Olympian Reijo Puiras helped shape Canadian Ski

Reijo Puiras discovered the gruelling, demanding discipline of cross-country ski for a boy in his ancestral home of Finland. As a young man, he represented Canada in the game at the Winter Olympics.

Mr. Puiras, who has died at 65, constructed ski trails on the rolling hills of his personal property outside Thunder Bay. The popularity of his paths among his skiing buddies was such that he needed to develop the property, developing a training facility now used for global competitions.

His role in the game for a builder led to his induction to the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.

He founded the Lappe Nordic Ski Centre to encourage more Canadians to take up a sport long dominated by athletes from the Nordic countries and the Soviet Union.

“The more racers we have,” he said, “the more Wayne Gretzkys we are likely to discover.”

An outgoing, friendly personality didn’t hide a burning aggressive spirit. Mr. Puiras maintained 10 city championships in Thunder Bay. He raced at the 1974 world championships in Sweden; the 1975 U.S. nationals in Vermont; and the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

His Olympic career lasted 1 hour 41 minutes 34.43 seconds, and that’s how long it took him to finish a challenging 30-kilometre course during the snowy Tyrolean countryside near Seefeld, Austria. He finished in 56th place, over 11 minutes behind gold medalist Sergey Saveliev of the Soviet Union.

Reijo Matias Puiras was born on May 2, 1952, in Chapleau, an Ontario lumber-mill town. His parents, Alli and Lauri Puiras, arrived in Canada in their native Finland the preceding year. In 1957, the family returned to Finland to run a small dairy farm in Kukonkyla. In the winter, Reijo took up ski, an activity and a game in the heart of Finnish culture. After a decade, the family relocated to Ontario for great, settling first in Island Lake, a sawmill town outside Sudbury. His parents later conducted Alli’s Home Kitchen near a gas station in Thunder Bay.

A teenaged Reijo played on his high-school soccer team, although he was more interested in competing as a skier. He qualified for the Canadian national team in 1974, an age where fibreglass skis were replacing traditional wooden ones.

After racing in Europe at the mid-1970s, he visited Finland, where he met a young girl named Tuija Jauho through mutual friends. They corresponded following his return to Canada. She came to see him the next year and they married shortly after.

In 1975, Mr. Puiras bought a house and a parcel of land northwest of Thunder Bay in Lappe. (The hamlet takes its title from a misspelling of the Finnish word Lappi for Laplanders.) It was said he purchased the property as it contained saunas, although rolling terrain and north-facing slopes promising skiing and snow as late as April probably sealed the deal. He constructed a three-kilometre loop to get his own training. The road proved popular with friends. An old school bus has been used as a clubhouse, but as additional paths were developed, ever more skiers came to use the property.

With time, Mr. Puiras bought adjoining property and the ski facility expanded to 80 acres with a chalet including saunas, showers and a kitchen. The road system currently stretches 14 kilometres with attributes carrying such titles as Grunt, Toilet Bowl, Pappa’s Loop, the Swamp, Humpty Dumpty and Massaro’s Heartbreak Downhill.

About seven kilometres are lit for night skiing.

The ski centre has been host to national and international competitions, such as the 2013 world junior trials and the national championships in 2015. It’ll be the site of the Canadian national championships following March.

Even though a local club operated the facility for recreational skiers, Mr. Puiras frequently acted as route principal for competitions.

“It gives me great pride to see all of the young skiers in Canada racing on those paths,” he said.

He worked a construction company specializing in exterior finishing. After selling the company to his employees, he owned and managed Boncor Building Products, a wholesaler.

Mr. Puiras, who was in failing health for three decades, died of organ failure in the home on Aug. 4. He leaves his wife, son Timo Puiras, daughter Susanna Puiras, four grandchildren and a brother, Jarmo Puiras, a former world-champion crokinole participant from Cornwall, PEI. He was predeceased by a sister, Miriam McNaughton, who died in Ottawa in 2005.

In 2011, Mr. Puiras was appointed a co-winner of the Dave Rees Award for outstanding commitment to the game by Cross Country Canada.

The ski centre has started a Reijo Puiras Legacy Fund to continue the progress of cross-country ski in the area.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail