About a year ago, ski-cross racer Nik Zoricic and his friend, Luke Leon, were chatting over a couple of beers, wondering, of all things, what people would say at their funerals. And would anybody show up?
People did show up at Zoricic's funeral on Monday. The 29-year-old athlete touched hearts in a way he could not have imagined after he died in a racing accident in Switzerland on March 10.
People started arriving about an hour and a half before services were to start at the Islington United Church, a splendid neo-Gothic shrine that let light fall softy onto Zoricic's casket, adorned with white lilies and roses.
They kept coming and coming and coming. Some people stood in the aisles. NHL star Jason Spezza was there, acting as a pallbearer. Former Ontario premier David Peterson occupied a seat close to the front. The entire Canadian ski-cross team flew into Toronto the previous night, with Dave Duncan, Zoricic's roommate on the road for four years, left wondering how to fill the void.
Zoricic's slender, elegant grandfather, Branko, made it all the way from Sarajevo for the service, and sadly held his face in his hands as he exited the church, distraught.
Leon told the crowd: "There hasn't been a dry eye for nine days now."
So Leon talked, saying things he would not have dreamed a year ago. He remembered how Zoricic had such charisma, he would brighten a room on the most solemn day. He remembered the 28-layer sandwiches he and Zoricic used to make, sailing without a rudder, Zoricic's inventive Halloween costumes and the habit he had of wearing the same belt with any outfit regardless of occasion. He will not remember Zoricic for his punctuality.
Leon, in strong voice, recalled how everyone had a different name for the statuesque Zoricic, who stood 6-foot-3, and with his skis in his hand like swords, long hair falling to his shoulders, brows hanging over his eyes like thunder, looked like a warrior. Leon recalled how some called him Gentle Giant or Zorro or the guy who skied in blue jeans.
"He had an uncanny ability to endear himself to everyone he came across," Leon said.
To those who knew him, Zoricic embodied endless passion and fearlessness. He was a supportive shoulder to lean on, and was always ready to lend a sympathetic ear.
Family friend Steve Brown said his first sight of the Zoricics was 17 years ago at Craigleith Ski Club near Collingwood, Ont. There he witnessed a "fine-looking man with a crooked nose" (Zoricic's father, Bebe, a ski coach at the club) telling a young boy to: "Move, move, move!"
Brown said he was in awe of the talents of the youngster, and was not surprised when he made the national team. Zoricic travelled the world, Brown said, but when he returned to Collingwood, the people would say: "Nik's back!"
Dave Ellis, director of sport for Canada's ski-cross program, had to break the news of Zoricic's death to his father.
On Monday, Ellis, his voice breaking, said Zoricic finished 61st in his first World Cup with baggy ski pants, and then decided to don a skinny pair to become more streamlined. "Men wanted to be like him."
Zoricic won two medals in World Cup events and knew his career was coming to a close. The 2014 Sochi Olympics remained a final dream, a last chance at glory.
Ellis was by Zoricic's side in the moments following his crash in Switzerland.
"He left us doing what he loved to do on one of the most beautiful days in maybe one of the most beautiful places in the world," Ellis said. "We will keep our heads high."