Friday, 22 January 2016

The 2016 Canadian Championships: From History To Mystery

Back in 1966, the Canadian Figure Skating Association's membership was swelling at over one hundred thousand and was expected to triple within three years with government support from the Physical Fitness and Amateur Sports Council. At the previous year's World Championships at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Petra Burka had won the gold medal in the women's event. In the men's event, Donald Knight had claimed the bronze. Knight, Burka, Valerie Jones, Susan and Paul Huehnergard and Carole Forrest and Kevin Lethbridge had all won medals at the 1965 North American Championships in Rochester, New York. The future looked bright as thousands packed Peterborough, Ontario's Memorial Arena to see Canada's best contend for medals on home turf at the 1966 Canadian Figure Skating Championships. Due to a February 8 entry deadline from the ISU for entries for that year's World Championships in Davos, Switzerland, the competition schedule had to be overhauled, with senior events held at the beginning of the event on February 5 and 6 and novice and junior events scheduled afterwards. The senior events were broadcast on television and commentated by Bruce Hyland and unlike today, there were no press conferences where journalists jockeyed for positions, no cell phones, no social media. It was a different time.

In the senior pairs event, siblings Susan and Paul Huehnergard, representing the Upper Canada Skating Club defended the national title that they'd won the year before in Calgary ahead of two other sibling teams, Alexis and Chris Shields and Betty and John McKilligan. However, it was another pairs team who would be the talk of the competition. After an IOC investigation found that German skaters Marika Kilius and Hans-Jürgen Bäumler had signed professional contracts before the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, they'd been (at that time) stripped of their Olympic silver medals. It was in Peterborough that IOC executive James Worrall presented the bronze medallists in Innbsruck, Canada's Debbi Wilkes and Guy Revell with an upgrade - a gorgeous pair of Olympic silver medals - in a special ceremony. In ice dance, Carole Forrest and Kevin Lethbridge, also of the Upper Canada Skating Club, also defended their national title. With the retirement of Lynn Matthews and Byron Topping, Gail Snyder and Wayne Palmer moved to second and Judy Henderson and John Bailey claimed bronze. Predictably, Donald Knight of Dundas also defended his national men's title, handily fending off challenges from 1964 Canadian Champion Charles Snelling and three time Canadian bronze medallist Jay Humphry of the North Shore Winter Club.

Senior winners at the 1966 Canadian Championships


However, it was another skater from the North Shore Winter Club that would capture the imagination of the packed audience that year. The youngest of the skaters in the senior women's event was none other than thirteen year old Karen Magnussen. The 1973 autobiography "Karen: The Karen Magnussen Story" (written by Karen with Jeff Cross) noted that although five thousand people had packed the Memorial Arena for the women's free skate - most there to see Petra Burka defend her title - it was Magnussen who stole the show: "It was the kind of challenge she could not resist. Karen placed fifth in the compulsory figures, in itself a fine performance in her first senior national competition. But the best was yet to come. Her free-skating performance at Peterborough is still regarded by many as the most electrifying ever seen in the Canadian championships. It earned an ovation from the crowd. Dr. Suzanne Francis, an international judge, awarded her a mark of 5.9 (out of 6.0) for artistic impression - the highest mark of the competition, and higher by one-tenth of a point than the same judge's mark for Miss Burka. When the marks were added up, Karen was in second-place in the free-skating section, right behind world champion Petra. She had been practicing [her senior free skating program] for only two months... [She] finished in fourth overall, but veteran observers there had seen enough to convince them they were watching a future champion." They were right. Although Petra Burka won her third and final Canadian title that year in Peterborough ahead of Valerie Jones and Roberta Laurent, it wouldn't be long before Karen Magnussen was Canadian Champion. Jim Proudfoot, writing for the Toronto Star in February 1966 noted, "it was [in Peterborough] that Canadian figure skating officials became excited about her, and instructed coach Linda Brauckmann to make sure Karen got through the tests necessary to qualify for international competitions." The people of Peterborough were right on the money. The future of Canadian figure skating couldn't have been brighter and Karen would prove to be its biggest star looking forward to the seventies.

Karen Magnussen at the 1966 Canadian Championships. Photo courtesy North Vancouver Museum Archives.

A lot has changed fifty years later. Gone are school figures and compulsory dances; here to stay is the 'new' judging system that replaced the beloved 6.0 system following the scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The sport barely resembles what it once looked like but the standard of skating this week at the 2016 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships couldn't be higher.

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage speaking at the opening press conference for the 2016 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships

At the opening press conference for the event on Thursday, January 21, two time Olympic Silver Medallist Elvis Stojko (the Athlete Ambassador for the event) reflected on his experience competing in Halifax at the 1990 World Championships and Skate Canada CEO Dan Thompson and HRM Mayor Mike Savage welcomed athletes, their families and fans to Halifax. History continued to emerge as a theme throughout the day. Although I unfortunately ultimately missed the Ellen Burka documentary at Pier 21 that I was so excited about attending, I did have chance to meet and chat with four time Canadian Champion Louise Soper, who was sitting in the row behind us while we watched the pairs practice. She was there with her husband and dance partner Barry and explained that while she no longer skates, she does still follows the sport. This month marks the one month anniversary of the passing of the late, great Toller Cranston and she remembered her former teammate fondly.


From the past to the back to the present! Today the Canada's elite men, women, pairs and ice dancers will take to the ice for the phase one of the senior competitions. Who doesn't love men? I know I do! No less than eighteen of Canada's best on blades will be showing each other up in the senior men's event. The buzz surrounding the comeback of Olympic Silver Medallist and three time World Champion Patrick Chan is no joke. And why not? He's won seven Canadian titles and took gold at his first major international competition since the Sochi Olympics earlier this season. Based on his short program result as the free skate was cancelled in light of the Paris attacks, he finished off the podium at the Trophée Éric Bompard. It was fourth place for him at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona. Undaunted, Chan has taken a more big picture approach to coming back, stating, "I'm going for my eighth title but I think there's a lot more at hand that I'm trying to achieve at Nationals in terms of adding technical elements and trying it for the first time and seeing how it works... and also, like I said at the beginning of the season just getting my legs under me this year and get myself ready for the next two years to make them a lot smoother than this year." His biggest competition will of course come from the defending champion Nam Nguyen, who trains at the Cricket Club in Toronto under Brian Orser, the coach of Olympic Gold Medallist Yuzuru Hanyu and World Champion Javier Fernandez. I have a feeling that Nguyen's decision to switch back to his fabulous short program to Nina Simone's "Sinnerman" from last season could very well pay off dividends today. There's always something to be said for going back to something that you know works, right? The fight for bronze is perhaps going to be as interesting if not moreso than the media driven rivalry between Chan and Nguyen. A half a dozen or so men could all quite easily enter the medal conversation. Kevin Reynolds of Coquitlam, British Columbia, Elladj Baldé of Montreal and Liam Firus of Vancouver certainly have the experience, but there are any number of men who could challenge for the podium. One to keep your on? Keegan Messing. After rolling in the deep field of American men's skaters, this Alaskan made the clever decision to compete for Canada and with choreography by Douglas Webster of the Ice Theatre Of New York and Ice Dance International fame and coaching by Olympian Ralph Burghart, he's going places.

Interview with three time Canadian Medallists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier

3X Canadian Medallists Alexandra Paul and Mitch Islam.
Due to a technical glitch, my interview with them didn't
make it, but they're going to be fabulous! 


In the ice dance event, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, Ontarians who train at the Detroit Skating Club under Pasquale Camerlengo, Angelika Krylova, Shae-Lynn Bourne and Natalia Annenko-Deller, are heavy favourites for the lead. They have been unbeatable so far this season, claiming gold at the Finlandia Trophy, Skate Canada International, the Rostelecom Cup and the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, Spain. On the journey this season, Weaver said, "I feel like we're really enjoying ourselves this year and we're growing with each competition and enjoying the day to day and I think that's really important with overall well-being. We're not spring chickens anymore and I think that happiness is an advantage and it helps us to perform better and better." Among the other thirteen senior ice dance teams, their biggest threats will come from Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of the Scarboro Figure Skating Club and Alexandra Paul and Mitch Islam of the Barrie Skating Club and Élisabeth Paradis and François-Xavier Ouellette, who train at the Club de patinage artistique Gadbois in Montreal.
Interview with Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford

Interview with Julianne Séguin and Charlie Bilodeau

Interview with Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro


Interview with Lubov Ilyushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch

The senior pairs competition is looking like it's seriously going to be quite the epic showdown. The favourites are of course Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. They have won the last four Canadian titles, a silver medal at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, last year's World title in Shanghai, China and both of their Grand Prix assignments this season. Although they have two quad throws (the Salchow and the Lutz) in their bag of tricks, after finishing second at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona sportswriters have opted for the tired 'having a difficult season' storyline based on one result. Don't buy into it. They've got the goods to perform well here, their practice last night was near perfect and with the support of a rowdy East Coast crowd and their programs this season, I have a feeling we are going to witness something really special from these two in Halifax. The battle for the other two podium spots is a different story altogether. If I was a betting homosexual, I'd put my money on Quebec's Julianne Séguin and Charlie  Bilodeau for the silver. They've been on an upward trajectory, winning the bronze medal at both of their Grand Prix assignments this season and their free skate to "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" (alas, not the Annie Lennox version but fabulous nonetheless) really brings the wow factor. But then again, I don't know nor does anyone really. There's a whole host of other extremely strong teams who will be putting the heat on Duhamel and Radford, among them Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, Lubov Ilyushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch, Hayleigh Bell and Rudi Swiegers and Vanessa Grenier and Maxime Deschamps. I wouldn't dream of counting anyone out for a second in the pairs event this season based on how they were all practicing last night. It's going to be a battle!

Interview with 2013 and 2014 Canadian Champion Kaetlyn Osmond

Interview with 2015 Canadian Champion Gabby Daleman


Interview with 2015 Canadian Silver Medallist Alaine Chartrand

The women's event is going to be equally interesting. After missing last season due to injury, two time Canadian Champion Kaetlyn Osmond (originally of Marystown, Newfoundland) is on the comeback trail. A crowd favourite, Osmond said, "If I had any little injuries through the beginning of my season, they are completely healed now and I'm feeling better than ever. I haven't been practicing better in my life... Nationals is always my favourite competition of the year so I'm really happy to be back." Her results on the Grand Prix were less than stellar - eleventh at Skate Canada International in Lethbridge and sixth at the NHK Trophy in Nagano, Japan - but the past is the past and this is the present. Her biggest competition will of course come from defending champion Gabby Daleman of Newmarket, Ontario, Alaine Chartrand of Prescott, Ontario and Véronik Mallet of Sept-Îles, Quebec. It's going to come down to who lands the jumps and as we all know, anything can happen.

So grab yourself an urn of coffee and keep them coming... it's going to be a busy weekend here in Halifax. Who will take home the medals this weekend is a compelling mystery that will only be solved as new history is carved on the ice. You do not want to miss a minute of the action!

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

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