The first Canadian man to win a world championship in downhill skiing is now the head coach of his former team.
John Kucera oversees a disparate Canadian men’s downhill squad that includes both former teammates and a batch of young prospects.
The 35-year-old from Calgary captured the 2009 world downhill crown in Val-d’Isere, France, two years before teammate Erik Guay did it in Garmisch, Germany.
Kucera was also the first Canadian to win a World Cup race in Lake Louise, Alta., where he was the fastest in a super giant slalom in 2006.
Similar to NHL players coached by a Stanley Cup winner, Kucera’s success as an athlete gives him some clout with his skier.
“It definitely helps me in certain situations,” Kucera told The Canadian Press. “I think when I first came into coaching, I came in with no coaching experience, but I came in with this background as a successful athlete.
“It’s not so much what I did as an individual, but I have a good understanding of what it takes to get there. Having some success as an athlete definitely helps you in that regard because people respect the fact you did pull it off.”
He uses his athlete experience judiciously as a coach, however.
“It’s something you have to be really careful with because you need to know your athletes really well,” Kucera said. “If I try to say ‘well, this is how I did it and we’re all going to do it this way and we’re all going to be good’, I don’t think that really applies.
“Do I use some of it? Yeah, absolutely. Is it the way I run my team or how I coach? Not at all.”
After five seasons coaching Canada’s developmental racers, Kucera took over this season from Austria’s Burkhard Schaffer, who was among a string of Europeans in charge of the downhillers in recent years.
Kucera’s group ranges from 35-year-old former teammate Manuel Osborne-Paradis, currently sidelined rehabilitating a knee injury, to under-23 racers Brodie Seger, Jeff Read, James Crawford, Sam Mulligan and Cameron Alexander.
In the middle are 27-year-old Ben Thomsen and 30-year-old super-G specialist Dustin Cook.
“In a way, it’s a split group,” Kucera said. “Ben and Dustin and Manny when he comes back, these veteran guys, they’ve done it and performed at the highest level and proved they can be there.
“The expectation for those guys is to continue being high-level racers and be the front of the spear for this group, kind of carry the load for those young guys.”
The international success of Guay and Jan Hudec after the turn of the century blazed a trail for Kucera and Osborne-Paradis to join them.
They were dubbed the Canadian Cowboys, a twist on the Crazy Canucks team of Steve Podborski, Ken Read and Dave Irwin of the 1980s.
“This young group kind of reminds me when Manny and myself first rolled in and were lucky enough to have Eric there and Jan,” Kucera said.
“Those guys were already carrying the load and kind of gave us a little bit of shelter to find our way and get going.”
Kucera was among Canada’s medal hopefuls for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.
He broke his leg racing a super-G in Lake Louise just weeks before the opening ceremonies.
Kucera’s injury was followed by a case of vestibular neuritis — an inner ear condition causing dizziness and nausea — that sidelined him four of the next five seasons.
Kucera retired in 2014. He immediately began coaching prospects such as Crawford, who has watched Kucera’s ascension to head coach.
“I think one of the most important things that’s kind of hard to get in a head coach is connections,” Crawford said.
“Having a coach with a lot of different connections and people they can turn to for help, so when we go over to Europe, if your head coach has a lot of friends, it’s easier to find training.
“Johnny being a World Cup skier and a liked World Cup skier makes it quite easy for him to talk with other coaches and be respected.”
Thomsen has known Kucera since he was a 14 years old.
“Me and Dustin we’ve been around it, we’ve done it for a long time, we kind of know what we’re doing and it’s good that he lets us figure that out,” Thomsen said.
“It’s really nice when you do video and you’re doing coaching feedback when you tell him ‘this is what I’m feeling.’ It’s a lot more give and take instead of the coach just saying ‘I don’t care what you’re feeling. Do that.’”
North Vancouver’s Seger was Canada’s top performer in the first two World Cup tops of the season.
He posted a pair of top-20 results in Lake Louise and Beaver Creek, Colo..
The Canadian team is in Italy for Friday’s super-G and Saturday’s downhill in Val-Gardena. The group remains on the road the rest of the World Cup campaign, which ends in March in Cortina, Italy.
Kucera’s wife Lauren is Alpine Canada’s manager of team operations for ski cross. The couple have an 18-month-old daughter.
“For myself as an athlete and then straight into coaching, basically I’ve had the same travel schedule for 15 or 20 years,” Kucera said.
“Incredibly proud of my wife, working at ACA and having to take care of the little one, our dog and our cats and everything else.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2019.