The 1978 Canadian Figure Skating Championships


Pierre Trudeau was Canada's Prime Minister and "Stayin' Alive" by The Bee Gees topped the music charts. Young people from coast to coast were going gaga over the latest fads - mood rings, Chia pets, lava lamps and Silly Putty... and in early February of 1978, many of Canada's best figure skaters gathered in Victoria, British Columbia to fight tooth and nail for medals at that year's Canadian Figure Skating Championships. 

The 1978 Canadian Championships were particularly unique owing to the fact that none of the defending senior champions were returning to defend their titles. It was the first time since 1949 it had happened... and also the first time Victoria had played host to the Canadian Championships. Many thought Ron Shaver, Lynn Nightingale, Cheri and Dennis Pinner and Susan Carscallen and Eric Gillies would stick it out for another season as the World Championships were in Ottawa but ultimately Shaver, Nightingale and Carscallen turned professional. Eric Gillies had teamed up with Vancouver's Lisa Trahan and started training at the Minto Skating Club under former international judge Pierrette Devine in a bid to defend his title but Trahan suffered a hairline fracture in her kneecap and an ear infection in September and the duo wasn't able to prepare for Nationals in time. The Pinner's had retired in frustration after they were passed up for a spot on the World team despite being the reigning Canadian pairs champions. Let's take a look back at how things played out in Victoria!

THE NOVICE AND JUNIOR EVENTS


"These championships have produced a new, younger group of skaters showing much promise for the future," mused Vancouver coach Dr. Hellmut May. He was right! In the novice men's event, Ronnie Unrau of the North Shore Winter Club edged Shaun McGill and Robert Tebby to claim victory in his home province. Tall, athletic seventeen year old Paul Martini was eleventh. Mary Jo Fedy and Tim Mills were the novice pairs champions and Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay finished eleventh and last. Donna Martini and John Coyne took top honours in novice dance. Although Lorri Baier, the younger sister of senior pairs skater Sherri Baier, stood atop the novice women's podium, a fiesty ten year old Ellen Burka student who didn't even finish on the podium named Tracey Wainman won the free skate. The Canadian Figure Skating Association, so impressed by Baier and Wainman's potential, named both to that year's team for the World Junior Championships in France instead of the junior women's medallists.


Sixteen year old Dennis Coi, another North Shore Winter Club skater who was ninth in the junior men's event in 1977, moved up from second after the school figures and short program to defeat seventeen year old World Junior Champion Daniel Beland in the junior men's event. "The Globe And Mail" noted that Coi "skated with an artistry reminiscent of Toller Cranston." Beland was no slouch in the presentation department either. The Quebec skater had big jumps, a layback spin and a great sense of panache. Grade eleven student Brian Orser claimed the bronze. In his 1988 book "Orser: A Skater's Life", he recalled, "I was second in the figures, [missed] on my double Axel in the short, and finished third in the long to finish third over all. So I actually dropped positions after figures, one of the only times that ever happened." Kevin Parker of Campbellville was fourth. Coi and Orser were named to the Junior World team, as Beland was then past the age limit to return to defend his title. In the junior dance event, Joanne French of the Silver Blades Figure Skating Club and John Thomas of the Woodbridge Skating Club vaulted to victory ahead of Lilian Heming and Murray Carey and Martine Vigouret and Alan Atkins. A young Gina Aucoin and Hans-Peter Ponikau of Nova Scotia finished fifth. Paul Martini of Woodbridge and his tiny, fourteen year old partner Barbara Underhill of Oshawa received first place ordinals from all seven judges on their way to claiming gold in the junior pairs event despite only skating together for six months. They landed two throw double Axels in their winning free skate to beat fourteen year old Preston Figure Skating Club members Lloyd Eisler and Lorri Baier, who had won the 1977 novice title, and thirteen year old Katherina Matousek and seventeen year old Brad Starchuk, both British Columbia natives.

Pattie Black and coach Kerry Leitch

Although she had only placed sixth the year before, seventeen year old Patti Black of Cambridge, Ontario was consistent enough in both figures and free skating to pull off a win in the junior women's event. The highlight of her free skate was a single Axel/double loop/double loop combination. Richmond, British Columbia's Sandra Leighton moved all the way up from seventh to claim silver. North Vancouver's Yvonne Anderson was third and Valerie Jones of Windsor, Ontario ended the competition in fourth.

THE MEN'S COMPETITION


Photo courtesy Meredith Owen Stanford

With two spots on the line for the World Championships in Ottawa and Ron Shaver out of the mix, the field opened up even more when former Canadian medallist Kenneth Polk speared his foot with his blade and injured his ankle at the Divisional Championships in Peterborough and was forced to withdraw prior to the event. Of the eight senior men competing for the 1978 title, the favourites were the three men who had placed second through fourth at the 1977 Nationals: Calgary's Brian Pockar, Toronto's Vern Taylor and Coquitlam's Jim Szabo. Although eighteen year old Pockar was perhaps most heavily toted as the skater to beat, Taylor had fared well at Divisionals in his area of weakness - the school figures - and it was thought he may have fewer rungs up the ladder to climb in the free skating in Victoria.

Jim Szabo

Szabo actually defeated Pockar at the Western Divisionals that year. In the January 28, 1978 edition of "The Globe And Mail", journalist Norma McCabe noted, "Szabo's forte is raw power. Big, by figure skating standards, he has overcome knee-cartilage problems that hindered his jumping. What he lacks is catchy choreography. Too often, his free-skating programs seem to be just one continuous circle around the ice." Other outside contenders were 1977 Junior Champion Gary Beacom and Kevin Hicks of Windsor, who trained at the Toronto Cricket Club with Osborne Colson and Ellen Burka.

Brian Pockar and Vern Taylor. Photos courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

In the school figures, twenty year old Szabo narrowly took the lead with ten ordinals and 37.12 points to Pockar's eleven ordinals and 36.76 points. Beacom stood in third, followed by Ken Moir of North Vancouver, Hicks, Beland (skating double duty in both the junior and senior men's events), Taylor and Gordon Forbes. With his massive jumps and the cool confidence of a Sheldon Galbraith student, Taylor actually won both the short program and free skate "in dazzling fashion" receiving top marks from every judge but his seventh place finish in the figures unfortunately had him so far out of the running that he had to settle for silver behind Pockar, who finished second in all three phases of the competition. His lead after the figures quickly decimated, Szabo had to settle for the bronze with Hicks fourth and Beacom fifth. It was the closest Szabo would ever come to making it on the World Team.

THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION


With 1976 winners Barbara Berezowski and David Porter and 1977 winners Susan Carscallen and Eric Gillies out of the picture, Lorna Wighton and John Dowding followed the natural succession of ice dance 'back in the day' - they waited their turn and won. To be fair though, the duo from Toronto and Oakville had already made great strides that season. At Skate Canada in October 1977, they had won the bronze medal ahead of the Czechoslovakian team of Liliana Řeháková and Stanislav Drastich, a team who had placed two spots ahead of them the previous year at the World Championships in Tokyo.

Lorna Wighton and John Dowding. Photo courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

In Victoria, Wighton and Dowding took a huge lead in the compulsories although they were disappointed with their third dance, the Kilian. Dowding told reporters, "We felt a little shaky. We're not used to skating this early in the morning. Most dance competition is at night." However, they were so impressive in their Paso Doble OSP (choreographed by Marijane Stong) that Frank Loeser, writing in "Skating" Magazine in April 1978, noted that they expressed "an aura of cocktails and diamonds" as they "bubbled through a spikey, festive paso".

Patricia Fletcher and Michael De La Penotiere. Photo courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

The new partnership of Patricia Fletcher and Michael De La Penotiere of Toronto, who had only been skating together since the summer, finished second. A pair of exuberant teenagers from Nova Scotia you may have heard of named Marie McNeil and Rob McCall took the bronze medal. Just missing the podium were Debbie and Randy Burke, students of Ron Ludington. The top two teams were named by the CFSA to the World Team.

THE PAIRS COMPETITION


Lea Ann Jackson and Paul Mills. Photo courtesy Eileen Mortimer.


At the 1977 Canadian Championships in Calgary there had actually only been two senior pairs teams. The 1977 winners, the Pinner's (hey, that rhymed!) had, as I mentioned before, retired after a junior team was sent to the World Championships instead of them. The silver medallists, Janet and Mark Hominuke, had also decided to move on. Guess who stepped up to take the title? Why, the very team that had peeved members of the Hamilton Skating Club so badly that they threatened to contact their Members Of Parliament in protest of the CFSA's decision to send them to the World Championships... Sherri Baier and Robin Cowan.

Sherri Baier and Robin Cowan. Photo courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

In all fairness, Baier and Cowan were the 1976 Junior World Champions and had finished tenth at the World Championships in Tokyo they were sent to. Despite being injured, they had earned two spots for Canadian pairs at the World Championships in Ottawa. They skated convincingly in Victoria to take the gold in a field of newbies to the senior ranks. Second and also named to the World Team were their Preston Figure Skating Club training mates, Lee-Ann Jackson and Paul Mills, who had only been together for two months. Third went to North Vancouver's Susan Gowan and Eric Thomsen and Sharon Hallett and Craig Pearce finished fourth.

THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION


An injured Kim Alletson

The delightful Lynn Nightingale left Canada's women's skating in an excellent position with her eighth place finish at the 1977 World Championships in Tokyo. There were two spots for the World Championships in Ottawa up for grabs and with 1976 Bronze Medallist Susan MacDonald having announced her retirement after suffering a knee injury, eighteen year old Heather Kemkaran was a heavy pre-competition favourite. She had placed a respectable thirteenth at the World Championships the year before, easily won her Divisionals and had been busy fine tuning her figures with Carlo Fassi down in the States and working on artistry and style with Mrs. Ellen Burka in Toronto.

Her biggest threat would have been Kim Alletson, a student of Marilyn Thompson at the Minto Skating Club. However, Alletson was skating with inflamed tendons and torn cartilage in her right knee. Doctors had advised her to give it a rest but she kept skating anyway because she couldn't get a bye through Divisionals to Nationals. She finished second to Kemkaran at that event.

Prior to the Victoria competition, Alletson was receiving cortisone shots and rumours were swirling that she had withdrawn when she had not. She told an "Ottawa Citizen" reporter, "It makes no sense. What's a few seconds when I've worked 12 years to get here. As long as there is a chance for recovery, I'm still in. And if I can cut an outside edge, I'll skate." In the end, guts did not bring glory. Nineteen year old Alletson was forced to withdraw when her right knee collapsed on the take-off of a triple Salchow in practice. She yelled that her knee had given out, fell and had to be helped off the ice. After being treated in hospital, she released with a heavily bandaged knee and disappointedly withdrew, leaving ten other women to contest the crown. After returning to the ice the subsequent summer and going to train in Lake Placid with Barbara Roles, she found her knee injury to be too severe and ultimately retired from the sport.

Heather Kemkaran and Cathie Macfarlane. Photos courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

In the school figures, Kemkaran received first place ordinals from all seven judges and had more than a three point edge on her closest rival, Peggy MacLean of Calgary. In the short program, Kemkaran dominated. However, Ottawa's Janet Morrissey skated clean and earned marks ranging from 4.6 to 5.2. The judges ultimately placed her in third behind MacLean, who faltered on two jumps but was quite strong artistically. Kemkaran held on for the gold medal but it was Cathie MacFarlane of The Glencoe Club, who had been fifth in figures, who stole the show in the free skate and moved all the way up to second place overall. MacLean claimed the bronze and Kemkaran and MacFarlane were named to the 1978 World Team.

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