Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Come By Chance: A Little Newfoundland Skating History


Newfoundland and Labrador... home of Great Big Sea, stunning landscapes, towns with names like Dildo, Cow Head and Come By Chance, the most fun people in the world to drink with you're ever going to meet and a surprisingly rich figure skating history. You won't have to kiss the cod to be before reading this particular blog but you may want to have a sip of Screech in your coffee to get in the mood. It would really be rude not to, I think!

Would you know it? The early beginnings of figure skating on this island province start in yet another Victoria Skating Rink. I think that's the fourth rink named in Queen Victoria's honour that's popped up in my writing about early Canadian skating history! Newfoundland's Victoria Rink was built in 1866 in St. John's, the province's capital city. Prior to the building of this covered rink, skating was of course all done outside. Speed skating races enjoyed prominence and drew large crowds. Fred Chislett was an early and repeat champion on 'the rock'.

Skating on St. John's Harbour, 1938

In the twentieth century, speed skating's popularity in Newfoundland started to wane and figure skating rose to prominence. Dee Murphy's excellent book "Our Sports" explains that "Markie Marshall was one of the early St. John's 'figure' skaters but his style was much different than the style demonstrated by the Premier Figure Skating Club that met at the Prince's Rink just prior to it receiving artificial ice. Tommy Winter, who excelled in several sports, was another top figure skater with contributions as an executive and coach... The arrival of artificial ice in rinks all over the province between 1948 and 1970 allowed figure skating to come into its own and become a major winter activity."

Members of the Premier Figure Skating Club at Prince's Rink, circa 1930. Photo courtesy The Rooms Archives.

One of the great pioneers of figure skating in Newfoundland was Armie Miller. Newfoundland's section of Skate Canada's website explains that she "became involved with skating when she met Mildred Knight who was involved in a skating club at the old curling rink behind the Old Hotel Newfoundland. Here she met Tommy Winter and together they introduced the sport of figure skating to a few children in the St. John's Figure Skating Club which ran in Feildian Gardens and St. John's Memorial Stadium. For 3 years they taught themselves about preliminary figures, and dancing with booklets - fanning the upper corner of the pages to see the jumps and spins until certified coaches arrived." Miller performed in ice shows with Tommy Winter for many years, brought in judges from abroad to develop judging in the area and acted as a judge, skating club president and tireless volunteer.

Another important pioneer was Elizabeth Swan, the Australian wife of a dentist who moved to Newfoundland in the fifties and served as the St. John's Figure Skating Club's first President. Swan was an esteemed judge who organized the province's first Provincial Championships, served on executives and coached skaters. Her contributes to skating in the province are too many to even mention. Although her death in a car accident in 1985 returning from that year's Provincial Championships was a huge blow to the skating community, the bursary fund set up for grassroots skaters in her name has done so, so much to help skaters in Newfoundland over the years.

Rebecca and Josh Babb

Benefiting from the instruction of the first professional coaches to come 'from away' to the province in the thirties, figure skating slowly developed in Newfoundland and by the time of the first Canada Winter Games in 1967, young skaters from the province were ready to shine. At those initial Games in Quebec City, the pairs team of Carolyn Jones and Andrew Joy and singles skater Brian MacLeod both won medals. Although medals at the Canada Games followed, it wouldn't be until 1998 that skaters from Newfoundland and Labrador would win a medal of any colour at the Canadian Championships. Harbour Grace siblings Rebecca and Josh Babb, who moved from Conception Bay South to Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario to train, earned their place in the history books by claiming the junior ice dance title that year in Hamilton.


The Babb's victory in 1998 would bring more attention to Eastern Canadian skating and would open the doors for skaters from Newfoundland. Joey Russell of Labrador City won a junior Canadian title of his very own in 2006 and a senior bronze medal in 2011, becoming the first skater representing Newfoundland to compete at a World Figure Skating Championships that same year... but Russell wasn't the first skater with a Newfoundland connection to compete at the World Championships. 2006 Olympic Silver Medallist Tanith Belbin is the daughter of Michelle MacKinley and Brian Belbin, both of St. John's. Her mother actually skated at the Prince Of Wales Skating Club in St. John's during the seventies.


Arguably the biggest star to ever come out of the province however is two time Canadian Champion and Olympic Silver Medallist Kaetlyn Osmond, who was born in Marystown, Newfoundland and has a rink in her hometown named after her. Kaetlyn talked about her Atlantic Canadian connection in my July 2014 interview with her: "The best thing about  Atlantic Canada I find is having the water right there everywhere I go. I absolutely love the water and living out west in Edmonton, I find the appreciation of having the ocean as my backyard whenever I go home to Newfoundland. Also, I love the small town feel of 'everyone knows everyone'. It feels like a giant family that I know always supports me." That's just how people are in the province and I can honestly say I don't think I've ever met a Newfoundlander I haven't got along with famously. Here's to many more champions in the province's future!

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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