Many skating clubs across Canada are incredibly successful and boast of ever increasing enrollment. Others are facing huge operational challenges. Costs are rising dramatically while membership in some areas is dropping due to competition from other activities and a changing demographic. Even the limited pool of dedicated volunteers is shrinking.

Some clubs like the North Bay Figure Skating Club in Northern Ontario have resorted to developing fundraising initiatives to help defray some of their costs. While the old tried and true fund-raising events have proven to be moderately successful in the past, with dwindling resources and opportunities, this season the club realized it had to get creative and find a fresh new approach to ease the bottom line.

But how?

The club already had history with Canadore College, North Bay’s College of Applied Arts and Technology, when students from the Marketing and Advertising Program helped develop the club’s marketing plans to recruit new members and promote the club to the community. One day during a chance conversation at the rink between a CanSkate parent and the club’s CanSkate Coordinator, the discussion focused on involving the college once again, this time by attracting its international students through some kind of learn-to-skate program.

Bingo!

With the College’s significant international student body, many of whom have never seen ice and snow, the idea of collaborating with the club to create a pilot learn-to-skate program could offer students a brand new Canadian experience.

Fraser Mowat, the College’s International Officer, was quick to see the benefits. “Skating is a slippery experience for all of us and if you have never skated before, the whole experience can be frightening. By using the expertise of the local skating club, the students would gain the ability to challenge the ice and learn from the best.”

North Bay Figure Skating Club President David Villeneuve, also a professor at the college, knew the idea was a perfect fit. “I pursued this partnership and although it took a lot of discussion, we managed to work out some shared ice time with our Preschool program. We knew it would be challenging for the Club and certainly for the coaches that had to deliver the program, but the concept was new, innovative and exciting.”

Once the College was on board, the club moved fast. The idea took root in October with a goal to have the program operating by December. With only two months to figure out the details, planning went into overdrive.

Number one consideration was to create a reasonable environment for these adult skaters. “We decided to split a portion of our Preschool ice,” said David, “so the college-age skaters wouldn’t feel too self-conscious.”

Skating student gets help tying skates.

Photo: PJ Wilson

Another challenge faced was encouraging participants to recognize the need for good equipment. Although Canadore College and the International Department provided skates and helmets, some skaters came with their own skates that had been bought online or from friends … very poor quality, no ankle support and blades so dull, they couldn’t cut through butter.

Designing the actual on-ice program was another exercise in creativity. With coaches and the club working together, it was decided that each student group would have three 45-minute sessions.

Coach Cara Song realized there might be other special circumstances in designing the program. “Considering possible language barriers and differing skating capabilities, running a laid back program that centered on the skaters’ needs and concentrated on the basics seemed to be the best approach.”

The coaches looked forward to every new group of students. “The very first day was so exciting”, admitted Cara. “Initially there were 23 students registered for the first session, and because for most of them it was their first time taking public transit to the rink, they all came staggering in late. We had set up signs all around the arena and were anxiously waiting to meet everyone.”

Standing rink side, David will never forget watching students take those first tentative steps on the ice. “Everyone was clinging to the boards! But with the help and encouragement of our coaches and PA’s the new skaters had an incredible first day. They enjoyed themselves to the point that they were taking selfies and group pictures in their equipment to post on Facebook for family and friends back home.”

Cara agreed. “Everyone was so excited and eager to be there. We had students from all around the world … Asia, Europe, South America. With the exception of a couple of people, most had never ice skated before. There were a few that really picked it up naturally; a handful that relied on skills they had from other sports, like rollerblading; and about half the group that started the session clinging to the boards.”

Language never seemed to be a problem for CanSkate Senior Program Assistant Callie O’Connor. “A couple of times I found myself having to demonstrate and visually show them what to do instead of simply saying it, but obviously over time, they understood clearly.”

One of the first students was Breno da Nobrega Bezerra from Natal, Brazil. “I was excited wondering how it would be and I was a little scared of skating. I had tried do it one time before in Ottawa but I didn’t have the right equipment and I didn’t know how to do it, so I was very happy when some friends talked to me about the skating class.”

“Each class I could improve a little and learn some new things. The instructors helped me to gain confidence, so in the end of skating lessons I had enough confidence to play on ice. It was a great moment for me. I will never forget that!” – Breno da Nobrega Bezerra

For Coach Cara, it was an incredible program in which to be involved. “When you’re working with teens or adults in CanSkate or learn to skate programs, I find there’s a unique passion among the skaters. They all genuinely want to be there. With these international students, their excitement was contagious, and I found myself appreciating the sport more after experiencing it through their fresh eyes.”

Canadore College student learns to skate.

Photo: PJ Wilson

The end results have been inspiring for everyone.

From Canadore’s perspective, Fraser Mowat acknowledged how much all of the students loved the experience and considered it a highlight of their time living in North Bay. “Most of them wanted to go back for more lessons. A few of the students have borrowed skates and gone on their own after finishing their classes.”

Breno is one of them. “Each class I could improve a little and learn some new things. The instructors helped me to gain confidence, so in the end of skating lessons I had enough confidence to play on ice. It was a great moment for me. I will never forget that!”

Cheryl Maltby, another member of the coaching team, was thrilled by the students’ reactions, “On the last day some of the skaters were saying to me that they were going to continue with their skating as much as possible in their home country.”

From the club’s perspective, it’s been a huge win for the community and for the club’s budget. “This has given us the opportunity to build a new community connection with Canadore College” said David. “Since I bridge both of these organizations, I can see how this project could allow us to create connections with other educational and cultural institutions that will allow us to give these programs some additional ice time and coaching. We have tapped into a new population and clientele that we had not thought of before. Canada itself is a nation of immigrants looking for new opportunities, perhaps this could be one of them.”

For other clubs inspired by the North Bay club’s story, David has some sage advice. “Start early. Talk to International Student departments in post-secondary institutions, to local high schools with foreign exchange students and to community multicultural agencies. They’re always looking for unique experiences. Someone is always willing to try if the opportunity is provided.”

If you’re interested in learning to skate, joining a Skate Canada club is easy. There are 1400 clubs across the country for you to choose from … all of them with certified coaching and nationally recognized programming.

To find the club nearest you, check out our clubfinder and embrace the joy of skating.

And finally … congratulations to North Bay Figure Skating Club for developing more skaters for life!