Heinz Niederhauser, 72: Baker and Athlete Posted on Feb 8th, 2008

Marty - Heinz, November 2007Chocolatier became leading cross-country ski coach

Special to The Globe and Mail
February 7, 2008

Heinz Niederhauser never seriously strapped on cross-country skis until he was in his 30s. Once started in the sport though, he never stopped - all the way to the Olympics. Over a span of 35 years, he tested instructors, started ski clubs, co-founded the Canadian Association of Nordic Ski Instructors and served as head coach of the national cross-country team.

His rigorous training programs took a no-nonsense approach. Athletes could expect three-hour runs, their coach in the lead, and to be left in the parking lot if ever they were late. "He was very dedicated, and we worked extremely hard under him," said Margaret Holden Waechter, who was a member of the Ontario Junior Team in the early 1980s. "He had this love of racing and training and health and fitness and he inspired people to be the best they possibly could be."

Raised in Zurich, Switzerland, he grew up as one of three children to parents who ran a chocolate factory. Young Heinz enjoyed sports and persuaded his friends to stay play soccer by sometimes bribing them with bits of chocolate.

Never the keenest student, he finished secondary school and worked for a while in the factory. In 1952, he began an apprenticeship as a confectioner and pastry chef in Basel. Despite his father's skepticism, Mr. Niederhauser excelled, placing first in his year.

Between compulsory stints of military training, where he trained as an army cook, he worked in a confectionery shop in Lausanne until being persuaded by his father to return to the family factory as a salesman. A year later, he left after a row with his father and immigrated to Finland in 1957.

He found a job with a candy manufacturer where he fell in love with Ann Sarkki, a co-worker. They married in December, 1958, and immigrated to Canada three years later. The family (including new son Lars) settled in Toronto, where Mr. Niederhauser worked first at a bakery, then at the Westbury Hotel. Two more sons, Tom and Glen, quickly followed.

For seven years, the family owned a bakery in Scarborough before moving east to what is now Pickering, Ont. There, Mr. Niederhauser coached soccer and became involved in fitness programs at public schools. In the late 1960s, the family took up downhill skiing near Barrie, Ont., and, after meeting some Finns and Estonians there, switched to cross-country. Before long, Mr. Niederhauser was racing (and losing miserably) against the experienced Scandinavians. He began training year-round and was soon beating them soundly.

In the 1970s, the sport took off, and so did Mr. Niederhauser's involvement. By 1975, he was the paid coach of the South Ontario Division ski team, and moved the family to the Muskoka region, where they lived on 32 hectares of land that soon became the Raymond Ski School.

Mr. Niederhauser used it as a training facility for the team and supplemented activities with year-round, week-long training camps in provincial parks.

In 1976, he co-founded the Canadian Association of Nordic Ski Instructors and, a year later, moved to Ottawa as technical director and head coach of the national team. However, not everyone appreciated his style. Grumbling followed his introduction of mandatory, European-style, early-morning runs, and discontent ran so high that he believed it would be better if he did not accompany the team to the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

To his disappointment, only the women's team competed. The Canadian Olympic Committee had deemed members of the men's team unlikely to place in the top 16 and told them to stay home.

Mr. Niederhauser was fired along with Jack Sasseville, another coach. While the dismissal angered Mr. Sasseville, Mr. Niederhauser chose to focus on ensuring a smooth transition. "That was his way," Mr. Sasseville said. "He constantly was working towards trying to make skiing better."

That year, too, Mr. Niederhauser's marriage ended.

In 1981, he met Blanche Drapeau. During the next decade, the couple moved to White Lake outside Ottawa, purchased Lowney Lake Campground and started a family. From the campground, Mr. Niederhauser ran a bake shop and a landscaping business, while remaining involved in skiing.

During the 1980s, he also founded and coached the Ottawa Racers Ski Club and helped develop the city-owned Mooney's Bay facility into one for cross-country training and racing. He coached the Ontario Junior Team and served on the national ski team committee.

When the 1988 Calgary Olympics came around, Mr. Niederhauser was there as chief of manual grooming of the cross-country course. With his usual dedication, he supervised a large crew charged with touching up the trail with rakes and shovels.

Later, Mr. Niederhauser started the ski club that came to be known as Lowney Lake Nordic and was eventually based out of the campground. He also became involved with the national capital district ski program and the Ontario Junior Team. Among his protégés was Kate Brennan, who made her World Cup debut in last month's races in Canmore, Alta.

Although Mr. Niederhauser officially retired last fall, he continued to coach. At the beginning of January, some of his athletes were competing near Collingwood, Ont., and he took to the trails between events to prepare for an upcoming World Masters Race in Idaho in March. "It's a beautiful day for a ski," he said as they parted. He collapsed soon afterward.


Heinz Walter Niederhauser was born Aug. 27, 1935, in Zurich, Switzerland. He died Jan. 5, 2008, in Duntroon, Ont. He was 72. He is survived by his wife, Blanche Drapeau. He also leaves his children, Sven, Jana, Lars, Tom and Glen.