Looking back on a 100 Years of Champions

Hey, Louis Rubenstein, you with your dashing black bowler hat, moustache and sense of adventure: could you ever have imagined that 100 years after you created the first official Canadian figure skating championship in 1914, that Canada would be fielding the largest team of skaters in the world to the Sochi Olympic Games?

It wasn’t so easy for you, when you competed in the first unofficial world figure skating championship in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1890 – and won against all odds – but now the path you have forged leads back to Russia again this year, and the 100th anniversary of the event will serve to pick the team that will head to Sochi. And in the years since 1914, (when only three disciplines were contested), what memories your work has spawned.

The dance championship didn’t begin to rock until 1935 but Lady Evelyn Grey, daughter of the Governor General, competed in an unofficial waltz back in 1910. And that’s the sort of world that figure skating was back in the day: an entertaining show for the elite.

“Up until the 1950s, skating competitions were mainly a social event,” said former international skating judge Jane Garden. “They started out in Europe at the resorts in Switzerland as entertainment for the guests.” When she judged her first Canadian championship in 1965 (in Calgary), Garden puzzled out her scores while dressed in an evening gown. (Mind you, years later, she has admitted that she wore long johns underneath it.) She and her peers sat in chairs on a rubber mat at one side of the ice surface. Once, while Garden sat in the end chair, a skater careened wildly toward her, out of control. Fortunately, the skater stopped just as he hit the mat. “I was all poised to jump,” Garden said.

Under Rubenstein’s watch, skating grew more sophisticated and during the 1920s and 1930s, Canada had some of the best skaters in the world, with Constance Wilson Samuel winning nine national women’s titles and six pair titles between 1924 and 1938; Cecil Smith, a two-time Canadian women’s champion who proved popular with overseas media; Melville Rogers, a five-time Canadian champion between 1926 and 1928, the dominant Montgomery Wilson who still holds the record among Canadian men with nine national wins between 1929 and 1939; and Ralph McCreath, winner of three men’s titles. They all excelled internationally, and many of them also competed in pairs and dance – and even a fours event. That’s just what skaters did in those days.

After the Second World War, things were never the same after a tiny Barbara Ann Scott finished second at her first senior Canadian championship in 1941 when she was only 12, behind Mary Rose Thacker but ahead of the 1940 champion Norah McCarthy. “It can be very discouraging for a grownup to lose a judge’s decision to a tiny tot who spends her time between appearances – as I did – sitting in the dressing room with a Charlie McCarthy doll on her lap, practicing ventriloquism,” Scott wrote in her autobiography Skate With Me.

In those early days, Canadians often didn’t skate to recorded music. They would arrive at the national championships with annotated sheet music, and they would skate to a live pianist. Usually, a chap called Jack Jardine obliged.

In 1946, Ralph McCreath left a lasting impression when he won the men’s event, dressed in his army uniform. It was a dramatic performance. Whenever MccCreath did a jump, Jardine would take his hands off the piano keys and he wouldn’t play the next note until McCreath had landed. “After a while, skaters started to complain that Jack would adjust the tempo,” Garden said. “And if he didn’t like you, you had real trouble with it.” He would speed it up – or slow it down.

As recorded music became more available, skaters and coaches would spend long hours at Sam Sniderman’s Toronto shop, listening to find the perfect tune. “He’d let you open the records and play them,” Garden said. Up until 1985 at the championships in Moncton, N.B., skaters were still using music on plastic vinyl records, that often were held up in airport security because many didn’t realize that specially cut records had a metal insert.

Those Canadian championships in Moncton also marked the first time that results were done by computer, which sat on the judges’ stand on top of a tablecloth that generated so much static electricity that it wiped it out for a day or two.

Some of Canada’s brightest skating stars – and there are many – waltzed their way through the Canadian championships on their way to world honours. The Canadian championships are special to all of them. “The really neat thing about going to the Canadian championship is the fans,” said Victor Kraatz, who, with Shae-Lynn Bourne won 10 senior national titles, more than any other Canadian skaters in a sole event. “The fans are what really drive the Canadian championships. They come back year after year, even when the economy isn’t doing so well. The inspiration you get to light up the spectators was always one of our pre-sets when we competed.”

Many remember the year that 14,000 Canadian spectators at the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton chanted: “Six! Six! Six!” after Bourne and Kraatz skated their iconic Riverdance routine in 1998. The judges listened, handing out six marks of 6.0. It was the first time Bourne and Kraatz received the mark of perfection.

Five years earlier, when the popularity of skating was at its height, former Canadian pair champion Sandra Bezic recalls the heady atmosphere surrounding the Kurt Browning-Elvis Stojko rivalry, when the crowd in Hamilton, Ont., roared and wouldn’t stop. Bezic had choreographed Browning’s memorable routine to Casablanca. Both skaters performed lights out and had the crowd on edge. Browning swept all the judges and won.

The memories that champions hold are not always the big ones. Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden were trying to make the Olympic team in 1952, but had been told they weren’t good enough. “Let’s not pay any attention to that,” said coach Sheldon Galbraith. “Let’s just work for what we’re trying to do.”

The Canadian championships that year were in Oshawa, but a driving blizzard wreaked havoc on travel to the event. By the time Dafoe and Bowden made their way through the heavy snow, they discovered their hotel rooms had been given away.

Col. Sam McLaughlin, the Canadian car baron and philanthropist, was kind enough to take them into his home. But because they were to compete not only in the pairs event, but three dance events, Dafoe was quite nervous. Norris suggested they go for a walk. But when they returned, they found that the McLaughlin’s had left and locked the door – and their skates were in the house. Bowden jimmied a window, they got their skates and headed to the arena.

Their trial by fire wasn’t over. At the two-minute mark of their five-minute pair routine – the one that was to get them to the Olympics – their music stopped. Coach Sheldon Galbraith had told them to keep skating no matter what, so they did. Two minutes later, the music came back on, and Dafoe and Bowden were right on the beat. They won, and with it, got a trip to their first Olympics. In fact, they won everything they entered at that Canadian championship, despite all of their troubles.

Until they won their first world championship, Dafoe and Bowden paid their own way to competitions.

Donald Jackson was only 14 when he skated at his first Canadian championship (junior level) in Toronto in 1955. He had a new haircut. His skates were shiny. And his parents had sent his costume off to be pressed. At the Ford Hotel, where they were staying, Jackson’s father, George pressed his son as they were getting ready to go to the rink: “Don, do you have everything?”

“Yes, dad,” Jackson said. Father asked him again. “Don’t worry,” Jackson said. “I’ve got everything.”

At the rink, when Jackson went to the dressing room, he discovered, much to his horror, that the pants were missing. The hotel had put the costume on two different hangers, and the trousers were hanging behind the closet door. Father George had to go into high gear. Jackson said he took a streetcar back to the hotel and retrieved the trousers five minutes before Jackson took to the ice. As if nothing had happened, Jackson skated such a stirring free skate that he received a loud, noisy standing ovation at the Varsity Arena and won, defeating Bob Paul. It was Jackson’s first time at a Canadian championship.

Like Jackson and Dafoe, Bezic remembers her first one best. In 1966, she was only nine years old and she’d had the measles the week before. Because of her illness, the Bezics arrived only the day of the event in Peterborough, driving through a snowstorm. Bezic and her 12-year-old brother, Val, finished second to last, were thrilled not to be last, and went right back home again. “We had no clue,” Bezic said. The following year, she and brother Val won the novice pair championship. “Then it all becomes sort of a blur,” she said. The Bezics won five senior titles from 1970 to 1974.

Ditto, for Maria Jelinek, who with her brother, Otto, had to play second fiddle to Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul before they won two national titles themselves. But her first memory? Her first Canadian championship in 1955 in Toronto. She was a 12-year-old girl in pigtails and Otto was 15. They originally had no intention of competing at the Canadian championships that year, but coach Bruce Hyland casually said since it was so close, why not put together a program and go?

They had to compete against a pair much older than they were, but after the warm-up, the pair withdrew, perhaps realizing they weren’t going to win. Hyland was upset, thinking that if they withdrew, the event wouldn’t be counted as a competition, but officials deemed that since the team had warmed up on the ice, they were indeed part of the competition. The Jelineks went out – and won, of course.

Unlike many other skaters, Kraatz remembers all of his 10 victories from 1993 to 2003. “They were not a blur at all, because they all were a moment in our development that would usually signal the send-off for worlds,” he said. It was monumental, however, when he and Bourne won the junior title in 1992. Bourne had practiced in a helmet after a practice fall before the event. But the Swiss-born Kraatz remembers it as the first competition he had ever won in Canada.

He remembers the milestones. Every year, they did a program that was vastly different from the one before. Every three or four years, they had different coaches. However, Kraatz’s fondest memories are his days with Josee Picard and Eric Gillies, because they were Canadian coaches who cared about the strength of the sport in the country, he said.

Mostly, he remembers the camaraderie among skaters, and the appreciation of cities across the country where the championships were held. “It gave me an idea of what the country was like,” he said. Unlike 1914, it’s no longer a contest between a few clubs in Montreal and Ottawa, Canada’s best skaters from across the country make the journey to the event every January.

Beverley Smith

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