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By focusing on athletes, Peterson elevated winter sport across America
By Tom Kelly
Howard Peterson, the visionary behind Utah’s Soldier Hollow Nordic Center as well as leader of the U.S. Ski Association, passed away Monday (May 11) in Heber City, Utah. A Maine native, Peterson was one of the founders of the National Ski Touring Operators Association, now Cross Country Ski Areas Association. He was recognized in 2018 with CCSAA’s Founders Award for his contributions to the organization and lifelong commitment to the sport.
A passionate rock climber with over a dozen first ascents to his credit in New England and Alaska, Peterson was also a lifelong cross country skier. He bounced around to several colleges mixed with climbing trips. Settling back to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, he had the unusual desire to work in a distressed industry – either outdoor recreation or healthcare. Through friends, he got to know the leaders of Bretton Woods Resort, which was in bankruptcy. It was the perfect job.
Peterson ran the ski operation – trails, tickets, rentals and more. In his short four year tenure there, he doubled sales and tripled revenue.
Peterson’s tenure at Bretton Woods coincided with the origins of CCSAA, then the fledgling Northeast Ski Touring Operators Association, which became the National association in 1977. The concept at the time was conceived by Joe Pete Wilson of Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont and his own BarkEater near Lake Placid. He brought together the leading touring center operators at the time, with the relative newcomer Peterson joining a group of true pioneers of the cross country ski industry.
CCSAA was born of an idea by Joe Pete Wilson in 1973 when he called a meeting of 25 ski areas to meet in Woodstock, VT and suggested banding together as a professional network. By 1977 a regional association formed under the name Northeast Ski Touring Operators Association. It became a national/North American organization in 1977 under the name National Ski Touring Operators’ Association.
A young, innovative promoter and sport operator, Peterson rose quickly in NSTOA. He paired up with Tony Clark of Vermont’s Blueberry Hill as a co-chair in 1977-78, succeeding Wilson. In 1978-79, he took over sole chairmanship.
In the spring of 1978, Peterson was tabbed for a role at the U.S. Ski Association (USSA) out of its Brattleboro, Vt. office under Vice President of Marketing Harry Brown. Ironically, Peterson had caught Brown’s eye when the young ski area manager had testified against USSA in a court action.
The USSA was developing a marketing arm to more actively promote events. One of Peterson’s first tasks was development of the new Great American Ski Chase, a series of long distance races across the country.
The series was conceived out of the burgeoning popularity of cross country events on the heels of Bill Koch’s Olympic silver medal just two years earlier. On his first day of work, Peterson joined Brown to meet with Wisconsin ski area entrepreneur Tony Wise to discuss having the American Birkebeiner join the new GASC. While that initial meeting didn’t go so well, Peterson shepherded the Ski Chase along for a productive 1979 ski season debut.
Along the way he also pioneered programs like the Bill Koch Youth Ski League, which instantly was introducing thousands of kids to the sport.
His success was rapid and within a year he took over the top marketing spot for USSA. In 1981, he rose to executive director of the USSA Competition Division. And with the USSA Recreation side in shambles, he was promoted in 1983 to head the entire organization. He quickly stabilized USSA through innovative marketing and strong business leadership. Within a few years, it was profitable and thriving. He had inherited an organization with $900,000 in debt in 1983, which he grew to $1.5 million in the bank by 1988.
At the same time, the separate U.S. Ski Team was struggling. In 1988, Peterson engineered a deal to bring together the U.S. Ski Team and U.S. Ski Association into one entity, basing the new organization in Park City.
As secretary general of USSA in the late 1980s, Peterson pushed the U.S. Olympic Committee to select a candidate city based on its willingness to develop legacy facilities for athletes. His efforts resulted in Salt Lake City winning over Anchorage in 1989 by two votes and building venues that continue to serve athletes and the public today.
After working to stabilize the new U.S. Ski Association, Peterson retired from that role in 1994. He then led an initiative to find an environmentally appropriate Olympic cross country venue that would also be conducive to athletes in a high altitude region. They found it in Soldier Hollow, just outside of Midway, Utah.
In 1999, Peterson led an initiative to form the Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation. It’s legacy resulted in training facilities for athletes still used today, as well as a regional outdoor recreation center that continues to thrive.
Soldier Hollow became his pride and joy, helping raise $1-million to build the Day Lodge, starting the Soldier Hollow Charter School in 2002 and bringing events like the Sheep Dog Classic to the region. He took the initiative to create programs for schools, bringing kids to Soldier Hollow to learn how to cross country ski and entertaining families with snow tubing.
Along the way, Soldier Hollow was one of the Olympic venues that never seemed to get respect. It was one of the furthest from Salt Lake City, yet it had some of the best crowds. Peterson’s influence helped create a venue that was welcoming. And the magic of Cirque du Soleil producer Phil Jordan brought the magic. Olympic fans simply loved the experience at Soldier Hollow – a blend of elite cross country racing with the legend and lore of the American West.
“We all remember with great pride the hard work and focus that Howard Peterson displayed as a leader,” said Courtland Nelson, who was head of Utah State Parks at the time of the Olympics. “His deep understanding of the steps needed to create a venue for sport and outdoor recreation was key in the partnership of Utah State Parks and the many nordic supporters in Utah during the late ’90s and early ’00s.”
Nelson challenged Peterson to come up with a plan. He did. The Principles of Successful Nordic Sport Complexes, developed by Peterson, served the partnership between Soldier Hollow and Wasatch Mountain State Park well.
“He led us all through the fundamental steps that were needed to create a financially viable operation while providing fun winter activities and elite and youth sport training and competition. He knew each step to be taken to success and had the national and international contacts to make it happen.”
“We will miss Howard as a friend, a colleague and a leader,” said Luke Bodensteiner, chief of sport development for the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation and general manager of Soldier Hollow Nordic Center. “He was steadfast in his vision that the Olympics in Utah would leave a legacy for winter sport for generations to come. And we continue to enjoy the impact of his tireless efforts today, particularly at Soldier Hollow, which became so near and dear to him, and into which he invested so much of himself.”
“Howard was a visionary who knew that operating a nordic center required additional activities and community offerings,” said Colin Hilton, CEO of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation.”His leadership brought not only world class cross country skiing to Utah, but also year round tourism with summer events such as the Sheep Dog Classic and winter tubing.”
By the time he retired from Soldier Hollow in 2014, Peterson had helped introduce around 100,000 kids and adults to cross country skiing. He was a familiar face around the Day Lodge, along with wife Susan. His mind harkened back often to his days many decades earlier at Bretton Woods.
Peterson, who was 69, died after a long illness. His wife, Susan, passed in 2016. The two met ice climbing on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in 1976. They were married in 1989, enjoying a life of travel and adventure – visiting 80 countries together.
Family and friends are expected to hold a future celebration of his life at Soldier Hollow at an appropriate time in the future.