ST. PAUL, Minn. – In the distance the cathedral is lit for the world to see. Its serenity is a guiding hand for those who flock to the hill, offering peace and community to anyone willing to walk through its doors. This weekend though, hundreds of feet down an ice track with close to 100,000 people packed around it, there’s a slight moment of violence.
Two Austrian brothers – the Dallagos – faced off between the Croxalls, a pair of Canadian brothers, in a heat to determine who would move onto the finals of Red Bull Crashed Ice in the second to last race of the sport’s championship series. Both Dallagos came down the hill in first and second, Scott Croxall right behind with his middle finger extended to the sky. Not long after an argument started between Croxall, a fire fighter, and Luca Dallago.
Croxall, a hockey player, running a race in hockey-loving Minnesota, while wearing hockey equipment, wasn’t letting up. He’s been in his share of scraps before, and he was incredulous. He continued to bark at Dallago and eventually shoving ensued. With all four athletes a moment away from a Romeo And Juliet style family brawl, everyone let up, and a pin went into the tension balloon before everything popped. Dallago was disqualified for illegal contact down the hill, and Croxall’s brother Kyle moved into the finals to take on Luca’s brother Marco.
“This has never happened before,” Charlie Wasley tells me. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
This is Ice Cross Downhill, and if you haven’t heard of it yet, you will. It just might be coming to the Olympics sooner than you think.
Wasley’s been in this sport since not long after it was “just a crazy European guy on skates who decided to go downhill,” as he puts it. A former NHL draft pick and Minnesota native, he got involved and found himself drawn to the speed and the outright madness of it all. He was always a pretty good skater, but this took things to a new level. The sport got legs in Europe, and he found himself in places like Helsinki competing against other skaters who were wired the same way he was.
The sport wasn’t well organized, there wasn’t much of a governing body, and courses weren’t much more sophisticated than spraying water on a hill and waiting for it to freeze, but everyone had fun. And they kept coming back. Fast forward to 2017 and not only is this thing growing internationally, but it’s evolving. The events are streaming live on Red Bull TV, and some of them even make their way to broadcast television as well.
“More of my friends are able to find out about the sport in real time,” athlete Max Donne says. “When before they’d be like, ‘oh cool,’ but they’d never get to see it.”
“It’s gone from an event to a sport,” athlete Cameron Naasz adds.
Naasz is as close to a superstar as there is in Crashed Ice. He won the St. Paul event in 2016 and captured the season-long title, and he’s in the running to give himself a back-to-back championship if he can close out this year’s season strong. At the St. Paul event, there are even people holding giant cardboard cutouts of Naasz’s head – the type you’d see at college basketball games – and cheering wildly whenever he finishes a run.
Another Minnesota local (you’ll notice a pattern), he’s an adrenaline junkie who uses everything from Crossfit to BMX to mirror the sorts of moves he’ll need on the track. It’s not like basketball where you can shoot anywhere there’s a hoop. The sport doesn’t have many tracks yet worldwide, and even those are often torn down after an event. So unless you’re in a competition or an open Riders Cup, you make due with with you have.
For Naasz, that’s his team and a little bit of outside-the-box thinking. He hits skate parks and does inline, working on balance and teaching his body to gain speed and work through transitions. The DIY aspect of it is refreshing for some, even if the increased structure would lend way to more viewers. There’s an opening for sports like this to continue to grow as training gets better, and more and more associations join the fold.
“Just by being athletes and competing at a high level,” Naasz says, “we can continue bringing more athletes into the sport just by developing the sport in the United States. As long as we’re doing our part in the U.S. and others are doing their part around the world and other federations, I think we can accomplish that. If we’re producing enough athletes who actually have skill, it’ll create better media content.”
Naasz has seen the sport blossom almost as much as Wasley has. And the longtime athletes see it getting bigger every year. As with most non-traditional sports, what started as a bunch of men and women hurling themselves into it without regulation and with reckless abandon developed into a structured organization, with governing bodies and teams. There’s a goal in mind that goes beyond growing the sport: the Olympics.
“You saw fast times but it’s an overall feel,” Wasley says. “I’ve seen this generation start taking it more seriously. The types of training, we didn’t do any of that. But it’s evolved in that they’re in the lead of that next level and finding out how to be better athletes. Sure there’s still partying and they’re having fun, but the top guys aren’t doing that.”
That’s why Wasley was so surprised to see the Croxalls at the Dallagos’ throats at the finish line. The athletes still have full-time jobs, and they make big sacrifices to find minor sponsorships or pay their way across the world to compete.
“You have to make sure you’re saving your pennies,” Naasz says.
That said, there’s more on the line now. Not in the form of huge cash prizes or notoriety, but in a competitive spirit. Winning matters, and out of that rivalries are born.
“The sport needs this,” Wasley says of the scuffle between Dallago and Croxall. “It needs rivalries. That was awesome.”
He kept shaking his head even after the two athletes had calmed down and eventually sat next to each other to get over it. Even now the St. Paul Cathedral was looking on, wordless and without judgment as the athletes and fans headed even further down the hill to party into the night.
Crashed Ice is a part of this community now, and someday not long from now it’ll be a lot more than that.