1er mars 2011

Alex Harvey deserves your attention

Sean Gordon

This week, the tall foreheads in FI’s re-imagining centre (no, we’re not sure what those people actually do either), bring you a ‘what if ?’

Yeah, yeah, we can hear your harrumphing, it’s not exactly a sparkling news writerly device, but just bear with us.

What if all of a sudden, a generation of kids were to eschew the traditional demands for hockey sweaters and $250 composite sticks in favour of, gasp, cross-country skis ?

What if the next great, iconic Canadian sporting figure weren’t Matt Duchene or Taylor Hall or Pernell Karl Subban (speaking of which, it’s nice that others have seen the light), but a 22-year-old law student from Quebec City ?

We speak of course, of Alex Harvey, son of Pierre, who for anyone aged under 30 out there, was one of this country’s most celebrated amateur cyclists and the first and only Canuck to win a race at the Holmenkollen festival in Norway, the Super Bowl of the cross-country set.

Descending, as we do, from a Norwegian ski ace of some repute, it’s a duty of sorts for French Immersion to draw attention to athletes and a sport that don’t get nearly enough.

While much of Quebec’s attention is turned to hand-wringing over Pierre Gauthier’s inability to land a franchise-altering player at the trade deadline, Wee Alex and his x-country teammates (Devon Kershaw, George Grey and Ivan Babikov chief among them) are threatening to do something very special at this week’s World Championships in Oslo.

They were the most under-reported story of the Vancouver Olympics, and now Harvey and Kershaw will be looking to improve on their 2010 fourth-place finish in Whistler in the team sprint on Wednesday.

Kershaw, 28, may be the more decorated skier right now, but Harvey is the comer, and he just about became Canada’s first men’s world champion this past weekend.

In the 30 kilometre pursuit, Harvey opened up a sizable lead on the pack – including fearsome Olympic champion Petter Northug of the host country – and was only his way to gold in front of 50,000 cheering fans when his hip flexors began to cramp (he’d finish 12th, Kershaw 9th).

Let us go on record as denouncing recalcitrant hip muscles everywhere – “damn you all to hell”, as Charlton Heston once said in the days before he went all gun nutty on us.

The point being it was a stirring performance from a kid who’s becoming rather a large deal on faraway Scandie shores.

Earlier this year, he won the world under-23 title – even earning a “well done you” in the buffet line from the legendarily frosty Northug.

Two weeks ago, Harvey the younger stepped onto the second step of a World Cup podium at a race in Norway, a career-best result.

And in the freestyle sprint at the Worlds last week, he was narrowly edged out in the semis after a clash of skis with another racer and finished seventh – if he wasn’t a star before, he is now, as you can see here.

Harvey is instantly recognized if he slips out of his hotel for a quick wander around, typically by fans staking out the joint for a glimpse of Northug or women’s skier Marit Bjoergen.

“It’s like a tailgate party – except that it lasts two weeks. It’s hard to imagine for a Quebecker or a Canadian. For us, cross-country skiing was something grandma did,” Harvey told La Presse’s peerless Simon Drouin a few days ago.

According to our pal Drouin, ski researchers at a national university in Norway (hey, we have the hockey equivalent, don’t we ?) pulled out their calipers and slide-rules, and determined that Harvey is the fastest, most explosive skier in the world.

Did we mention he’s still only 22 ?

So what if Harvey was supported by a machine led by a Ray Lalonde-like marketing guru ? (Lalonde being the Habs’ former image genius, blame him for the pink CH thongs).

He’d be huge, bigger than Koivu, Villeneuve and second only to Céline, that’s what.

It would be nice if it actually happened, which it won’t given the support amateur sports gets, especially in years ending with odd numbers.

So we’ll just have to imagine it.

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