A Proud Skating Past

November 2018

Although hanging up my blades many years ago, I have been very fortunate to have remained involved in the sport of figure skating as a fan and as a member of the Skate Canada Hall of Fame and Heritage Committee since its establishment back in 1990.

I have also attended a number of figure skating events over the years, which always serves to remind me what incredible athletes skaters are as they combine great strength, coordination and endurance while gliding across the ice on a thin blade of steel.

Figure skating as an organized sport can be traced back to the establishment of the Edinburgh Skating Club in 1742 which was followed by the publication of established patterns to be traced upon the ice. About a century later American ballet master Jackson Haines introduced music to the mix and the free skating element of the sport was born.

In 1864 Haines toured parts of Canada which soon led to ‘fancy skating’ exhibitions taking place at indoor and outdoor rinks. In 1887 the Amateur Skating Association of Canada came into existence to oversee both speed and figure skating. This was followed in 1914 by the formation of a separate Figure Skating Department and the holding of the first Canadian championships. In 1939 the organization became known as the Canadian Figure Skating Association and in 2000 it took on its present title of Skate Canada.

Skating in Thunder Bay has also enjoyed a long history with reports of local residents gliding along local frozen waterways and skating in such places as Port Arthur’s Lake City Rink and Fort William’s Arena Rink during the early 1900s. A newspaper report from 1908 touted that Fort William had the best indoor skating rink in Western Canada with space to accommodate up to 1000 skaters at a time, who would often be accompanied by live bands. Other arenas that hosted skaters during those early years were the Prince of Wales Arena which operated on Archibald Street from 1919 to 1942 and the Port Arthur Arena which was located on North Court Street, where Safeway stands today, which served the local skating community from 1932-59. One year the Co-Operative Dairy even made an outdoor rink made out of frozen milk.

A 1939 Fort William Times-Journal article noted that skating had “come to the fore in amazing fashion since the formation of the Thunder Bay Figure Skating Club (in 1933), having swept the two cities by storm”.

A tradition of the local skating scene has always been the popular ice shows which have been hosted by the Port Arthur, Fort William and Thunder Bay clubs under such titles as Gay Blades, Stars on Ice and Fantasy on Ice. Often these shows would feature guest appearances by some of Canada’s top skaters including the likes of Donald Jackson and Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul.

Our region has been a training ground for a number of skaters who have gone on to compete at all levels of the sport as well as pursue careers in such shows as the Ice Follies and Ice Capades. One of the longest standing individuals on the local skating scene is current Thunder Bay Figure Skating Club coach Barbara Hutcheon who followed up her successful skating days of the 1940s and 50s with a sixty year coaching career.

Our contributions to the organizational side of the sport at the national and international level have included the likes of Beryl Campbell who served as a Vice President of the Canadian Figure Skating Association and international judge Candace Logozzo, who was also a successful skater.

Our community has also hosted some major skating events including the 1979 Canadian Figure Skating Championships which saw a young Brian Orser claim the junior title and Barb Underhill and Paul Martini win their first of what would be five consecutive national pair titles. In 1988 Skate Canada International welcomed some of the finest skaters in the world to the Fort William Gardens where Kurt Browning claimed his first of what would be many senior international skating titles.

We have also had local and regional skaters stand atop national and world podiums and represent us at the Olympic level. Kelly Johnson, who is now one of our nation’s finest choreographers, got her start in ice dance in Thunder Bay before going on to claim four senior national silver medals and represent Canada at the 1984 Olympics. Two-time Canadian champion, 5-time national silver medalist and three-time Olympic pair skater Kris Wirtz from Marathon has also coached a number of pairs teams to championship titles, just as his brother, the late Paul Wirtz, did for him and many other skaters. In recent years it was Eric Radford, the pride of Balmertown, and his partner Meagan Duhamel, who have made us proud as they entered the history books as Canada’s most successful pair skaters with 7 consecutive national titles, 2 World championships and Olympic bronze, silver and gold medals to their credit.

The history of figure skating does not just lie with the success of our athletes but also with the truly dedicated volunteers who have spent countless hours donating their time to raise money, create costumes, play music, judge routines and tabulate the results. On behalf of figure skating fans everywhere I extend a sincere thank you to each and every one of you for all that you have done to allow our skaters to take to the ice year after year.

Diane Imrie is the Executive Director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. She can be reached at dimrie@tbaytel.net

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