Hudec 2nd in Val Gardena Super G

Jan Hudec claimed Canada’s first alpine World Cup podium of the season Friday when a storming super-G run earned the speed team veteran a second-place finish in Val Gardena-Groeden, Italy.

The 32-year-old from Calgary, Alta., attacked the classic Saslong course – a happy hunting ground for Canadians since the days of the Crazy Canucks – to give the Cowboys a superb start to what could be a big weekend and prove they’re building momentum at the right time with less than 50 days to go until the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games.

Hudec, who has battled back from a series of devastating injuries and this summer juggled training with launching an optometry business, showed once again that he can never be counted out on race day as the man known as ‘Panda’ set the early pace from bib 12 and was only prevented from claiming a famous victory by a scintillating run from Norwegian superstar Aksel Lund Svindal, who took the win.

Hudec’s second-place finish is his fifth-career World Cup podium and his first since February 2012, when he was second in the super-G in Crans Montana, Switzerland. Erik Guay, of Mont-Tremblant, Que. – who alongside Svindal was the fastest man in downhill training this week – also had a strong run and was sixth Friday, while Manuel Osborne-Paradis, of Vancouver, B.C., skied out as fog descended on the top part of the course. All three are serious contenders in Saturday’s downhill.

“This is just huge,” said Hudec, who clocked a time of one minute, 36.40 seconds. “It’s confirmation that I’ve been doing the right things and just going with it and being patient. I knew my time in the sport wasn’t up and I wouldn’t have carried on skiing if I didn’t believe I could do this.

“I feel pretty blessed that I got to be the first guy on the podium this year but it’s just a matter of time before Erik and Manny (Osborne-Paradis) are there, too. We have a great history here and there’s no reason we can’t do something special in the downhill tomorrow.”

Hudec’s second-place finish is the fifth podium by a Canadian man in Val Gardena since 2008 – Osborne-Paradis and Guay each have two – and the 15th in total since Crazy Canuck Ken Read was third in the downhill in 1978. Hudec added to Canada’s history in the Dolomites on the back of a near flawless run on a challenging course set.

“It was almost perfect,” Hudec said. “I started a little safer at the top so I could carry my speed at the bottom and then made one mistake in the middle section at the camel jumps.”

Svindal, who won the opening super-G of the season in Lake Louise, Alta., was always going to be the man to beat and so it proved as he knocked over half a second off Hudec’s time to cross the line in 1:35.82. France’s Adrien Theaux was third (1:36.73).

Svindal, winner of three straight super-G races in Val Gardena, leads the overall World Cup standings with 460 points. Austria’s Marcel Hirscher is second (335) and the USA’s Ted Ligety is third (269). Hudec is the top Canadian in 10th (171). Svindal also leads the downhill and super-G rankings, while Hudec sits third in super-G after finishing 10th and 13th in the opening races of the year in Lake Louise and Beaver Creek, USA. Osborne-Paradis, Guay and Hudec are 10th, 12th and 13th, respectively, in the downhill standings.

“I skied the same today as I did in super-G in Lake Louise and Beaver Creek,” Hudec said of Friday’s run. “The only difference was that in Lake Louise I made one huge mistake in the middle and in Beaver Creek I made a couple of small mistakes. I knew if I stayed patient and kept with it I could do it.”

Hudec, who opened an optometry store in downtown Calgary this summer, said his result was proof that he had been able to manage the challenging task of balancing training and launching his own business.

“A lot of people were kind of unsure if I was going to be able to do the business and skiing,” Hudec said. “It was a huge pressure for me, making sure everybody on the ski side was happy but also running a business properly. It forced me to focus 100 per cent on those two things. Today is confirmation that I was able to do a good job at both.”

Hudec’s second-place finish marked a first podium with the men’s team for head coach Martin Rufener, who joined Alpine Canada in the summer.

“It shows us that we are there,” Rufener said of the men’s speed team. “We needed that to confirm we are on the right track. It’s great to see.

“We’ve been working the whole year to get on the podium. We knew in the training sessions we had with the Norwegians that we were competitive but to do it in a race situation and especially in a super-G, when there is no training run, is great.”

Guay, the 2010 super-G Crystal Globe winner and 2011 world downhill champion, set the pace in the downhill training runs this week – finishing second and first – and he had a strong race Friday, jumping from bib 25 into sixth. He clocked a time of 1:37.19.

Osborne-Paradis, who was also fast in the downhill training runs, went out at a time when fog seemed to blanket the top part of the course.

“For Erik it’s great to be sixth,” Rufener said. “Manny went out but he’s ready for tomorrow’s downhill. Those three guys are right there knocking on the door.”

Hudec, Guay and Osborne-Paradis had all pre-qualified for nomination to Canada’s team for the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games prior to Friday’s race. Marie-Michèle Gagnon, of Lac-Etchemin, Que., has also pre-qualified on the ladies’ side.

The rest of the Canadians were kept outside the top 30 in Friday’s super-G as conditions – particularly the visibility – deteriorated for those with later start numbers.

Jeffrey Frisch, of Mont-Tremblant, Que., started 45th and finished 33rd, while there was an encouraging 35th-place finish from Robbie Dixon, of Whistler, B.C., who is on the comeback trail following injury and was wearing bib 54 on Friday. Ben Thomsen, of Invermere, B.C., was 43rd, while Conrad and Morgan Pridy were 45th and 47th, respectively.

Next up is Saturday’s World Cup downhill, also in Val Gardena. The final ladies’ downhill training run in Val d’Isère, Italy, was cancelled due to snowfall. The ladies’ downhill is also set for Saturday.