Thursday, 5 January 2017

'Jumpin' Jack Flash', A Jack Of All Trades

Canada's Sports Hall of Fame | Panthéon des sports canadiens photo. Used with permission.

Born August 15, 1872 in Perth, Ontario, John "Jack" McCulloch moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba with his parents at the age of four. An athletic young man, he excelled in a variety of sports including canoeing, rowing, track and field, cycling, gymnastics, roller skating and ice hockey; he was in his day very much Canada's answer to Lottie Dod.

It was as a hockey player that McCulloch first achieved real fame. S.F. Wise and Douglas Fisher's 1974 book "Canada's Sporting Heroes" noted, "He helped form the province's first teams in 1889, and as a player with the Victorias, took part in the first regularly scheduled game in Manitoba on December 20, 1890. In 1893, wishing to gain experience against teams in the cradle of hockey, the Manitobans undertook an Eastern tour, playing in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. The outcome surprised both the East and West. The Manitobans won nine victories in eleven games and outscored their opponents 76-36; Eastern newspapers stressed McCulloch's speed and grace."

Speed and grace seem to be appropriate adjectives to describe McCulloch's later contributions to Canadian sport. He achieved most of his fame as a speed skater, first winning the Canadian speed skating title in 1893. At the event in Montreal, there were four distances raced and he won all four.
The next year on Hallowe'en, he married Mary Therese Aikins in Winnipeg. Two years later, he travelled to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he became the U.S. speed skating champion, winning quarter mile, open mile, five and ten mile races. The next year, when the World Speed Skating Championships came to Montreal, McCulloch beat Norwegian speed skating phenom Karl Alfred Ingvald Næss in both the one thousand, five hundred meter and five thousand meter races, becoming World Champion. Renowned doctor, sculptor and athlete R. Tait MacKenzie wrote of McCulloch, "One can hardly call him a specialist, for besides speed skating, in which he is supreme, he is a good figure skater." At the height of his fame in 1898, he turned professional, touring Canada and the northern U.S. competing in speed skating races for money, stilt skating, barrel jumping and giving exhibitions as a 'fancy' figure skater. In many ways, he was a predecessor to Norval Baptie, who popularized the combined speed/figure/trick skating show not long after.

Canada's Sports Hall of Fame | Panthéon des sports canadiens photo. Used with permission.

The Saturday, February 5, 1898 issue of the "Brooklyn Daily Eagle" spoke of his performances in that New York, noting "McCulloch is a wonderful trick skater and his jumping, backward skating and figures are marvellous. At all around skating he has not a peer unless it be Nilsson, who heads the professional ranks". Another 1898 article from the "Winnipeg Free Press" suggested that early in his professional career he may have even spent time in the Yukon: "He has left the athletic arena and is endeavouring to take him to the Klondike, from whence he hopes to bring back enough gold to keep his family in comfort." This seems unlikely given the time frame. If he did go looking for gold, he didn't stay long because newspaper records place him in Toronto in 1900.

Early in the twentieth century, McCulloch spent considerable time touring Western Canada. The January 8, 1907 edition of "The St. John Sun" noted that "besides appearing at all the big race meets, McCulloch and [Gib] Bellefeuille will give exhibitions of speed and fancy skating all over the country, starting with a tour through Manitoba and to other western points." The January 21, 1907 issue of "The Winnipeg Tribune" confirmed the duo's trip back to Manitoba: "Jack McCulloch and Gib Bellefeuille are carded for their final exhibition at the Auditorium tonight, giving their fancy figure and stilt skating and a mile dash as a finish. Both men are in excellent trim, having devoted the past month to constant practice. McCulloch shows the old-time gracefulness and speedy work for which he was noted several years ago, as Jack says, 'It's not the years I've been out of the game. It's knowing how, and not forgetting it.' St. Paul is the first stop after the Auditorium, the date in the former city being Jan. 23; from that point on east the boys expect to give no less than sixteen exhibitions as well as meeting half a dozen speedy skaters in Buffalo." 1907 proved to be his final year on tour.

Returning to Winnipeg, he was badly injured in an automobile accident in 1908 and turned his attention to two new pursuits: automobiles and skate making. He opened an automobile repair shop specializing in racing cars and was even a founding member of the Winnipeg Automobile Club. As a skate maker, he constantly experimented with varying techniques before developing and manufacturing his McCulloch tube skate, which was immensely popular with hockey players of the time as it allowed for quick, short strides. This Jack of all trades, master of most passed away in Ramsey County, Minnesota on January 26, 1918 and was posthumously inducted into Canada's Sport Hall Of Fame and the Manitoba Sports Hall Of Fame. Sadly, his contribution to figure skating history is one that has been downplayed in comparison to his more famous accomplishments in speed skating and hockey.

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