Yukon North Of Ordinary

News archive for December 4, 2013

XC ski community mourns loss of a legend

The founding father of cross-country skiing in the Yukon died Monday. Father Jean-Marie Mouchet was 96.

By Marcel Vander Wier on December 4, 2013 at 4:30 pm


Photo by Whitehorse Star

SKIING PIONEER – Father Jean-Marie Mouchet, centre, was honoured prior to the 2007 Canada Winter Games sprint races in Whitehorse for his significant contribution to the sport of cross-country skiing in the territory (top). NOT JUST A SKIER – Father Mouchet is pictured at the launch of his book ‘Men and Women of the Tundra’ in 2002.

The founding father of cross-country skiing in the Yukon died Monday. Father Jean-Marie Mouchet was 96.

Less than a week after being named Skier of the Year by the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club for being the club’s “best example of skiing for life,” Mouchet died surrounded by a small group of friends and family.

Mouchet had spent the last few months in hospital battling injuries he suffered during a fall in his Whitehorse apartment in August.

“He was a legend,” Cross Country Yukon head coach Alain Masson told the Star yesterday. “I always admired his determination and his passion for skiing. He will be missed greatly, but his legacy will live on through so many of the people he touched.”

Mouchet is widely recognized for his contributions to cross-country skiing in the North, after founding the Territorial Experimental Ski Training (TEST) program in 1955.

Born in Malbuisson, France, Mouchet was a French Resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor before making the move to northern Canada in 1946 as an Oblate missionary priest. He served in a variety of communities, including Telegraph Creek, B.C., Old Crow, Inuvik, Whitehorse and Ross River.

Rather than preaching to the people, Mouchet instead spent most of his life instructing while holding ski poles, encouraging his pupils to rediscover their link to the land.

Mouchet is best known for his skiing program, which saw many young First Nations athletes glide to impressive results. Thanks to his tutelage, Old Crow skier Martha Benjamin won the Canadian Championships in 1963 and Inuvik twins Sharon and Shirley Firth competed in four consecutive Olympic Winter Games.

His contributions to skiing did not go unnoticed, and the awards began piling up, beginning with an induction into the Yukon Sports Hall of Fame in 1980 and highlighted by the Order of Canada in 1993.

Yet despite his impressive resumé, which includes a book detailing his history in two Yukon communities, it was the personal and lasting effect he had on his pupils’ lives that continues to resonate. 

Gary Bailie was just eight years old when he joined Mouchet’s TEST program, but that moment changed him forever.

“He really had a big hand in shaping the person that I am today,” Bailie said. “He’s touched a lot of people’s lives. I’m just one of many. Through skiing, he helped people realize their potential ... He really put us through the paces and built a lot of character in us. It made us hardy.”

Now 55, Bailie works as a recreational ski coach with the Kwanlin Koyotes, an effort he describes as paying Mouchet’s teachings forward. Each of the ski trails in the Kwanlin Dun First Nation are named in Mouchet’s honour.

Bailie paid homage to his late mentor yesterday by going for a long ski down those trails.

“I loved the man and I really tried hard to gain his approval,” he said. “When he would come up to you and say ‘You’ve done well,’ I mean, I would just glow. Also, when you did well, he would give you skis. Everything he did had a lot of meaning to it. He really thought things out. He was very inspiring.”

Mouchet’s longtime friend Rudy Sudrich was with him when he died. He spent the past few months spoon-feeding and massaging Mouchet, who was alert to the end.

“We were old training partners,” Sudrich said. “We had a very close relationship, very personal.”

Mouchet was still a regular on the ski trails up to last winter.

“That was really nice,” Sudrich said. “He was active and in full life right through the hospital stay. The only medication he took was Tylenol for his headache.”

Sudrich’s 27-year-old daughter Pavlina said Mouchet was a regular fixture around her house when she was growing up, and she also benefitted from his coaching.

“He was always a close family friend,” said Pavlina, now the head coach of Ontario’s cross-country ski program.

She said those who knew Mouchet realized “there was no Father off skis,” noting his pursuit of skiing perfection could be likened to a second religion.

“Skiing was his medium,” Pavlina explained. “Mostly he engaged people in a passionate pursuit of excellence through skiing (and) I’m a product of that. He believed in it so fully that it was who he was.”

Pavlina Sudrich and recent territorial male athlete of the year recipient Knute Johnsgaard were two of the last skiers the TEST program would ever produce.

The 20-year-old Johnsgaard honoured Mouchet during his thank-you speech at the Sport Yukon Awards Night Thursday.

“Father Mouchet has always been a huge inspiration to me,” Johnsgaard said from Vernon, B.C., where he is preparing to compete in NorAms. “His whole story is so unbelievable. You can’t help but admire the guy.”

Johnsgaard recalled his first introduction to Mouchet during a dryland TEST program camp at Teslin Lake when he was just 12 years old.

The stories of success stemming from the TEST program had the youngster spellbound from the start.

“He saw those First Nations people and he knew right away they had something special,” Johnsgaard recalled of Mouchet’s 25 years in Old Crow. “People wondered: ‘Who are these people?’ He believed in them and made them champions.

“He always said, that’s how these people prayed was through skiing ... That’s how they got close to God,” Johnsgaard added. “I’m not religious by any means, but it was always cool to hear that.”

Mouchet’s impact on Old Crow continues to be felt today, Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Joe Linklater said this morning.

“I think people feel good to have known him and that he was such an important part of their life,” he said. “His legacy will certainly carry on. It was more than just skiing, it was the philosophy in life that he taught through physical fitness.

“He also brought a lot of Northerners together in this little isolated community,” Linklater added. “He never saw any limitations in Old Crow. He saw possibilities. I think that’s really insightful of him.”

Mouchet’s grand nephew Philippe Mouchet, the priest’s only relative living locally, said while skiing was his vehicle, the message was the most memorable.

“You can apply his philosophy to anything,” Philippe said. “He was passionate about humans, and studying them, and he knew so much about the world. The values he put forward of commitment and working hard to achieve your goals inspired and really saved the lives of many.”

A funeral ceremony will be held early next week, followed by a celebration of Mouchet’s life at the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club.

CommentsAdd a comment

Tina Gionet

Dec 4, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Wow, what an inspiring story.  We need more men like this in the world, and especially in the north.  it just goes to show how healthy one can be by skiing and living a life of balance.  Rest in peace Père Mouchet.  I know you are skiing in heaven.

Laurent J. Dubois

Dec 4, 2013 at 9:08 pm

His mere presence was meaningful and mystically comforting. He is my hero.
One of the greatest moments for me was when he introduced me to the tiny congregation in Carcross as “My Friend…”

Even as my travels took me to distant places, we kept in touch. He always had time to reconnect. More than a skier, he was a profoundly spiritual person. He was gifted and shared selflessly.

You are loved.
Farewell Father

trena irving/peter staley

Dec 4, 2013 at 10:53 pm

God bless you Father. When I first met my husband I asked him who he admired most and he didn’t hesitate; he said Father Mouchet. Then he told me many stories of the three amigos, Pete, Rudy and Father, traveling to France, skiing, pushing kids to reach their limits and push beyond them….you touched so many people and we will always hold you in the highest esteem in our household. Peter’s dad mentioned that he knew you over 60 years ago and was coached by you in Telegraph Creek. John is now 85 and he told me several stories about skiing at Telepgraph Creek with you. I loved how you always had the 5 year plan…That is the power of positive, forward thinking. We love you Father Mouchet. Thank you for making Pete into the fine man he is today and thank you for baptizing our children.

Rev. Niall Sheridan

Dec 5, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Fr. Jean-Marie Mouchet OMI. Rest in peace. The last of the real oblates. I will miss you.

Dave Pym Sr

Dec 5, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Father Mouchet, a true Canadian Ski Hero and Legend.
We wonder where the future Father Mouchet’s will come from and who walk in their footsteps.
Canadian Snowsports owes so very much to these true pioneers.

tim Bourcy

Dec 6, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Father Mouchet was the original pioneer of the 10km ski trail at log cabin over 27years ago. That trail system has expanded to 25km and is now the home of The Buckwheat Ski Classic.  The original trail will bear his name for as long as the trail system exists.  The log cabin trails have been designated as a recreational site in B.C. and hopefully remain so for generations to come.  The Log Cabin Ski Society is grateful for his contribution and the many benefits the log cabin trail system brings to the Skiers in Skagway.  May the snow always glisten, the trail always be fast, and the wax always be perfect!

Carlin Buckwheat Donahue

Dec 10, 2013 at 10:45 am

The Skagway Ski School was inspired in a large part due to Father Mouchet’s efforts at Log Cabin, BC.  With out his support of the Buckwheat Classic the event could have easily disappeared.  Though many may not have met him in person, his legacies will not soon be forgotten.  With the families permission we’d like to make a part of the Buckwheat Ski Classic an annual acknowledgement of his deeds and life.

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