I guess that means I’m the only one left,” Ed Schiffkorn told me in fall 2009 when I called to inform him of Merv Miller’s death. All I said was that Miller had passed away.
There was no need to explain why I was telling him nor did I ask what he was referring to.
Less than a year later, Schiffkorn was gone, and then there were none.
Originally there were four men. The 1981 International Ski Federation (FIS) Cross-Country Skiing World Cup organizing committee expanded to 23 directors. It ultimately involved hundreds of Whitehorse volunteers.
I was the public relations director, which is how I came to understand the relationship that bound the original four for the remainder of their lives.
What they accomplished demonstrates that impossible dreams are only impossible in dreams – anything can be achieved if you remain awake to the possibilities.
It started in 1977 with Don Sumanik.
A former chair of the Canadian Ski Association (CSA) Sumanik was instrumental in securing and organizing a Canadian junior cross-country championship in 1974 and the Shell Senior Cross Country Ski Championships in 1976.
“What’s next?” he asked himself. “Every time we hold a race in Whitehorse we improve our facilities, we improve our trail. We’ll have to have another race to get things improved a little more.”
He talked to other organizers about bidding for the 1981 North American Championships. As they constructed the bid they realized it was going to be very expensive. Instead of thinking smaller to make it more affordable, he thought bigger to justify the cost.
In a casual conversation with Schiffkorn, Sumanik tossed out an interesting idea: “We should go after a World Cup, Ed. We’re going to have the North Americans. We might as well get a World Cup.”
Schiffkorn shrugged. “Why not?” he responded.
Sumanik passed it by the president of the Yukon Ski Division, Bill Reid. Reid was an alpine skier, not a cross-country fan at the time, but his response was identical to Schiffkorn’s: “Why not?”
The last of the original four that Sumanik asked to “give a hand” was Whitehorse accountant Merv Miller. Miller didn’t ski but he knew how to raise money, find sponsors and negotiate the terms and conditions of sponsorship.
“From the day we started, I didn’t have any doubts I could sell this thing,” Sumanik told me in an interview over 30 years ago. “All we had to do was convince the Scandinavians and the Russians… It’s gonna be hard, but we’re going to get it.”
He asked the CSA to endorse the bid during its annual meeting in June 1979 and it did.
“I don’t think they thought we had a hope in hell of really getting the thing,” Sumanik chuckled as he remembered the atmosphere at the time.
“They just thought, ‘Sure, it’s a good idea, but money’s the thing and I don’t see how anyone is going to spend the money to hold a race up there,’ and so on. But they were behind us in principle and wished us luck.”
The initial application, sent to FIS headquarters in Berne, Switzerland, was promptly turned down.
“They said the trip was too far, too expensive and too long to come to Canada,”
It appeared the race was not to be. Then, Canada’s delegate to the FIS, Bjorger Pettersen from Inuvik, stepped in.
The FIS held meetings in Lake Placid, New York, during the Olympic Games in February 1980. Pettersen told Sumanik he should go to the meeting to address the Whitehorse bid.
If he wasn’t there, Pettersen said, the bid was dead. If he was, the Whitehorse committee had a chance to succeed.
Miller recruited a major corporate sponsor, Cyprus Anvil Mining Corporation, and negotiated special flights and fares with CP Air for the skiers to travel direct from Europe to Whitehorse, and convinced the Yukon Government’s tourism department to commit funds.
Cyprus Anvil made its support on the condition the race was held in Whitehorse. The FIS had other reservations.
The time frame Sumanik asked for – March 1981 – conflicted with the dates of traditional European races and the prestigious World Cup Final.
Whitehorse wasn’t after the World Cup Final, Sumanik explained, “just a period of time which would have given us the final.”
This issue would take diplomacy and lobbying at the political level to overcome.
For the most part the four-man committee appeared to have the technical aspects under control.
The trails had to be unique. They had to have characteristics that set them apart from the other trails on the World Cup circuit.
Since 1978, Canada’s FIS delegate, Pettersen, had been busy upgrading the Whitehorse trails to international standards, even as he laid out the trails for the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.
“Each track has to have its own special challenges,” Pettersen said. “It has to be scenic. It has to have its specific technical difficulties. It has to be well protected from the wind by trees.
“It’s one of the reasons why world records in cross-country skiing are invalid – there are too many variables on the different tracks.”
The only real problem, as far as Sumanik was concerned, was the lack of a chalet in Whitehorse. The FIS wouldn’t grant a race unless there was one.
Sumanik and Miller talked to the Yukon Government about funding the construction of a proper facility. The government expressed support, but didn’t make a definite commitment.
As he boarded his flight to Lake Placid, Sumanik still had no doubts he could make this work.
He just wasn’t sure how.
John Firth is a writer and history buff who lives in Whitehorse.