CALGARY, Canada — The rancher who helped the Canadian Cowboys lasso a Crystal Globe, a world championship downhill title and the nation’s first alpine Olympic medal in 20 years is heading back to the farm.
John ‘Johno’ McBride, who has been the Canadian Alpine Ski Team’s head speed coach since 2009, led podium record holder Erik Guay, Olympic bronze medalist Jan Hudec and three-time World Cup winner Manuel Osborne-Paradis to multiple podiums at big events and also unearthed young talent including Ben Thomsen.
The 49-year-old, who formerly worked with the U.S. Ski Team for over a decade and Bode Miller’s ‘Team America,’ is retiring from coaching on the World Cup circuit to help lead his family’s cow-calf operation in Colorado and spend more time with his wife and three children.
“I’m walking away from this feeling good about what we did,” said McBride, who was renowned for his ‘team first’ style of coaching. “When they asked me to take the job I knew it was a great group of personalities and I thought I could bring that team together in a different way.
“For a world that’s all about individual performance I’ve always had the most success when I was able to bring teams together. The team becomes your family and your support network. It’s about establishing an environment where guys hold each other accountable and you expect a level of performance and professionalism and work ethic. That creates pride in the group.”
During his time with the Canadian team, McBride’s big three of Guay, Hudec and Osborne-Paradis all had to deal with various injury issues but they all experienced success, with Guay winning the super G World Cup title in 2010, the world downhill championship in 2011 and then setting a new Canadian record for World Cup podiums this season with No. 22. McBride was without the talents of 2009 world downhill champ John Kucera for much of his time with the team – due to injury issues – while naturally-gifted speed skier Robbie Dixon also spent a lot of time on the sidelines due to injury.
“Every team has performance highlights. Watching Erik win the world championships after struggling through a season and not skiing with confidence was for sure one of them,” McBride said. “I remember seeing him let down his guard at the start of the race – he was laughing about something with (Italy’s Christof) Innerhofer. I thought to myself, ‘This could be a great day for him. He’s not overthinking and trying to be perfect.’ He let himself go out there and ski. It was great; it was exciting.”
While McBride has always been known for fostering strong team spirit, he’s also a charismatic people person who is adept at reading his racers. Guay, Hudec and Osborne-Paradis are all strong personalities who have very different styles and philosophies.
“My strengths as a coach are that I have a good comprehension of the sport and what makes people go fast. On top of that, I read people well,” McBride said. “Different forms of communication are necessary for different individuals. I spent a lot of time trying to coach different personalities and egos. On top of that, I’m a positive guy. I tried not to talk about what not to do. I talk about what we can do.”
McBride will go out on a high, with Hudec having claimed the only major piece of hardware that had eluded the Canadian Cowboys prior to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Hudec believes the “wiry rancher from Aspen” has created a legacy that will remain with the team in the coming seasons.
“The Canadian Cowboys are connected by podiums but the team was connected by the ‘Brotherhood.’ He’s big on a bunch of individuals making up a strong team,” Hudec said. “He was able to connect with every different personality type and he knew the importance of that. He was able to get so many personality types to come together. For me, especially having a son, it was really cool having a coach who was understanding of priorities and the importance of family.”
McBride gave members of the ‘Brotherhood’ red shirts that featured their nicknames and a logo that depicted the idea that racers needed to “put their butt on the line.”
“Creating a team is one of the biggest challenges in ski racing. It’s like the mini F1 – you need a huge team to succeed but at the end of the day it’s an individual sport,” said Hudec. “Johno is super observant of people’s personalities and he’s quick to put nicknames on people.
“He’s the one who made me the Panda. We were just sitting around in Wengen one year and I was probably the heaviest I had ever been on the World Cup. I had my back protector on – and a black and white helmet – and he looked at me and said, ‘You are just a big panda, aren’t you?’ From that came the whole Kung Fu Panda thing … someone who has potential but needs to find the passion to unlock that potential. He talks about me having the panda’s touch – the big guy with a touch on the snow.”
McBride is the coach who pushed for the undersized Thomsen to be given a chance to train with the national team after spotting some potential in the raw but talented young racer. His hunch paid off when Thomsen fought his way onto the national team and in 2012 the Invermere, B.C., skier became the newest member of the Canadian Cowboys when he finished second at the Sochi test event.
“That was for sure a highlight. He was a nobody – a prospect kid,” McBride said. “We brought him into a camp and trained him and he did everything we asked.
“Sometimes you can put your reputation on the line with a company and say, ‘I really believe in this kid’ and I saw that happen a number of times with Ben Thomsen, where I was part of getting him on a different pair of skis.
“It’s easy to pick the best results from the best guys as highlights but for me, seeing a guy wrap his head around a new technical skill or something like that – those are great memories for me.
“We didn’t have a tiered system where the best skiers got all the attention. I always said this is not going to be a kingdom – we are going to try to help each other. We will be better as a team.
“I challenged the guys by saying, ‘How can you make the guy next to you better? How can the guy you are rooming with be a better ski racer and a better person?’ I would ask that of staff and ask that of staff about me. You have to put yourself out there and make yourself vulnerable.”
McBride said it was never part of the plan to work two full Olympic cycles, and after Sochi he sat down with his family to discuss next steps.
“I want to watch my little ones grow up and my dad needs some help here at home on the ranch. I’m going to be taking over that, managing the operation,” McBride said of the family business, which is about 30 miles from Aspen in Colorado. “We have cattle – a couple hundred head. It’s a cow-calf operation – nothing huge but it keeps us busy.”
McBride was persuaded to join the Canadian team in 2009 by Alpine Canada’s current vice president of sport, Paul Kristofic, who at the time was the men’s program head coach.
“He had been trying to hire me for some time and when I finally came in I really enjoyed it,” said McBride, who is hoping to stay involved with coaching in some capacity, perhaps working with kids and young racers. “As I look back on my time with the team, it was really great working with ‘PK.’ We had a great group of people working together.”
Kristofic said McBride made a big contribution to the team’s success and will be missed by staff and athletes.
“Johno brought a ton of passion for the sport. He is a big believer in the power of team and the athletes and staff were a close unit under his leadership,” Kristofic said. “He definitely was passionate about winning and that fit in well with this team.
“He was always willing to look at himself and the program and ask hard questions. He walked into a high achieving team and we continued to achieve bigger and better things under his leadership.”
Release courtesy of Alpine Canada