Olympian Reijo Puiras helped shape Canadian skiing

    September 5, 2017

    Reijo Puiras, seen during a cross-country race at the Canadian National Championships in the late 1970s.

    Reijo Puiras learned the gruelling, demanding discipline of cross-country skiing as a boy in his ancestral home of Finland. As a young man, he represented Canada in the sport at the Winter Olympics.

    Mr. Puiras, who has died at 65, built skiing trails on the rolling hills of his private property outside Thunder Bay. The popularity of his trails among his skiing friends was such that he had to further develop the property, creating a training facility now used for international competitions.

    His role in the sport as a builder led to his induction into 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 once said, "the more Wayne Gretzkys we're likely to find."

    An outgoing, friendly personality did not mask a burning competitive spirit. Mr. Puiras claimed 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, which is how long it took him to complete a tough 30-kilometre course through the snowy Tyrolean countryside near Seefeld, Austria. He finished in 56th place, more than 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 from their native Finland the previous year. In 1957, the family returned to Finland to operate a small dairy farm in Kukonkyla. In winter, Reijo took up cross-country skiing, an activity and a sport at the heart of Finnish culture. After a decade, the family relocated to Ontario for good, settling at first in Island Lake, a sawmill town outside Sudbury. His parents later ran Alli's Home Kitchen next to a gas station in Thunder Bay.

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

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

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

    In time, Mr. Puiras bought adjacent land and the ski centre expanded to 80 acres with a chalet including saunas, showers and a kitchen. The trail system now stretches 14 kilometres with features carrying such names 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, including the 2013 world junior trials and the national championships in 2015. It will be the site of the Canadian national championships next March.

    While a local club operated the facility for recreational skiers, Mr. Puiras often acted as course chief for competitions.

    "It gives me great pride to see all the young skiers in Canada racing on these trails," he said.

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

    Mr. Puiras, who had been in failing health for three years, died of organ failure at 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 player from Cornwall, PEI. He was predeceased by a sister, Miriam McNaughton, who died in Ottawa in 2005.

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

    The ski centre has started a Reijo Puiras Legacy Fund to continue the advancement of cross-country skiing in the region.