PETER CONRADI/Bullet News
I’m walking on the plaza roof of the Skylon Tower, gingerly inching toward the edge on a surface of loose, large stones, the wind and mist whirling about unpredictably. Approaching the starting gate, I peer down a 48-degree slope of frozen water then let my eyes follow the course, with its constant twists and bumps and whatever else organizers come up with, and reach the only conclusion that can be drawn about these Crashed Ice people: They are crazy.
What other explanation can there be? The Red Bull Crashed Ice competition is for the loonies among us. Brave? No doubt. Athletic? Sure. Out of their minds? Undeniably. And Saturday night that combination enticed a huge crowd to the Fallsview area around Murray Hill to witness one of the biggest spectacles to ever hit Niagara Falls.
How do we categorize this? Sports event? There were skates. Hockey helmets. Protective equipment. Booze in the crowd. Rules, I guess, although I’m not sure what they were. Extravaganza. Exhibition. Performance. Display. Curiosity. Take your pick. Sports? Sure, why not? Snow boarding is part of the Olympics now. Who knows where this Crashed Ice phenomena could end up.
Whatever you call it, whatever the future, it sure packs them in. Even Toronto Maple Leafs’ captain Dion Phaneuf and Buffalo Sabres forward Cody Hodgson – with nothing better to do on this Saturday night – were among those jockeying for viewing space.
Organizers kept tossing about the figure of 60,000. Where that came from is anyone’s guess. They could have said 80,000 or 100,000 and it would have been dutifully reported. It didn’t feel like anything close to that. The roads were full but not overwhelmed. Still, it was busy, for sure. The kilometer-long track that began at the Skylon and wound its way down Murray Hill before ending in Victoria Park, was stacked 5-10 people deep all the way.
Spectators were slow to arrive, but by mid-evening the streets were humming and lineups long at Starbucks and Hortons and pretty much everywhere.
Not sure the majority really knew what they were watching, mind you. Fuelled by cans of Red Bull and various forms of alcohol, they enthusiastically greeted the skaters as the sped and tumbled toward the finish, some of them we are told reaching speeds of 60 km/hr. I don’t doubt that to be true. Launched out of a start gate onto what seemed to be almost a straight vertical drop, these men and women made the efforts of Jay Cochrane and Nik Wallenda seem almost sane.
Actually, the summer wirewalkers went to such great lengths to weave tales of peace and serenity and control and attention to detail while stepping out high above the city that they had us believing they truly were going for a walk in the park.
The Crashed Ice skaters? I kept thinking of that luge tragedy at the Vancouver Olympics. Mix speed and ice and bumps and curves and you have a mixture for disaster. Or at least the element of extreme danger. Which is of course what draws them in.
It’s why crowds flock to NASCAR – the lure of peril and speed and power and unpredictability. Risk sells. And that is what we have embraced in 2012 – a summer of daredevils in the open air followed by a winter of daredevils on ice. Niagara Falls has decided this is what will put us on the map, fill the restaurants and hotels and the bars until 4 a.m. – larger-than-life blockbusters that attract big attention and big audiences and big hype.
Niagara Falls, we were told Saturday night as Crashed Ice hit the airwaves, must be the biggest party town in Canada.
We are? Who knew? Yet it must be true if the Red Bull marketing machine deemed it so. Watching workers take two weeks to turn Fallsview into an extreme racecourse was a sight to behold on its own. Lots of steel and plywood and lights and cameras and speakers everywhere – not to mention plenty of ice and water – transformed a tower, a parking lot and a city street into a glowing, pulsing sound stage that was part street party, part dance party, part booze up, part sales pitch and part athletic competition.
Who were these people, though? What did they represent? What were they trying to win? Few knew. Few truly cared. It didn’t much matter. They represented what has become the faceless Red Bull verve – a masterful branding and blending of product and lifestyle – a lifestyle spent on the edge, whether it be racing cars, mountain bikes, snowboards. Or jumping from the edge of space back to Earth. And all of this to flog a drink that helps us stay awake when what we really need is more rest.
But few were sleeping Saturday night. Even in anonymity, even with the intricacies a mystery to most, the skaters drew cheers as they whizzed past, falling and colliding with the boards on this first leg of the ‘world cross ice championship.’
Roller derby on ice. Bumper cars. Extreme. Action. The fans ate it up on a mild night, free of rain, snow or admission charges. There was plenty of money to be made, mind you. Parking rates topped out at $50 at Fallsview Casino; official Crashed Ice hoodies set you back $80; then there was the Crashed Ice X-Box game pumped up on large-screen televisions at every opportunity.
Welcome to the Red Bull universe, Niagara Falls. We’ve arrived.