Surfer wannabe Dimitrije Milovich's ambition upon arriving in Utah 30 years ago to launch a revolution and become a rich man started serendipitously enough.
A woman picked him up in the Olympus area as he hitchhiked from Salt Lake City International to Little Cottonwood Canyon. He told her he was en route to a fledgling ski resort opening for the 1972-73 season. He had an invention for a new sport that he wanted Snowbird owner and former big wave surfer Ted Johnson to see. Wilma Johnson pulled into a prime parking space at the resort and arranged for Milovich to meet with her husband on the spot that November day.
The curly, golden-haired Cornell University dropout showed Ted Johnson some patent drawings he and friend Wayne Stoveken made of surfboards for snow. Johnson told Milovich he was welcome to use the slopes to try out his invention. "This is Day One," Milovich, now 51, recalled. "It's just amazing."
The good fortune, though, wouldn't last. There would be some amazing days for Milovich and his small circle of believers over the next decade. But snowboarding wouldn't catch on until after he walked away broke.
"It's as bad to be too early on a trend," he said, "as it is too late."
Milovich was among the pioneers of snowboarding. His story is sometimes forgotten in a sport that has trouble tracing its roots. He doesn't claim to be the first snowboarder nor the father of snowboarding.
But his innovations played a significant role in its evolution. TransWorld Snowboarding magazine gave him a "Tranny Award" in 2000 for his contributions to the sport. He spawned a generation of Utah snow surfers who turned out to be ahead of their time.
The Winterstick brand name he coined is still around today, though under different ownership. And his legendary swallowtail design is making a comeback among those who ride deep powder.
"He definitely was one of the pioneers and had an influence on the industry as a whole," said Dennis Nazari, curator of the Utah Snowboard Museum and president of Salty Peaks snowboard shop.
'The coolest thing'
Born in Holland, Milovich grew up in White Plains, N.Y., with a West Coast mentality. He loved surfing. He absorbed himself in surf magazines and movies, though he says he really wasn't much of a surfer.
One magazine featured a mono snow ski that a world champion surfer said had come to him in a dream. It was essentially two skis side by side. It required ski boots and poles. New Jersey resident Wayne Stoveken responded with a letter to the editor that appeared in the next issue, saying he was working on a design for real "snow surfing" equipment.
Intrigued, Milovich sought out Stoveken in the winter of 1970 in Bayonne, N.J., an industrial town an hour from his home. He borrowed one of his new friend's boards, a 6-foot long, 20-pound "stick" of redwood. At a local ski area, Milovich inched to the nose of the board to make it go downhill and walked to the back to steer.
"I was hooked," he said. "That was the coolest thing I ever did."
Milovich and Stoveken struck up a partnership. In exchange for teaching him how to shape snow surf boards, Milovich agreed to pay for the patents.
The two East Coasters weren't the only ones tinkering with new ways to slide down a snow-covered hill. The Snurfer already was a big hit. Brunswick sold hundreds of thousands of the narrow sled to which a rope was attached at the nose for stability. Early snowboard innovators like Jake Burton, who went on to found the world's largest snowboard company, and Tom Sims also played around with variations on the Snurfer.
But Milovich never considered that snowboarding because a rider held onto a rope. What Stoveken did arms free was snowboarding, he said.
"Everybody lays claim to be being the first snowboarder. It wasn't me. It was Wayne Stoveken."
On his days off from handing out towels at the Snowbird sauna, Milovich experimented with snowboard designs. Stoveken joined him for the first year but grew homesick and returned to the East.
Milovich's early prototypes were thick like surfboards but made with a lightweight urethane foam core covered in fiberglass epoxy. They had pointed noses, and the tail on some models was split, forming a swallowtail. Broken window glass covered with epoxy provided traction. A nylon strap running down the middle served as a crude binding. There also was an ankle leash to keep the board from sliding away after a crash.
"I had to teach myself the sport at the same time I was developing the boards," he said.
Milovich bears a three-inch scar from one lesson. He calls it the "first snowboarding injury." The board tethered to his ankle struck him just below the left eye during a wipeout, cutting his cheek to the bone. "It actually flexed a bit and it came back to bite me." The gash required 45 stitches.
A blurb about him in Newsweek magazine in March 1975 perhaps the first time snowboarding made a major publication brought some welcome attention.
In 1976, Milovich and two colleagues an industrial design graduate of Syracuse University who had read the article and a West High School graphic arts teacher incorporated The Winterstick Co., combining the word "winter" with '60s slang for surfboard. Each of them borrowed $5,000 from his parents.
'Like a rocket'
Milovich handmade the early boards. But as the process evolved, the equipment became more sophisticated. Winterstick made from scratch the composite materials, molds and press that formed its boards. The knowledge would serve the one-time engineering student well later in life.
"We did everything," he said. "We were too stupid to do otherwise."
Milovich rode his first molded board at Snowbasin under the watchful eye of a ski patrolman assigned to stay with him.
"I cranked on the first turn and took off like a rocket. I was twice as fast. He couldn't keep up."
Winterstick hit the trade show circuit ready to "take over the world." It ended up a snowflake in an all-night storm. No one paid any attention. The company picked up an order here and there for the $175 to $250 boards but nothing to write home about.
"It was discouraging, but we were so passionate about the thing. We knew it would work. We just didn't think it would take 15 years."
To keep money coming in, Winterstick made skateboards or "Streetsticks" in the summers. Milovich enlisted the help of a teenage skateboarding champion named Chris Gochnour whom he'd scouted at a competition at the University of Utah.
Gochnour effortlessly crossed over to snowboarding in the winter. He went from the top of the hill to the bottom his first time out, gliding in the powder. His image showed up on Winterstick T-shirts and his photo in brochures. He often rode where few, if any, snowboarders since have gone: Deer Valley.
Long before Bald Mountain became an upscale ski resort where snowboarding isn't allowed, Gochnour, Milovich and others honed their skills on the Wasatch Back.
'A major blow'
There weren't many places for snow surfers to go in 1976. Only a handful of resorts permitted what Milovich then called "sticking." Others weren't sure what to do with this ripple of snow surfers.
Gochnour and a friend once took their Wintersticks to Park City. They walked down the ski lift ramp toting their boards. On their second run, the ski patrol stopped them, saying, "We don't know if we allow those things, so until we figure it out, you'll have to get skis."
"It is one of those things where the lights would go on and then they would go off," Milovich said.
The lights really dimmed after an injured skier successfully sued Stratton Mountain in Vermont. Concerned about liability, resorts nationwide prohibited everything but skis.
"Anything weird was banned from the lifts," Milovich said. "That was a major blow."
Milovich initially tried traditional methods to get his boards on the market. But ski shops didn't want them nor did outdoor sports stores. Local sporting goods stores bought a few, but they didn't sell because of the resort ban.
That left Milovich to dream up all kinds of wacky publicity stunts.
One snowy day he called local television stations to tell them he saw some guys surfing on the snow at Sugar House Park. After hanging up, he hustled to the park with Gochnour. They made the evening news. But no sales.
"Dimitrije was just very clever that way," Gochnour said. "He did everything he could to get exposure to these things."
Perhaps one of Milovich's most far-fetched ideas came when he started thinking about water skiing. He figured boats pull people around glassy lakes, so why not snowmobiles doing the same thing on a layer of powder.
Milovich wrangled a couple of snowmobiles from Kawasaki and set out to sell snowboards to "treadheads." The marketing tour consisted of trips into the Wyoming and Colorado backcountry where he would demonstrate the possibilities. Gochnour often played the guinea pig.
"That right there is about the ultimate," said Gochnour, now a Murray wood worker. "I'm amazed that you don't see it done."
Maybe it's because trees and rocks pose hazardous obstacles. "You could wrap the rope around a tree pretty easily and kill the driver of the snowmobile if not yourself."
Snowboards never caught on with snowmobilers. Gochnour said it proved to be like putting a square peg into a round hole.
It was also a last-ditch effort to save Winterstick, which by 1982 was deep in debt. "It was a last gasp to see if we could find a market," Milovich said.
Milovich sold less than 1,000 snowboards during the company's six-year existence.
"I was devastated. It was hard to admit to myself. I was depressed. Depressed isn't the right word. It was harsh to open the doors (to the shop) and see all the equipment sitting around unused."
But that decade spent trying to revolutionize snow sports didn't go wasted.
Milovich parlayed his experience into other successes. He developed a carbon fiber wind surfing mast for the sailboard that set a world speed record. He developed the technology in a line of Trek bicycle frames that Lance Armstrong rode to victory in the Tour de France.
For the past 16 years, he has owned Radius Engineering, a Salt Lake company that makes parts out of composite materials for the aerospace industry. In fact, he used the press he built to mold snowboards to make flaps for business jets. And he patterned larger presses in his shop after it.
"'The Little Press That Could' is kind of the story of my life," he said.
Milovich remains an avid snowboarder who lives for perfect powder days, though he never really learned to surf. He particularly enjoys riding with his 12-year-old daughter Matisse.
Reflecting on the past 30 years, Milovich recalls a Dutch saying his mother told him, "Je weet nooit hoe een koe een haas vangt."
Translation: One never knows how a cow might catch a rabbit.
E-mail: [email protected]