A teenaged Bjorger Pettersen has a hard time containing his excitement as he blasts through the snow on his skis on trails he and his family cut through the forests of Prince George near what is now Spruceland Mall. Pettersen, a member of the Prince George Sports Hall of Fame, died at age 76 last week at his home in Okotoks, Alta. Bjorger Pettersen, a member of the Prince George Sports Hall of Fame for his work as Canada’s first full-time cross-country ski coach, died Dec. 29 at his home in Okotoks, Alta., after a nearly two-decade battle with sarcoidosis, a chronic disease that causes inflammation of the lungs. He was 76.
Pettersen’s legacy includes leaving Prince George in the mid-1960s for Inuvik, NWT, where he quickly transformed a group of Indigenous kids from the Mackenzie Delta region into Olympic-calibre athletes. Two of his skiers, twin sisters Sharon and Shirley Firth of the Gwich’in First Nation, were on the national women’s cross-country team for 17 years, competing in four consecutive Winter Olympics.
"You know what makes me smile?" Pettersen told reporter Peter Graves in a 2010 SkiTrax.com article. "Well, seven of nine skiers on the 1972 Canadian Olympic team were from the little town of Inuvik, a town of about 1,500 people. It made me very proud."
Pettersen’s roots in Prince George can be traced back to 1958 when he moved with his family from Kitimat at age 16. Skiing was a family passion they carried with them from Sarpsborg, Norway, when they immigrated to Camrose, Alta., five years earlier. The Pettersens became active members of the Sons of Norway Ski Club and cut their own cross-country trails closer to their home on Harper Street through stretches of pine forest in what is now the residential area west of Spruceland Mall.
Recognizing the need to grow the sport and not be so exclusive, Pettersen and Harry Andersen suggested the club change its name to Hickory Wing Ski Club. The club developed the trails at Tabor Mountain which became a beacon for ski racers in the region. Tabor was the site of the 1965 biathlon and cross-country national championships and the Centennial Races in 1967 that brought international racers to Prince George.
"Hickory Wing became a real iconic development in Canadian cross-country skiing because we became the main centre in Canada to produce cross-country skiers," said Pettersen, in an interview with The Citizen a few months before his death. "It all started in Prince George after we sort of laid the roots to the development we had here in Canada."
Ski racing was Pettersen’s life until an injury cut short his career just before he was about to represent Canada in the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. He was named to the Canadian Olympic training squad in 1962 and returned to Norway to train but had to stop entirely when he nearly ruptured his Achilles tendon, an overuse injury he attributed to too much running on hard surfaces.
Unable to ski, he returned to Prince George and became a coach, ordering as many training manuals as he could find through his contacts in Norway.
He attended the annual fall convention of the Canadian Ski Association and was elected chairman and head coach of the CSA’s Western Division. When Pettersen took over as coach, just two of the 28 national team skiers were from the Western Division. By 1966, 22 of the 28 team members came from his program.
To help share the workload, Pettersen got his father John and younger brother Rolf involved and by 1965 Hickory Wing was the top club racing team in Canada. Rolf went on […]
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