The continued European domination of the World Cup alpine circuit was demonstrated Saturday as the men's speed season kicked off in Lake Louise, Alta., but some North American underdogs proved they are serious contenders for the podium.
They included Canada's Erik Guay, of Mont-Tremblant, Que., who had surgery to his right knee this fall and wasn't even sure he would be ready to race, yet managed to finish an impressive sixth in the men's downhill.
"If I look at where I was six weeks ago, I'm absolutely ecstatic with the progress I have made since, and to be here, and be [6th] I'm super satisfied," said Guay, who pumped his fists at the bottom of the course.
Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal, a two-time overall champion, who has had a history of success at Lake Louise with five podiums, dominated the course in 1 minute 48.31 seconds.
He had a comfortable lead over Austria's Max Franz who was 0.64 seconds back. Tied for third were Klaus Kroell of Austria and Marco Sullivan of the United States. They were 0.66 seconds off the pace.
Starting 22nd out of the gate, Svindal said with a strong head wind at the top and clouds rolling in, he wasn't sure he could win. But he was encouraged when he saw Guay, just two racers ahead of him, post a solid time.
"It's still possible," said Svindal of his thoughts at the top of the course. "I trimmed a little distance everywhere and tucked a little bit harder."
Svindal, who won the crystal globe in the super giant slalom last season, is expecting good things on Sunday when he races the super G. He has also won it here three times.
The Austrian team once again showed its deep talent pool.
At 23, Franz, is an up-and-comer on the squad. He was second out of the gate, and benefited from a clean track, to grab his first World Cup podium, nudging teammate Kroell, last season's overall downhill champion, into third.
"It's a breakthrough," Franz said of his own performance, "A very important result."
He said the Austrians have 10 top-notch skiers who fight within the squad for results.
"It's a very strong team," he said.
The race, held under mostly blue skies with the temperature hovering around -5C, followed a scuttled day of training Friday due to poor visibility.
Kroell, who broke a bone in his right foot during a crash in a motocross race last April, turned in a performance that he described as "better than expected" after a rough off-season of training.
"After my injury there was no more pressure for me," he said.
Joining Kroell on the podium was Sullivan who overcame major obstacles to even be here. He had a lousy start position – 42nd – and endured a lengthy race delay as a helicopter was called in to remove Italian racer Mattia Casse, who crashed into the netting and suffered a left shoulder injury, from the course.
At 32, Sullivan now has only four World Cup podiums in his career, has battled a bad back, lost sponsors and had to fight for a spot on the U.S. national team going into this season. He said he was shooting for a top 10 and was shocked when he crossed the finish line with the board flashing third.
"Absolutely, it's been tough," Sullivan said, "I never lost complete hope."
The Canadian Cowboys have also struggled in recent years – mostly with injury.
Guay, who won the crystal globe in the super G in 2010 and will defend his world championship in the downhill in February, has suffered recent problems with his knee and his back. But on Saturday, he said his knee wasn't bothering him at all. He was 1.17 seconds behind Svidal's winning time.
"I kind of still have a couple of little mistakes that are keeping me off the podium right now," he said, adding that with little time on snow in the super G lately, his expectations aren't high for Sunday's race.
Calgary's Jan Hudec, who had two podiums last season, also had a troublesome knee operated on this fall and has a long history with knee problems, finished 17th .
"I had high expectations coming into this race even though I didn't do a lot of training," he said, "Everything was ready today. Skis were good, I felt set. So I was a little bit disappointed to be that far behind, but some good points, and I have to look for tomorrow."
Manuel Osborne-Paradis, who also lives in Calgary, marked his return to the circuit after breaking a leg and tearing a ligament in his knee almost two years ago, finished 22nd.
"It's nice to know that you can still be competitive," he said, "With training, you never really know."
Calgary's John Kucera, also got back into the World Cup gates for the first time since a horrific crash at Lake Louise in 2009 left him with a badly broken leg. He finished 36th in Saturday's downhill. He said he was a little nervous before the race, but was relieved once he got on course to find he could still be competitive with some of the fastest guys.
"I'm just hoping that every weekend I can make a step forward," he said, "It's going to be a slow process unfortunately. I'm not a very patient person, but I think I'm going to have to be."
The other Canadians, including Ben Thomsen, who posted solid times in training, finished 45th after hitting a rock at the top of the course, while Jeffrey Frisch was 48th. Meanwhile, Dustin Cook and Conrad Pridy did not finish.