Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Peter Firstbrook: A Forgotten Canadian Champion

Photo courtesy Lambton County Archives

The son of Newman and Winnifred (Sprott) Firstbrook, Peter Sprott Firstbrook was born May 11, 1933 in Toronto, Ontario. He came from a family of manufacturers and his grandfather held patents for a Sealing Device for Hasp Fasteners and a Crosscut Table Saw. While his father and grandfather were busy at the drawing board, young Peter was showing an inventive spirit on his own on the ice at the Toronto Skating Club. At the age of fourteen, he made his first trip to the Canadian Figure Skating Championships. In the junior pairs competition with partner Mary Kenner, he finished third.


William Ashall Firstbrook's Victorian era inventions

In 1949, Peter finished second in the junior men's competition behind Donald Tobin of the Minto Skating Club and second in the fours competition with Kenner, Vera Smith and Peter Dunfield. Firstbrook's four went on to finish second that year at the North American Championships in Philadelphia. His strengths in both school figures and free skating forced him to abandon pairs and fours skating to focus solely on singles. It paid off. By the following year he won the junior men's title at the Canadian Championships in St. Catharine's, Ontario. It was clear by this point that he was a skater that was going places. A reporter for the "Georgetown Herald" noted on April 19, 1950 that attendees at the Georgetown Skating Club's Ice Revue "were loud in their praise [for] the effortless grace of Peter Firstbrook, who is in the opinion of experts the coming world champion (he is only 17 years old now)."



At six feet tall with black hair and green eyes, Peter was a commanding presence on the ice even as a teenager. A student of legendary coach Sheldon Galbraith, he made the smooth transition from the junior to senior ranks, winning the 1951 Canadian senior men's title in Vancouver in a convincing fashion. He unseated Roger Wickson, the defending champion, in Wickson's home city as well as another Vancouver skater, Billy Lewis. It's safe to say he probably wasn't a popular winner in British Columbia that year. At his first international competition as a singles skater, that year's North American Championships at the Glencoe Club in Calgary, he finished just off the podium behind a trio of extremely talented American skaters: Dick Button, Jimmy Grogan and Hayes Alan Jenkins. The February 16, 1951 issue of the "Canadian Observer" described his performance at that year's Sarnia Figure Skating Club annual carnival as "sheer lyricism."

Clipping courtesy Dana Thorne, Lambton County Archives

Repeating as Canadian Champion in 1952, Peter earned a spot on the Oslo Olympic team, where he finished an incredible fifth ahead of Italy's Carlo Fassi and France's Alain Giletti. Although fourth in both phases of the competition, movement in the standings in the free skate kept him down a peg in the overall standings. Still, who finishes fourth at the Olympics in their second international competition as a singles skater these days? Pretty impressive if you ask me! At the World Championships that followed in Paris, he dropped a few spots in the standings down to seventh.

Peter Firstbrook and Barbara Gratton, 1953 Canadian Figure Skating Champions

The following year, Peter won both the school figures and free skate at the Canadian Championships in Ottawa to retain his senior men's title for the third consecutive year ahead of Charles Snelling and Peter Dunfield. After finishing second at the 1953 North American Championships in Cleveland behind Hayes Alan Jenkins and seventh at the 1953 World Championships in Davos, he turned professional at the age of twenty.

Photos courtesy Dana Thorne, Lambton County Archives

Peter joined Arthur Wirtz' Hollywood Ice Revue in December 1953, performing alongside Barbara Ann Scott as a replacement for fellow Canadian Champion Michael Kirby. In addition to solo performances, he played Prince Charming to Scott's Goldilocks. By December 1954, he had left the troupe, replaced by his former competitor Jimmy Grogan. He later joined the cast of Holiday On Ice, touring in Europe and South America. After suffering an injury while skating in the "Winter Wonderland" show at Wembley, he returned to Canada to attend Upper Canada College and then St. Lawrence College in Canton, New York so that he could be near Lake Placid. He later taught skating in Northern Ontario and Banff, Alberta, retiring in the late sixties because (according to his mother) "he was sick of being cold."

Photos courtesy Diana Flynn. Circa 1968/69. Peter Firstbrook is in the front right of both.

Abandoning the sport entirely, Peter moved to an artists community in Estado Libre y Soberano de Guanajuato, Mexico. Echoes of another Canadian Champion anyone? While there, he wrote children's books. He passed away at the age of fifty one of pneumonia on February 22, 1985, leaving behind his mother, brother, sister and a whole lot of Canadians who thought the world of his skating... and yet today, sadly few people even remember his name.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment