It was a bitterly cold night last February when the Big Air competition at the U.S. Freeskiing Open got under way in Vail, Colorado. Mike Douglas, a Canadian freestyle skier, stood shivering in the starting box as a little-known Quebecois named Phil Poirier started down the ramp in rented boots and a borrowed pair of skis. Skiing backward, Poirier launched off the lip of the jump, performed a soaring back flip, and landed 50 feet down the hill—backward again. Douglas gasped. He hadn't even jumped yet, but Poirier had won. "He took the sport to a new level," Douglas recalls. "And I was like, 'Great. Now I gotta learn another crazy move that scares the crap out of me.'"
During the past 18 months, Douglas and a group of fellow Canadian freestylers—among them, J-F Cusson (who invented the 360 mute grab three years before Jonny Moseley made it his signature stunt in Nagano), J. P. Auclair (credited with the first mute grab back flip), Vincent Dorion (a bold fakey innovator), and Shane Szocs (king of the front flip)—have helped launch and publicize a new movement. They have taken the raw energy that stokes motocross, in-line skating, and snowboarding, and injected it into skiing—a sport often criticized for its poor innovation, dwindling hipness, and flatlining sales (as the number of alpine skiers declined by 13 percent from 1993 to 1998, the number of snowboarders more than doubled). Their exploits have earned them the sobriquet "the New Canadian Air Force," while their style, dubbed New School Skiing, has inspired the development of a new ski that makes its mass-market debut this month and that might just change the business of selling skis—precisely because the manufacturers that drive the business didn't invent it.
Instead, they've enlisted Douglas and his friends to help them milk both the craze and the ski for every cent they're worth. A native of Vancouver Island whose ski-bum argot camouflages a keen marketer's mind, Douglas started skiing when he was 11 at nearby Mount Washington. By his midtwenties he had landed an assistant mogul-coaching gig with the Canadian National Freestyle Ski Team. The job, together with a $10,000 annual sponsorship from Kneissl, enabled him to spend most of his time hanging with the mogul team, a group of friends who in their off-hours were lighting up the terrain parks of Whistler-Blackcomb with a series of moves no one had ever really seen: crisp, edgy, uninhibited stunts, like the Japan Air, the Huntony, and the Misty-Flip 720, which owed as much to snowboarding and skateboarding as to anything that had been done on a pair of skis. Douglas and his friends weren't the only ones experimenting, but as a group they were certainly the best.
Nonetheless, despite the innovations, Douglas lost his meal ticket in the winter of 1996 when he learned that Kneissl was scaling back its freestyle program. His lifestyle, and his nascent hotdog revolution, seemed doomed.
One night the following June, he found himself in a restaurant in Whistler commiserating with Steve Fearing, a fellow freestyler who coached the Japanese mogul team and whose sponsor was thinking of dumping him as well. Fearing mentioned that he'd heard the ski manufacturers were looking for something new. Douglas told him about the tricks he and his Canadian buds had been nailing, and the reactions of snowboarders, whose disdain for skiers had begun giving way to awe and respect. "We were talking about the energy on the glacier," Douglas recalls, "marveling at the buzz that was building around what we were doing. And Steve asked, 'What would it take to convince the ski industry that this is the next big thing?'"
That night, they hit upon an idea. Over the next two months, Douglas put together an eight-minute video showcasing his and his friends' repertoire. To accompany the tape, Douglas wrote a 20-page memo that included the specs for a new ski that would suit their hotdogging. A ski that could perform in the half-pipe but also hold up all over the mountain in bumps, powder, and crud. A ski stiff enough for big landings but short enough for tricks in tight places. And most important, a ski that boasted turned-up tips on the back as well as the front, so that freeskiers could take off and land backward, opening up a new universe of tricks and, for the first time, tapping into snowboarding's skate-park appeal. He shipped the package to virtually every manufacturer in the industry and spent the next three months waiting for the phone to ring. "I was so discouraged," Douglas recalls. "The ski industry has always been so conservative. And once again, no one was stepping up."
Unbeknownst to him, however, the tape was creating some excitement at Salomon, generally considered to be one of the savvier marketers in the industry. "This was the first time we'd seen something that looked as big as snowboarding," says Mike Adams, director of alpine marketing. "I showed the tape to my kids. My ten-year-old, he just went off." In early December 1997, Douglas got a call from Guy "Mingo" Berthiaume, Salomon's promotions manager in Montreal. Salomon wanted to work with the Canadians, and the company's R&D team in Annecy, France, had some preliminary designs. Would Douglas and his team be interested in seeing them?
Over the next six months, Salomon and Douglas forged an unusual partnership. Every few weeks, Douglas, Fearing, and the crew would receive a package of prototypes from France, which the Canadians would put through their paces and then fax the R&D unit with comments on everything from the sidecut to the color scheme. By February 1998, the final prototype, dubbed the Teneighty in honor of the coveted three revolutions (3 x 360 = 1,080), was ready for trials. On his first test run, Douglas tore several ligaments in his ankle while attempting to ski backward. But within weeks, he and his team were further expanding their routine with inverts and other moves that they had never thought possible.
This past winter, under contract with Salomon, they took their act and their ski on the road. Featured in a crop of freestyle videos with titles like Degenerates and Global Storming, the Canadians became celebrities. Their Teneighties, which had an initial run of 300 pairs and a second run of 1,000, were turning heads, too. Kids who wouldn't have been caught dead on skis two years earlier were pestering the lucky 1,300 in lift lines. Dynastar, Rossignol and K2, and others rushed rival models into production. And most tellingly, snowboarders started voicing odd remarks. "I had never realized what was going on," says Drew Neilson, 25, who took second place in Boardercross at the 1999 X Games. "Now that I see the crazy stuff these guys are doing, I'd like to get back on a pair of skis."
This winter, Salomon will offer 10,000 pairs of the Teneighty, which will arrive in stores by the 15th of this month, and will be priced at $595. The company hopes to create the biggest sensation since the introduction of the Burton Performer snowboard in 1985—and perhaps it will, if for no other reason than, as with the snowboard, the sport preceded the product. "I'm not even sure the ski manufacturers realized there was a bandwagon to jump on," says extreme-skiing icon Glenn Plake. "But at least somebody was finally smart enough to listen to these guys. It's great to see hotdog skiing alive and well again."