The History Of The Canadian Professional Championships


I sincerely believe how important it is that the history of competitive professional figure skating be preserved, not only because it was a venue that allowed skaters to continue to gain exposure and finally earn some money for their skating after their eligible careers had ended, but because it allowed skaters the unique opportunity to create challenging, unique and entertaining programs (mostly) free of any of the constraints and strict regulations of eligible competition. In my previous three part piece on open professional competitions, I shared the story of the U.S. Open, Jaca World Professional Championships and the American Open Pro Championships. I also wrote a piece sharing the history of the Miko Masters professional competition in France. I wanted to start examining the histories of other professional events as well and to share the stories of some of the other major professional events that have offered some of the best skating the sport has ever seen and figured what better place to start than right at home here in Canada. In 1994, Dick Button's Candid Productions was one of a small circle of organizers that worked feverishly to create even more professional competitions for skaters than previously existed. After the Nancy/Tonya debacle and the Lillehammer Olympics, TV audiences (and networks) couldn't get enough figure skating and dozens of new events were created to satisfy the popularity of the sport with audiences at the time. The Canadian Professional Figure Skating Championships one of these new events organized by Candid Productions that started in 1994. From 1994 to 1997, it was held as a professional event but in 1998, the format was changed to a pro-am model that allowed both "amateur" and professional skaters to participate. Over the years, five different Canadian cities all played host to the event (Hamilton, Ottawa, Kitchener, Mississauga and Red Deer) and many of the world's best professional (and "amateur") skaters battled it out in the 2 part competition, which featured a technical and artistic program... and later an ISU short program and interpretive free skate. Let's take a walk down memory lane and relive a competition that produced some of the best skating the sport has seen.

The first year the Canadian Professional Championships was held was in 1994 and it was certainly a meeting of two generations of professional skaters. On one hand, you had veteran professional skaters like Robin Cousins, Scott Hamilton, Brian Orser and Rosalynn Sumners and on the other hand, you have skaters who have just turned professional like Kurt Browning, Yuka Sato, Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler and Mark Mitchell and on another hand, like some sort of messed up octopus, you had Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov and Elaine Zayak returning to the professional ranks after reinstating and competing as "amateurs" during the 1993/1994 season. The pairs event was a fierce competition between rivals Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov and Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler. The 2 time Olympic Gold Medallists proved they were worth their mettle and bested the popular Canadian pair, who stole the show with their "Patricia The Stripper" artistic program. Christine Hough and Doug Ladret finished third, ahead of 1984 Olympic Gold Medallists Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev. Valova and Vasiliev had recently divorced and were planning for this to be their final competition together. They did retire from competition, but appeared together to compete again in 1997, at the Legends Of Figure Skating Competition where they finished 2nd. In the ladies event, Josee Chouinard surprised everyone by turning in a very solid (and beautiful) artistic program to "Moon River" from Breakfast At Tiffany's and won the competition ahead of 1981 World Champion Denise Biellmann (who was virtually unbeatable that season), 1994 World Champion Yuka Sato, Liz Manley, Rosalynn Sumners and Elaine Zayak. The men's competition was won by Scott Hamilton, whose "Cuban Pete" artistic program was pretty much unbeatable. Mark Mitchell finished a very strong 2nd, showing his technical skills and elegance. In 3rd (surprisingly) was 4 time World Champion Kurt Browning. His first season as a pro, Kurt was still overcoming injury and finding his legs in a completely different world - he soon became unbeatable but the 1994/1995 season was not his best. Robin Cousins and Brian Orser followed in 4th and 5th that year.

The following year was a hugely competitive one. 1984 World Champions Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini made their first of three consecutive appearances in the pairs competition, taking the title with two solid performances and besting World Champions Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler (1993) and Radka Kovarikova and Rene Novotny (1995) and Canadian Champions Christine Hough and Doug Ladret in the process. In the men's event, Kurt Browning and Scott Hamilton again went to head. Much more confident in his skating as a professional, Kurt shone in his programs "That's Entertainment III" and "Brick House" and was able to overtake the 1984 Olympic Gold Medallist Hamilton who shone as well in his "Hair" program. 1985 World Champion Alexandr Fadeev finished 3rd ahead of Jozef Sabovcik, Mark Mitchell and Gary Beacom to round out the men's competition. Like Browning, 1994 World Champion Yuka Sato was also settling in nicely to her new role as a professional skater. She rebounded to overtake Liz Manley, who was brilliant in the technical program despite being sick as a dog that year. Denise Biellmann finished 3rd, ahead of Caryn Kadavy, Karen Preston and Rosalynn Sumners in the ladies event.

In 1996, the competition moved to Ottawa, the home of Parliament Hill, and two new champions were crowned. In the pairs event, Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler were again crowd favourites but finished 2nd for the third consecutive year, this time outranked by 1992 Olympic Silver Medallists Elena Bechke and Denis Petrov, whose classical style and technical prowess were rewarded by the panel of judges. Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini finished 3rd, while U.S. Champions Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval found themselves in 4th. In the ladies event, U.S. Open Champion Caryn Kadavy found herself in the lead with two solid performances to "Toccata and Fugue" by Vanessa Mae and Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back To Me Now". Again rounding out the top three were consummate professionals Denise Biellmann and Liz Manley, solid as always. Returning to the professional ranks after a disappointing comeback attempt the previous season that saw her miss the Canadian World team, Josée Chouinard finished 4th ahead of World Champion Rosalynn Sumners and Canadian Champion Karen Preston. Kurt Browning was the only repeat champion, this time stunning with his new "Serenade To Sonia" and "Summertime" programs and handily winning against Jozef Sabovcik, Gary Beacom and 2 time Olympic Silver Medallist Brian Orser.

The 1997 Canadian Professional Championships again switched venues and cities, this time moving to Kitchener. Josée Chouinard delivered two delightful and tongue-in-cheek programs to "Downtown" by Petula Clark and comedian Meryn Cadell's "The Sweater" and asserted her dominance in the ladies field, beating 2 previous champions (Caryn Kadavy and Yuka Sato) and perennial competitors Rosalynn Sumners and Liz Manley, who was suffering from an injury that year. Speaking of injury, Jozef Sabovcik had to withdraw from the men's event after the technical program, again leaving 4 men to contest for the title. They were all on their "A Game" though, Kurt Browning winning his third consecutive Canadian pro title despite OUTSTANDING performances from Brian Orser, Rudy Galindo and Gary Beacom. After three back to back second place finishes, Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler finally took home the crown, finishing ahead of World Champions Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini and Radka Kovarikova and Rene Novotny. This would prove to be Underhill and Martini's final competition.

The event may have stayed at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium Complex the following year but everything really did change. The advent in popularity of pro-am/open competitions struck the 1997/1998 professional circuit hard. Even the World Professional Championships that year weren't strictly professional. While the upside was that "amateur" skaters got to earn some much needed funds to offset their training costs, the popularity of pro-am/open events caused a host of other problems: the overall entertainment level of the programs went down, the events became jumping contests, the professionals got mad and the ISU got mad too, because eventually skaters started bowing out of Grand Prix events in favor of pro-am competitions. Who could blame them? They got the glory and the money at a much more reasonable cost. It didn't take a 5-7 triple free skate to win at a pro-am competition, it took a 3-4 triple interpretive free skate. The Canadian Professional Championships became the Canadian Open, and was one of the few pro-am events to survive for any real length of time in an era where professional and pro-am competitions were starting to drop like flies (or a few people's pants I know after a few Smirnoff Ice)... Ice dance made its debut at the event, with the newly formed 'superteam' of Maya Usova and Evgeny Platov beating Canadian Champions Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz on home ice. With the withdrawal of Angelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov, Italians Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio were third. In the pairs event, it was 1997 World Champions Mandy Wötzel and Ingo Steuer who won the title with their "Out Of Africa" and "Mandy" programs, fending off challenges from Sargeant and Wirtz, Shishkova and Naumov and the newly formed pair of Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman. A diverse field of both "amateur" and pro stars were on hand in the men's competition... Brian Orser, Eric Millot, Michael Weiss, Steven Cousins, Jeffrey Langdon... but Kurt Browning again beat them all, winning his fourth consecutive title at the event and debuting his wildly successful "Rag/Gidon/Time" clown program. The showmanship of 1995 U.S. Champion Nicole Bobek was rewarded in the ladies event when she took home "the crown" ahead of last year's champion Josée Chouinard and Karen Preston, who saw her best showing in this event when she finished third with a fabulous program to Erykah Badu's "Certainly". Tonia Kwiatkowski and Elizabeth Manley finished 4th and 5th, respectively.

You might wonder exactly how pro-am/open events under the auspices of the ISU and Candid Productions were judged. Here's a primer, circa 1998:

"Part 1 - 1st Interpretive Free Skating Program ("Technical Program")
The 1st Interpretive Free Skating Program ("Technical Program") consists of a variety of skating moves and elements selected for their technical difficulty, as well as their value in enhancing the skaters' interpretation of the music and artistry. Credit for all elements - jumps, spins, and footwork elements are based on their quality and difficulty, and choreographic and musical effectiveness. The program should be an integrated exploration of the chosen music, not merely a collection of pleasing or spectacular moves assembled to entertain an audience, with emphasis still being placed on skating skills. There are no restrictions on jumps with three or more rotations or on the number of jump sequences and jump combinations for the 1st Interpretive Free Skating Program. The Judges will be instructed to give important consideration to the quality and difficulty of the elements (jumps & spins) in the 1st Interpretive Free Skating Program.

Part 2 - 2nd Interpretive Free Skating Program ("Artistic Program")
The 2nd Interpretive Free Skating Program ("Artistic Program") consists of a variety of skating moves and elements selected for their value in enhancing the skaters' interpretation of the music and artistry as well as for their technical difficulty. Credit for all elements - jumps, spins, and footwork elements are based on their choreographic and musical effectiveness, quality and difficulty. The program should be an integrated exploration of the chosen music, not merely a collection of pleasing or spectacular moves assembled to entertain an audience, with emphasis still being placed on skating skills. The maximum number of jumps with three or more rotations, including those executed in a sequence or combination is as follows: Ladies: three different jumps with 3 or more rotations. Men: four different jumps with 3 or more rotations. No restriction on spins.

Marking of the 1st Interpretive Free Skating Program ("Technical Program")
Credit for all elements - jumps, spins, and footwork are based on their quality and difficulty, and choreographic and musical effectiveness. The program should be an integrated exploration of the chosen music, not merely a collection of pleasing or spectacular moves assembled to entertain an audience, with emphasis still being placed on skating skills.

    1.    The first mark is for the skating techniques, the second is for presentation.
    2.    In marking the skating techniques of the program, these aspects must be considered:
    a)    quality and difficulty of elements;
    b)    the ease, flow, glide, sureness, power and depth of the edges;
    c)    ability to vary the speed and direction of the skating;
    d)    variety of expressive and innovative moves;
    e)    the succession of movement within the program;
    f)    utilization of space and ice coverage;
    g)    style;

    3.    In marking the presentation of the program, the following aspects must be considered:
    a)    interpretation of the music and rhythm;
    b)    musical timing and understanding of the phrasing of the music;
    c)    use of entire body to develop the artistic and music expression;
    d)    creativity;
    e)    choreography - art of arranging movements;
    f)    variation in tempo, tension, emotion, movements;
    g)    suitability of music to the skater;
    h)    internal motivation of movements and expression projected to the audience.

Marking of the 2nd Interpretive Free Skating Program ("Artistic Program")
Credit for all elements - jumps, spins, and footwork are based on their choreographic and musical effectiveness, quality and difficulty. The program should be an integrated exploration of the chosen music, not merely a collection of pleasing or spectacular moves assembled to entertain an audience, with emphasis still being placed on skating skills.

    1.    The first mark is for the skating techniques, the second is for presentation.
    2.    In marking the skating techniques of the program, these aspects must be considered:
    a)    the ease, flow, glide, sureness, power and depth of the edges;
    b)    ability to vary the speed and direction of the skating;
    c)    variety of expressive and innovative moves;
    d)    the succession of movement within the program;
    e)    utilization of space and ice coverage;
    f)    style;
    g)    quality and difficulty of elements;

    3.    In marking the presentation of the program, the following aspects must be considered:
    a)    interpretation of the music and rhythm;
    b)    musical timing and understanding of the phrasing of the music;
    c)    use of entire body to develop the artistic and music expression;
    d)    creativity;
    e)    choreography - art of arranging movements;
    f)    variation in tempo, tension, emotion, movements;
    g)    suitability of music to the skater;
    h)    internal motivation of movements and expression projected to the audience."

Now that you've had your judging lesson, let's return to our history books and the 1999 Sears Canadian Open competition, this time held in Mississauga. This year's event was truly a Canadian affair, with only 8 of the 18 skaters or teams participating NOT hailing from Canada. After losing last year to Nicole Bobek, Josée Chouinard was back and meant business. Like a fine wine, Josée's skating really got better with age and so did her consistency later in her pro career as she shook off the nerves that plagued her chronically throughout her "amateur" career. She won her second title at this event ahead of Jennifer Robinson, the skater that beat her when she attempted her comeback to ISU competition during the 1995/1996 season, as well as Angela Nikodinov, Karen Preston (appearing in her final Canadian Pro/Open competition after not missing a single year since 1995), Surya Bonaly, Liz Manley and Hungary's Diana Poth. In the ice dance competition, Bourne and Kraatz also came back from a second place finish at this event the previous year to take the title with their "Hotel California" program, ahead of last year's champs Usova and Platov and Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe. Among the pairs competing, soon to be Olympic Champions Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze were the winners ahead of Sargeant and Wirtz and Americans Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, now professionals. Despite facing the ultimate competition from a trio of Canadian skating legends (Kurt Browning, Brian Orser and Elvis Stojko), Todd Eldredge did the near impossible, he dethroned the four time defending champion of this event on home turf and toe-looped his way to the top of the leaderboard at this event with a very strong program to "The 13th Warrior".

In 2000, the competition returned to where it all began - Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario and one of the most stunning upsets in pro-am competition ever arguably took place. In the ladies competition, the unthinkable happened when Canadian Champion Josée Chouinard went head to head with skating legend Michelle Kwan and won the war! In winning this competition, Josée didn't only beat Michelle, but also outskated 2002 Olympic Gold Medallist Sarah Hughes, Canadian Champion Jennifer Robinson, World Champion Lu Chen and European Champion Surya Bonaly. To say that was quite the field is really an understatement if there ever was one. Two years before an Olympic gold medal would be his, Alexei Yagudin also did the same, defeating 4 time Canadian Professional Champion and 4 time World Champion Kurt Browning on Kurt's own turf. On his way to the top of the results board, he also outskated Kurt Browning, Brian Orser, Emanuel Sandhu and Steven Cousins with his "Gladiator" interpretive free skate. In the pairs competition, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier finished first ahead of Kristy and Kris Wirtz. John Zimmerman and Kyoko Ina went up against Kyoko's former partner Jason Dungjen, who was now skating pairs with 1994 World Champion Yuka Sato, and Ina and Zimmerman were the team to come out on top. Having been contested the last two years at the Canadian Open, the ice dance competition was removed from the roster at the event this year.

Ottawa once again played host to the popular competition in 2001, and Josée Chouinard was once again the ladies champion! This time taking the title at the expense of Jennifer Robinson, Nicole Bobek, Viktoria Volchkova, Lu Chen and Nicole Watt, Chouinard was outstanding in her programs "Harlem Nocturne" and "Avec Le Temps". This would be her final appearance at the event, but if you consider her inconsistency during her "amateur" career, her successes at this event were really nothing short of extraordinary - a testament to just how phenomenal a skater she was when she was on. In the pairs event, Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman claimed the title ahead of Kristy and Kris Wirtz and 1998 Olympic Gold Medallists Oksana Kazakova and Artur Dmitriev. The real story in 2001 was in the men's event and in Brian Orser's memorable program to John Barry's "Somewhere In Time". Harkening back to a different time in the sport, Orser's program was peppered with compulsory figures, difficult jumps, deep edges and fused through great storytelling and emotion. The true tour de force of a program was rewarded with a win ahead of Emanuel Sandhu, Kurt Browning, Elvis Stojko, Todd Eldredge and Steven Cousins. The magnitude of that success was truly remarkable, considering Orser had turned professional thirteen years previous!

The last year the Canadian Professional Championships (now the Canadian Open) was held was in 2002. Red Deer, Alberta played host to the final competition. With many of the familiar faces from the competition's 8 previous competitions not in attendance, there was certainly a sense of a "changing guard" but a lot of truly fantastic standing going on as well. The pairs competition was won by Sale and Pelletier, fresh off 'shared gold' at the Olympics. Their opposition came from Sato and Dungjen and Jacinthe Larivière and Lenny Faustino. In the men's competition, another Salt Lake City Gold Medallist took top honors. Alexei Yagudin finished first this year, ahead of rivals Todd Eldredge, Jeffrey Buttle and Takeshi Honda. Sasha Cohen was the competition's final ladies champion with masterful performances set to "Malaguena" and "Romeo And Juliet". Jennifer Robinson, Viktoria Volchkova, Angela Nikodinov and Jennifer Kirk were her competition at this event. 

Although the days of professional and pro-am competitions may all seem like a distant memory, reading this article and remembering these competitions, skaters and performances is a distinct reminder why competitions like these were not only unique and entertaining but valuable in developing the quality of the performances that the sport could use more than ever. We owe sincere thanks to Candid Productions and Dick Button - as well as other competition organizers like the PSA and Michael Burg - for making events like these come to life and giving us the gift of fabulous skating. We shouldn't merely settle for CoP programs and shows because that's what's on the menu. Venues for competitive artistic and professional skating - for creative and entertaining skating - are something that may well return. How? We need to talk about it. We need to tell promoters and event organizers that this is the niche that the sport needs right now. Why? Because it's the truth sweetheart. Sorry bout it.

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