Back in 1963, the burgeoning ski industry in the United States saw the creation of a national organization to represent the interests of equipment manufacturers, importers and distributors of consumer ski products.
The nascent organization, to be called Ski Industries of America, turned to a Maine native to serve as its first executive vice president and CEO, with one of his principal responsibilities to organize a trade show each January where gear for the following winter would be introduced and sold, and at which all the major brands could kick off their selling season.
Ralph “Doc” Desroches, a Rumford native who had already forged an impressive and eclectic career in skiing, was the obvious choice.
Having served in the Maine National Guard from 1935-38, he continued his military activity as an ROTC member at the University of New Hampshire, where he had a distinguished competitive career in all four skiing disciplines: downhill, slalom, cross country and jumping. Following graduation he put his skiing and military training to use with the 10th Mountain Division, ultimately serving as an instructor.
After the war, Desroches entered the ski industry and never really retired. Managing a small ski area in Pennsylvania, he not only also owned and directed the ski school but was the principal buyer for the ski shop. This led to his running the entire company as president and CEO from 1957-63, resulting in his seemingly inevitable appointment at SIA.
The last years of his life, following his retirement from SIA and moving to Farmington, were devoted to launching, with Tom Reynolds, the ski industries program at the University of Maine-Farmington, with which he stayed closely involved.
From Jan. 30 through Feb. 4, SIA (now known as Snowsports Industries of America) will host its Snow Show at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, followed by two days on the snow at Copper Mountain.
Besides being introduced to next season’s hot items, movers and shakers in the ski biz have always looked forward to the annual opportunity to meet, rub shoulders with and, if they were lucky enough, ski with the current skiing and snowboarding celebrities. At the early SIA shows, Jean Claude Killy, Stein Erickson and Billy Kidd were the icons one could count on seeing. In more recent years, Glen Plake, Picabo Street and Bode Miller have turned heads at the gathering.
As the show has evolved, shaped skis have revolutionized the industry and snowboarding has joined the party in a big way.
This year, however, promises to have some real surprises if pre-show publicity is to be believed, both in terms of trends and new products.
For example, this is the first year when attendees will be struck by the not-so-subtle influence of the craft brewing phenomenon that has swept the nation, and which has a major foothold right here in Maine. Although that particular craft will not be on display, an entire section of the show will be devoted for the first time to about a dozen small, hand-crafted ski and snowboard companies.
As long-time SIA president Dave Ingemie said, “Craft is a great name for these brands. Craft beer breweries are known for small batches, attention to detail and unique offerings.”
Expect to see skis and boards on shop shelves next season from such companies as Nordic Snowboards of Whitefish, Mont., that features custom boards made with locally sourced aspen and poplar; and hand-built, made-to-order skis with bamboo cores and hardwood veneers from Big Wood Ski in Ketchum, Idaho.
Not to be overlooked are several boutique manufacturers right here in Maine.
Perhaps the most striking focus of this year’s show is the emphasis on and popularity of ski models designed for the so-called freeskier. Studies have revealed that the number of people who define themselves as Alpine skiers is down 19 percent, while the number who identify themselves as freeskiers is up 47 percent, an incredible change in a single season,” according to the SIA’s director of research, Kelly Davis.
Whereas the Alpine skier tends to be preoccupied with the perfect turn and perfect form, freeskiing is, as the name implies, about freedom. And freeskiing aficionados, often found off-piste, in the glades and testing their limits, are eschewing the wide-waist, shaped skis that many of us are now just getting used to and that predominated ski shop displays during the past few years.
What is being called the most important trend in skis for next season is that consumers are expected to be pulling back on the width of skis under their boots, looking for lighter, more versatile platforms to meet the widest variety of conditions. One reason, interestingly enough, is weather-related. Powder days were somewhat limited, especially in the West, during the past couple winters, so fat skis that are perfect in deep snow didn’t work as well for lots of recreational skiers – something those of us who ski mostly in the East know all too well.
For the first time, snowshoes will have a featured presence in the SIA show. What the folks at L.L. Bean have known for a long time is that snowshoeing is a winter pursuit with almost no learning curve. Snowshoes were made for generations right here in our state. Those early pioneers would be amazed to see that manufacturers are now tailoring their products to specific demographics and drilling down on usage detail, offering models specifically for walkers, kids (shoes with motion-activated flashing LEDs), runners and back-country enthusiasts.
John Christie is a former ski racer and ski area manager and owner, a ski historian and member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He and his son, Josh, write columns on alternating weeks. He can be reached at: