Todd Brooker: Blast from the past

Sean Stevens, SRC magazine

3/4/2008 12:00:27 PM

Todd Brooker's rag doll tumble down the Hahnenkahm in 1987 must rank as the No. 1 spill of all time: a bone-jarring, teeth-rattling, jaw-dropping ride down the most treacherous piece of ice-covered real estate on the White Circus.

Brooker is not the only skier to have crashed at Kitzbühel. The former Crazy Canuck was neither the first, nor will he be the last (welcome to the club Scott Macartney).

Brooker's frightening fall is as hard to watch as it is spell-binding, the grainy replay of the crash leaving viewers cringing and captivated.

Over the last two decades Brooker's mishap has become a highlight reel staple, the signature event in a career that included three World Cup downhill wins.

The biggest of those victories came in 1983 in Kitzbühel, the last of four consecutive victories on the famed Streif by the Crazy Canucks. Brooker's name was then stenciled onto one of gondolas that glide up the Hahnenkahm, alongside the names of other alpine skiing greats who conquered Kitz.

But it is Brooker's final trip down the Streif in 1987 for which he will be forever remembered, the spectacular spill providing a punishing end to a sparkling career.

Go to the Kitzbühel race weekend and walk into any cafe or bar with a television and eventually the replay of Brooker's cart-wheeling crash will appear. Change channels and it will appear again.

During a recent interview for a skiing show, Brooker was talking with his familiar enthusiasm about the joys of powder skiing in the British Columbia interior.

But unable to resist, it isn't long before editors cut away from Brooker's smiling face to that replay of him tumbling wildly down the Streif.

While some still cannot bear to watch Kitzbühel's most famous crash, Brooker is not one of them.

"It sure doesn't make me feel bad or sad, I'm just glad they got it on video, I would have hated to have wasted a good crash," jokes Brooker, who remains close to the sport as a Head Canada ski representative and television commentator for NBC and CBC. "I've used it quite a few times myself when I give motivational speeches.

"It makes a real statement, that crash…it was a spectacular crash and lots of people recall that but most people kind of associate that with the whole era.

"[But] when I won the race it was a spectacular feeling. Not only was it top race in the world but I felt like I was carrying on some kind of tradition."

There is a special bond among ski racers forged on the icy slopes of the Hahnenkahm. Kitzbühel is where racers are bloodied, only after surviving the Streif are they truly welcomed into the World Cup downhiller fraternity.

But the mountain can strike fear into the most courageous.

Brooker remembers Switzerland's Urs Raeber, the World Cup downhill champion, walking away from the sport after a crash at Kitzbühel left him unable to will himself down the Streif one more time.

"Everybody is pretty nervous racing there because it comes at you so quickly," explained Brooker. "I remember I was starting behind Raeber in training, he had a fall in the first run, hit a fence and was shaken up but ok.

"So I came up after my run and he's sitting in the shack we always warm up in and I start getting ready, he starts getting ready.

"I go out to the start and there's a gap. He's not there, he never showed up again, he quit.

"Right there, he went out and didn't have the nerve to go down the run again and just figured this is embarrassing and left.

"Here is a guy who won the World Cup downhill title (1984) the year before, has a crash there. The crash made him think and he quit.

"After my crash I never raced there again. I had a knee operation after the '86 season and the start of '87 I went to Val d'Isere and finished 50th.

"I'm in Val Gardena, I'm so unsure of my leg that I made only one training run. I felt so sketchy, I said, "I can't do this" and left without racing. I tried to get my act together again, went to Garmisch and everything came together and I was seventh.

"The following week I was in Kitzbühel, I crashed and my career was over."

The Super Bowl of ski racing, Kitzbühel on World Cup weekend is not for the faint of heart, with 50,000 to 60,000 revelers descending on the tiny village for a two days and nights of non-stop partying.

And party central for the racers and the fans determined enough to find a way inside, is the Londoner Pub where those who have tamed the Streif earlier in the day blow off steam with a night of celebration.

The Londoner is just part of Kitzbühel's rich tradition and one Brooker knows well, having spent part of his childhood growing up in the shadow of the Hahnenkahm.

Brooker's father, a member of the Canadian hockey team that competed at the 1956 Cortina Winter Games, later came to Austria, taking the job of player-coach of the Kitzbühel hockey team.

"When you go to Kitzbühel Toni Sailer (the "Blitz from Kitz") is standing there, Karl Schranz is there, Klammer is there every year," gushed Brooker. "All these different greats and celebrities standing in the finish and there's parties throughout the week.

"It's like going to the Masters. I haven't been there but you must walk into the clubhouse in Augusta and they have pictures of Nicklaus and Hogan and Palmer down the halls of the locker room that must make you feel pretty special when you're there playing.

"That's the way Kitzbühel makes you feel when you're there."