If you were one of the fortunate few who got to experience Whistler Mountain as an upstart ski resort back in the late ’60s, there’s a good chance you met Casey Niewerth, if only briefly.
In case you need your memory jogged—it has been close to 60 years, after all—he was the friendly Dutchman kneeling in a snow pit, caliper in hand, ready to check your bindings before you set off on the slopes.
“There was an unbelievable response,” Casey recalled. “There I am, sitting on my knees in a pit about two feet in the snow, with no gloves. I didn’t charge anything. I did that for well over three years. That was something that was advantageous for me as well as the resort, creating clientele.”
That is just one of the many examples from over the years of Casey’s resourcefulness. Perhaps better known locally as “Jolly Green Giant”—the intermediate run of the same name on Whistler Mountain first cut in 1968 was named after him—Casey was one of the resort’s original season passholders, the first of 55 Whistler ski passes he added to his collection over the following decades.
“Not only that, but because Whistler [Mountain] had just started and opened up in January 1966, that summer, I built my first family cabin, and we moved there in Christmas ’66. That’s where the action was,” he said.
Casey and his family grew up alongside the resort, and it’s not an overstatement to say he played a role in shaping what Whistler would become.
“I would say his legacy is promoting skiing, for sure,” said Casey’s eldest son, Steve. “I think he helped put Whistler on the map through his connection to the sports shop. For us kids, he has really instilled in us a sense of customer service, and I think that’s from him starting the store with almost no money.”
With dreams of opening his own sports shop after not having enough schooling to do so in his native Holland, Casey arrived in Canada and worked a variety of jobs, including in the rough-and-tumble sawmills on Vancouver Island. In 1954, he landed in Vancouver, and was eventually introduced to the city’s one and only ski shop through a Norwegian friend, who showed him the tricks of the trade.
By 1956, with only a few hundred dollars in savings, Casey opened Skyline Sports, the North Shore’s first sporting goods retailer, stocking all manner of athletic gear—including, for our purposes, skis and ski boots. Nowhere near the internationally popular pastime it is today, Casey knew little about the sport then, but made up for that dearth of experience through exquisite customer service that, even for the era, went above and beyond the norm, a trait he would carry through to his time in Whistler.
Without the budget to fully stock his store, Casey convinced suppliers to lend him their sample products, meaning there was typically only one of each item in the shop. If a customer came in wanting, say, a pair of ski boots, Casey would take down their size and specifications, before hopping on a boat to Gastown while his wife held down the fort, purchasing the product in question, and rushing back to the North Shore.
“Basically, at that time, I didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of,” Casey said in his still-thick Dutch accent. “People would come in, and if they wanted a fishing reel to go salmon fishing on Bowen Island, I didn’t have what they wanted, but by the time they got home from work, I’d have it ready for them.”
It’s a family legacy that continues to this day, through Skyline Athletics, the Burnaby store, run by Casey’s nephew, specializing in wholesale athletic uniforms—not to mention sponsoring a lengthy list of youth sports teams and charitable causes, as Casey was also known to do.
By 1968, Whistler was still the new kid on the ski block, counting only a few hundred residents. Like most small towns, most of those residents knew each other, and if they didn’t, they certainly knew your name.
In Casey’s case, if Whistlerites of the day weren’t familiar with the name his mother gave him, they likely were familiar with his nickname. He was, after all, hard to miss. Standing 6-3, Casey often sported a bright green shell jacket, partly by design as a colourful way to market his sports store. At the time, there was apparently a tailor in North Vancouver whose radio jingle, which featured the lyrics Jolly Green Giant, was all over the airwaves. Add to that the “green” theme at play on Whistler Mountain, where the original two-person Green Chair opened for the winter of ’68-69, and the name stuck. Casey’s kids, Judy, Steve and Greg, meanwhile, were often spotted in the same lime-green jacket as their father, so, naturally, the Niewerths became known as Jolly Green Giant and the Three Little Sprouts.
That same year, Casey and the kids were photographed in their matching outfits outside their Alta Vista cabin, a moment Steve had the idea to recreate in time for his dad’s birthday last winter.
“He turned 90 and [we had this great] idea,” Steve said. “My sister went out and got all the green shells, and we all put them on and recreated it in front of the same A-frame cabin.”
Casey’s eldest son said he and his siblings wouldn’t be the people they are today without Whistler. The family has enjoyed dozens of ski seasons here, and spent summers in the local cabin long before Whistler was the four-season resort it is now.
“We just had a blast up there. It was a real paradise,” said Steve. “It instilled in us a respect for nature, for sure, respect for time with the family. Being as athletic as we can and as outdoorsy as we can.
“All the kids have good work ethic because of him making sure we understood the value of work. He wasn’t a [strict disciplinarian] or anything; it was just a really fun thing to be around.”
As for Casey, who has watched Whistler evolve from a tiny ski-bum enclave to a massive tourism machine, he takes a moment to recognize his small part in it all.
“I’m not totally responsible for putting Whistler on the map,” he said. “No, but I did my share along with a whole lot of people who came to Whistler from overseas. I did my share.”