Georgi Reidl, 12-year-old figure skater, has a mean spiral with a pair of long legs that stretch forever. Austin Martell, 12-year-old intrepid hockey player, has the striped toque, a Christmas present that never seems to leave his head. And he’s game for anything.
Together, these small-town athletes from Stayner, Ont., are the Mini Blades champions of Canada. They are part of the bubbling up of an underground movement in Canadian skating clubs that has, with some tongue in cheek, copied the format of the television show Battle of the Blades, which pairs up hockey players with figure skaters, Canada’s two main winter passions.
“We are always looking for new ways to raise funds to keep the membership fees down,” said Stayner Skating Club president, Heather Trott. “One of our neighbouring clubs had one and it was quite successful, so we thought we’d give it a whirl.”
Over the past few seasons, Sandra Bezic, chief steward of the Battle of the Blades show, has become aware of this phenomenon. She could see in her google alerts that multiple communities across the country were staging their own version of the show to raise finances. On YouTube, she saw skaters of all sorts and ages, even hockey and figure skating coaches getting into the act.
“We were thrilled to hear about this,” Bezic said. The television show started a Mini Blades pilot project, restricting it to skaters between 3 and 13 and with the help of Skate Canada, approached seven clubs across the country to take up the challenge.
Bezic is also a five-time Canadian pair champion, world renowned choreographer and Skate Canada hall of Fame member.
Mathieu Dandenault, a three-time Stanley Cup champion who skated with Marie-France Dubreuil in Battle of the Blades, was touched by the Mini Blade thing. “I think it’s really nice and the fact that we’re sort of breaking down barriers, about big macho hockey players, and hockey parents, especially, to be open,” he said. “I have so much more respect for figure skaters and especially the men. They are better skaters. They are stronger in most elements. So if NHL guys do it, then it’s okay for younger kids to do it and that’s the important message. It’s for everyone, and you’re not being laughed at, because these figure skaters are better skaters than we are.”
The Stayner Club, one of the chosen ones, had to get busy, right away. They had already done three seasons of Mini Blades. Every year, they’d bring in Santa Claus as one of the judges, because the event was always held a week or two before Christmas. The interest in the show grew to the point that it became the club’s second biggest money-maker, next to the carnival at the end of March.
And this year, the Stayner show attracted more male hockey players than the club had girls to skate with them. “I think it’s something different, and they have a lot of fun with it,” Trott said.
But the Stayner Club wasn’t to get ice time until October 16, and their Mini Blades show was to take place on October 30. Santa Claus was voted off the show. Instead, they had a town councillor, a hockey player and a figure skating rep offer up their expertise on the judging panel.
The club made a presentation to town council, asking it to give them free ice time to decorate the rink for the October 30 show. Given that ice rental goes for $130 an hour, it was a $900 gift. Twice a week, the Minis skated before school to train – starting at 7 a.m. and again during an afternoon on another day. The club made at least $2,000 from the October 30 show, about $500 more than usual. The stands (maximum 500) filled up. There was a buzz in the town.
Meanwhile, Reidl and Martell teamed up to become a formidable duo. They had been best friends since kindergarten. “I needed a partner and he needed to show up his brother,” Reidl said. “So it was good.”
Martell’s older brother, Cody, had skated in the show last year. So had Reidl’s older sister, Kirsten.
But it wasn’t an easy job to move from concept to champion. “When they went out on the ice together, they were horrible,” said Raylene Martell, mother of the hockey player. “I thought: ‘Oh my god,’ this is not going to be good.’ Nothing gelled with them. I thought: ‘What did we do?’”
“He skated like an absolute hockey player and she skated like an absolute figure skater,” said Dorothy-Jo Reidl, mother of Georgie. “We had to bring it together.”
The mothers worked as choreographers, pulling out elements from the television show that they thought their kids could do.
“I did a Mohawk,” said Martell. “I don’t know the names of the other things.”
Reidl was more than happy to fill in. “We did spirals and a waltz jump,” she said.
Martell’s toque became an issue. Georgie and her mother nixed the idea of him wearing it. Then Georgie’s coach strode by one day and said: “Nice hat. You’re wearing it, right?”
Martell got to keep the hat. “You can’t say no to your skating coach,” Reidl conceded.
Martell did refuse to don skates with toe picks. It was non-negotiable. Next year, they’ll have three months to prepare, and Reidl maintains that next year, they will swap skates. Easy for her to say: she’s played hockey before.
Best of all, entire communities became involved with the Mini Blade miracle. Everybody weighed in on the national vote. The Martells actually live in Dundalk, a town about half an hour away, and they are originally from Cape Breton, so the Nova Scotians stepped up in the voting as well. Every single child in both schools in Dundalk got to vote. The principals made sure of it. Martell’s school held an “emergency assembly” to show the clips of the team’s skates and congratulate them on their win.
To top it off, eventual Battle of the Blades winners Amanda Evora and Scott Thornton (a native of nearby Collingwood, Ont.) showed up for the October 30 show in Stayner. Thornton – who Martell looks up to literally and figuratively – told them he was thrilled that skaters were going outside of their comfort zone and trying new things. “It’s really about fun,” he said.