Tens of thousands flocked to the tourist district in Niagara Falls Saturday night to witness the first leg of the 2012-13 Red Bull Crashed Ice tournament where defending champion Kyle Croxall showed he’s again in top form.
The Mississauga skater finished first in the men’s final ahead of American Cameron Naasz watched by a crowd that organizers claim topped 60,000.
The 24-year-old Canadian, a Mississauga native, said afterward the Niagara Falls track was more technical than competitors were used to.
“It’s not something where you go bombing down the hill. There are a lot of speed checks.”
Ottawa’s Fannie Desforges won the women’s final.
The crowd included Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf and Buffalo Sabres forward Cody Hodgson for the mostly free event. The only paid viewing areas were the Fan Zone at the finish line and a VIP section at the Skylon Tower. Murray Hill was jam-packed and lineups were long at fast food outlets and the Starbucks coffee outlet.
It was the first of five races on the Crashed Ice calendar.
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Croxall said he felt some pressure to perform heading into the event.
“There was a lot of pressure coming in being the overall champion last year.”
The pressure was eased, however, by the fact he was racing so close to home.
“It made me more relaxed.”
About 200 friends and family from the GTA made the trek to see him race, Croxall said.
For Naasz, the podium finish in Niagara Falls has turned out to be a career highlight.
“It’s nice. My best finish was 15th last year in Sweden,” Naasz said.
The speedy American looked primed for a possible upset but came up short in the final.
“I was gassed,” Naasz said.
He said his result has left him pumped for the next stop for the series in Saint Paul, Minn.
“I’m really looking forward to it. It will be my hometown event.”
Croxall, meanwhile, said he liked the Niagara Falls layout.
“It’s really technical,” he said. “It’s not like what we’re used to doing, barreling straight downhill.”
He also said he would like to see the tour stop in Niagara Falls again next year as a part of growing the tour.
“I hope it gets bigger and we continue to do it worldwide every year,” he said.
Croxall had a relatively easy path to the but still managed to top the field in a tough semifinal heat which also featured 2010-11 champion Marty Niefnecker from Germany.
Kyle’s brother, Scott Croxall failed to advance past the first heat after he fell twice, it meant that with Scott Croxall and Pihlainen out, half of the top four for the 2011-12 world championship standings were out of the running to become the first-ever Niagara Falls champ.
- with files from Niagara This Week