It’s only two weeks away from the start of yet another great World Cup season. I completely took a step back from all things cross country skiing since last May and it’s been a real shock to the system to start reading articles on the likes of FasterSkier and Langrenn.com again and get caught up what I missed; do be honest it hasn’t been a whole lot. Like last year, I’m going to start the countdown to Beitostølen with a preview of the top 12 countries on the Nations Cup list from last year. So let’s get started shall we?

CANADA!

Nations Cup Position: 12th (1783pts)

Men: 8th (1525pts)

Women: 14th (258pts)

The Canadian’s made 12th spot again, but didn’t squeak in like last year. They had a big 488pts gap to 13th place in our neighbours to the south in the USA. Looking back at last year’s review I said

 success breeds success and what the team managed to do last year will only give them more confidence than ever before coming into the 2010-2011 season. It’s hard not to be excited about the Canadian team this year; particularly, the men.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but that’s my exact sentiments for the team this year. The sprint relay gold medal from Alex and Devon has done wonders for this teams image, respect and more importantly confidence within not only the squad, but trickling down to the next generation of Canadian cross-country skiers.

THE DEPARTED

This past summer saw numerous athletes hang them up included George Grey; the cornerstone for the men’s team over the better half of the last 10 years. He made his with Harvey as they won Canada’s first World Cup medal (3rd place) in the men’s category at the Olympics warm-up races. The penultimate season of his career was simply amazing and was highlighted by an 8th place in the 30km pursuit at the Olympics. His final season was plagued with injury and never raced to his full potential on the World Cup circuit, but still managed to go out on top as he won the 10km, 15km, and 50km mass start at Canadian Nationals in Canmore.

Stefan Kuhn was the other Canadian to hang up the skis. Kuhn’s career was an interesting one as he stepped away from the sport for a couple years only to realize he wasn’t quite done and skied his way onto the national team. Obviously, a big talent, his career highlight was qualifying 10th at the 2010 Olympics in front of friends and family to ultimately finish 15th.

MEN’S SPRINT

The men’s sprint team is arguably the strongest it’s ever been with Harvey (10th), Kershaw (18th) and Valjas (48th) medal threats on any given race day. What do we need to say about Kershaw and Harvey? After strong off-seasons they’ll be looking to continue to show why they’re some of the most consistent skiers on the circuit.

Valjas’ impressive rookie year on the World Cup circuit will have done him a world of good and the amount of experience he’s able to bring into this season makes him a very real threat in the men’s division. Given a full season on the World Cup sprint circuit, I expect him to shoot up form 48th to at least top 25 in the sprint standings and wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he notched a couple of top five’s this season.

Veteran Drew Goldsack has been added to the list of skiers to start the season in Europe and after a couple injury-plagued years, the sprint specialist is finally on the right track and is ready to show he deserves to be a World Cup regular.

WOMEN’S SPRINT

Last year was highlighted by the team sprint 3rd place in Dusseldorf at the beginning of the year, but that’s as good as it got. This year’s women will be headlined by Crawford (34th) even though Gaiazova (31st) was finished higher on the sprint standings. The off-season debacle with Gaiazova (can be read here) has many wondering if and when she will be returning to race on the World Cup circuit. If Gaiazova does hit the World Cup, I expect her and Crawford to have very similar seasons to last. They should have no problem qualifying, but getting out of the quarter-finals will be a very difficult task. Expect each of them to crack the top ten a couple of times. There is also Perianne Jones (55th) who will be hard pressed to get into the top 30 again this year, last year she only qualified once in Stockholm, but made the most of it finishing 12th.

MEN’S DISTANCE

With the retirement of George Grey, one spot has opened up for the relay team and I expect that Valjas will get it early in the season. Like the sprints, Harvey and Kershaw should be top five threats in every event they enter. Babikov also gets into the mix and should notch up a few top 15 placings this year, but look out for him in the final stage of the Tour de Ski as he’ll surely be in and around the top when the skiers collapse across the finish line at the top of the Alpe Cermis.

Kevin Sandau and Graham Nishikawa will join the World Cup team for the first period of the year which will be good to see who will fill Grey’s boots in the relay team. My hunch has Sandau as he had some great results last year highlighted by a 5th place in the 15km free at the U23’s.

WOMEN’S DISTANCE

The distance team is more or less the same as the sprint team. With Gaiazova in limbo, the main two are Crawford and Jones. Allyson Marshall, the native of Salmon Arm, BC will get a chance earn valuable experience as she will start the year in Europe. She can mix it up in both the distance (25th at U23’s in the 10km) and sprints (12th at U23’s in the classic sprint).

THE FUTURE

Outside of the World Cup team, Canada has a lot of talent especially with the men’s side. The likes of Killick and Cockney had very good results at U23’s last year as well as doing very well on the domestic circuit. Cockney did amazingly well with a 6th in the sprints at U23’s while Killick earned two 2nd places at Canadian Nationals. They should be making the move to the World Cup sooner than later. There’s also Brent McMurtry who is 25-years old and is knocking on the door of regular World Cup starts, but just needs a little more to be successful.

VERDICT

The men’s side is in great shape for another stellar year on the snow with Harvey, Kershaw, and Valjas being serious contenders. Babikov and Sandau will act as a good supporting cast if they stay healthy. Coach Wadsworth has said that he’s witness marked improvements in Harvey and Kershaw which is music to ears of Canadian ski fans. I expect both Harvey and Kershaw to improve on their impressive Tour de Ski results from last year since this is the “lull-year” (the only year in the 4-year cycle in which there is neither a World Champs nor Olympics).

The women are worryingly weak this year. There is no sight of new talent coming through the ranks which will make an immediate impact which means it’ll be another uneventful year on the leaderboard for Crawford, Jones, and Gaiazova if she ever re-joins the Canadian team.