By Ron Buck
CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. -- They won't wake up at 0500 -- unless there's fresh powder. Don't bother asking them to salute. And military grooming? No chance -- their hair falls well below their ears and a razor touches their face maybe once a week.
Shane Szocs and his unofficial teammates were all over the ramp during Wednesday's practice.Meet the New Canadian Air Force (NCAF), six free skiers who fly through the air but will break ranks at the first sign of fun. Mike Douglas, Shane Szocs, Marc McDonell, Vincent Dorion, J.P. Auclair and J.F. Cusson all reported for duty Wednesday at the Big Air ramp for the 1999 Winter X Games.
It was time to take off down a runway of snow, hit a ramp and spin through the air. The tricks they pulled off at 10,000 feet would make most F-14 pilots jealous.
The six freewheeling Canadians have been dubbed the New Canadian Air Force, a takeoff -- so to speak -- on the mainstream aerialists of the Canadian national team, who have been been known as the Canadian Air Force for the past 15 years.
Each member of the new group has roots in mogul skiing. Dorion, Auclair and Cusson still ski moguls on the Canadian national team when they aren't having fun on the freeskiing ramps.
Douglas served as the national mogul coach the past two seasons, while both Szocs and McDonell spent a few years on the World Cup circuit as members of the national team before turning their attention to the less structured world of freeskiing.
As for being dubbed the New Canadian Air Force, the group accepts the name with only one reservation.
"It's cool; it's a good title. It's catchy," McDonell said. "The only thing I don't like about it is the (aerial) guys might be a little choked. Because they worked hard to get where they are, then all of a sudden we burst onto the scene and we are the New Canadian Air Force."
"It's cool that they think that highly of us I guess," Douglas said. "I guess it all started with a group of about six of us. We all just started skiing together, watching snowboarders and seeing what they were doing on their boards. We were like, 'Man that looks like fun.' But we were still hard-core skiers."
"The name is totally unofficial," said Auclair. "There has always been a Canadian Air Force with aerials and now they call us the New Canadian Air Force because it's a new style of skiing."
The group became close during their stints on the Canadian national team. Dorion, Auclair, Cusson and Douglas also are official teammates for Burton skis. But whenever they are in Whistler, British Columbia, or at a competition, they hook up with Szocs and McDonell.
But to get a title like the New Canadian Air Force, the six new recruits must have done something to grab the attention of the ski world. As expected, their individual accomplishments are worthy of a few commendations.
Auclair, 21, recently won both the U.S. Open in Vail, Colo., and King of the Hill in Sweden. He comes into the X Games off a second-place finish at the Jonny Moseley Invitational in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Dorion, meanwhile, is the most recognizable of the NCAF, having been featured in several films and ski magazines. He's also one of the X Games athletes featured in the upcoming edition of ESPN The Magazine.
Dorion's claim to fame is his switch take-offs and landings. He burst onto the scene at the Summer X Games demonstration of Freeskiing Big Air last June, pulling off a 900 fakie to the amazement of fellow competitors and more than 20,000 Big Air snowboarding fans.
"I thought about (switch take-offs) way before the twin tips (skis) came out," said the 20-year-old Dorion. "It was a good moment for us to be able to show the world that we can do well on skis, like these people were doing on snowboards. The X Games this summer were great for me, to show some new tricks to the crowd there -- it was a great feeling."
Cusson is considered the best all-around freeskier of the bunch. He matched Auclair's gold in big air with a win in the King of the Hill halfpipe. In his first World Cup mogul competition last year, he finished second to Jonny Moseley.
Word is that Cusson actually was performing Moseley's now-famous 360 heli mute grab more than a year before Moseley used it to win gold in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
"It was just something that just came to my head," Cusson said of the trick. "I was sick of seeing the same old things. I was watching the snowboarders grabbing, and said why can't a skier grab. So I tried it for fun. Then, like when everybody saw it first, they thought it was crazy. Then it was cool. Now everybody is doing it."
Douglas was a three-year member of the Canadian Freestyle Team before becoming the team's mogul coach. At 29, he's the elder statesmen of the group and could be held responsible for the mass appeal of the NCAF.
It was Douglas who promoted freeskiing when it first began gaining popularity within the freestyle skiing community. He even sent Salomon a 20-page proposal on why the company should design a twin-tip ski to specifications drawn up by himself and other members of the the NCAF.
Like Douglas, the 24-year-old McDonell may not grab the spotlight like the other NCAF high-fliers. But his three years on the ultra-competitive World Cup moguls tour led him to the fun of freeskiing. Ironically, he finds himself now competing in freeskiing.
"It snuck up on us a little quick. We were just out having fun, and then the next thing we know we are at the X Games," said McDonell. "But it's great to be at an event with so many sports going on. We don't get a chance to hook up with the snowboarders, and I've never met any ice climbers or snowmobile racers before. So that's cool."
While just 25, Szocs is considered the father figure of the NCAF. He too started on the Canadian National developmental team but has found a love for freeskiing.
"When we started off, we were just going to the water ramps at Whistler, just hucking ourselves having fun," Szocs said. "All the aerialists were like, 'What are you guys doing? You think you're going to make any money at this?' We were like, it doesn't really matter, because we aren't making any money now."
Now as members of the New Canadian Air Force, they are receiving base pay. Any extra money will have to come from their performance in the air.