showed his true love for and dedication to skiing, according to Canadian Ski Hall of Fame board chair Stephen Finestone.

"That's a pretty cool circle, to me," says Finestone, who is not part of the selection committee. "It's the epitome of 'old habits die hard.'"

Smythe, meanwhile, still clearly recalls other instructors raving about their sessions with McFadgen, and how strong of an instructor he was until stepping away.

"He was still coming to work, teaching, passionate about the sport. His enthusiasm was infectious and he was so knowledgeable and committed to everything about skiing," he said.

When working on his story on the more experienced ski instructors for Pique in 2004, Maxwell acknowledges that he didn't entirely know what he was in for when sitting down to profile McFadgen, as his humility almost cloaked the extent of what he'd accomplished.

"I only knew him as a ski instructor and certification guy, and the fact that he fitted boots at CanSki in the Glacier Lodge a lot of evenings after he had taught all day," he recalls, "but after I sat down with him and he pulled out his scrapbook, I was going, 'Jesus Christ, Lorne, you've been an incredible promoter of skiing since the get-go. This scrapbook belongs in the Hall of Fame. You belong in the Hall of Fame.'"

After enlisting Smythe, who himself entered the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame in 2011, and having another "heavy hitter" in former Whistler Blackcomb CEO Dave Brownlie lend words of support, McFadgen was set to receive the just reward of official enshrinement this spring alongside another Whistler legend in 2010 Olympic ski-cross champion Ashleigh McIvor-DeMerit.

For his part, Guthrie appreciates that McFadgen finally made it in, but is regretful that his friend wasn't around to appreciate it after passing in 2012.

"I'd always felt rather badly that nothing really was done to remember him, because he did so much for skiing," he says.