CFSA key chain, circa 1995
Jean Chrétien was Canada's Prime Minister and the price of gas was fifty four cents per litre. Thousands of Canadians tuned in to popular television series like "Road To Avonlea", "North Of 60" and "Due South". Children played with the new VTech computers Santa had just brought them for Christmas while parents sang along to Jann Arden's hit "Insensitive" on their commutes home from work.
From January 11 to 15, 1995, a who's who of Canadian figure skating gathered in Halifax, Nova Scotia to compete in the first Canadian Championships of a new quadrennial Olympic cycle. Defending champions Kurt Browning, Josée Chouinard and Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler - along with several other medal contenders - had turned professional, opening the door for a new wave of fresh faces to make a big splash in the senior ranks. The decision to hold the Championships in Halifax was announced on February 10, 1994 - just two days before the opening ceremonies at the Lillehammer Olympics. Lower bowl tickets were sold out by that October when "Skate The Dream" was held at the Metro Centre and the senior events proved to be standing room only. It was the first time since 1981 that the Nova Scotia capital would play host to Canadians and thanks to the efforts of the Nova Scotia Section and Halifax Skating Club, the event proved to be a tremendous success.
When all four Canadian entries placed dead last in their respective disciplines at Skate America at the 1994 Skate America competition in Pittsburgh, some reporters rather predictably began to fret about the prospects of Canadian skaters in the absence of Browning, Chouinard and Brasseur and Eisler. Officials and coaches didn't altogether take the bait. David Dore remarked honestly, "We're in the first season of a new four-year cycle leading to the '98 Olympic Games and that usually means a change of the guard. There's always some uncertainty when world medal contenders move on and a... title is up for grabs among young skaters. Our men are fine and dance is in very good shape. But pairs is struggling right now and we have several on the same level. Our ladies? It's difficult to figure out where they're at right now.'' Elvis Stojko's coach Doug Leigh added his two cents: "If I were a doctor and someone came to me with a medical problem, I wouldn't say: 'You're gonna die.' I'd say: 'We're going to try to make you better.' It's not like there's no talent out there.''
Speaking of talent, any reminiscence of the 1995 Canadian Championships would be remiss not to mention the inductions of many incredible members of the Canadian skating community to the CFSA's Hall Of Fame. The important contributions of Peter Mumford, Ralph McCreath, Norman V.S. Gregory, Marg and Bruce Hyland and Maria and Otto Jelinek were celebrated in Halifax, and in a moving speech Otto recalled his ties to the Atlantic Canadian city. When he was only ten years old he and Maria had arrived at Pier 21 with everything they owned stuffed into two suitcases after defecting from Czechoslovakia. On the way to Halifax to be inducted, Otto's plane had twice been diverted to Moncton due to foggy weather. He and Maria wouldn't have missed it for the world. After his speech, he told a reporter, "Forty years ago when we arrived in this country, we couldn't even speak English and didn't know a single person... This honour means a great deal to us."
At the event's opening press conference Mary Walsh, assuming her beloved Marg Delahunty character from "This Hour Has 22 Minutes", appeared dressed in a red, fur-trimmed skating dress reminiscent of Barbara Ann Scott. When it was her turn to ask a question, she joked, "Canadians have had to put up with a complete lack of violence on the ice this season. Can we look forward to any kneecapping, leg breakings or any fun at all during these championships?'' The Tonya/Nancy reference went over like a lead balloon and CFSA officials didn't know how to respond. Kris Wirtz broke a silence you could have cut with a knife by saying, "Skaters are nice people." Let's take a look back at how nice they were in Halifax!
THE NOVICE AND JUNIOR EVENTS
Fourteen year old Douglas Bourque of High River, Alberta expanded upon his lead after the short program to win the novice men's event. Second and third were fourteen year old Emanuel Sandhu and fifteen year old Ben Ferreira, both of whom would go on to be major players in Canadian men's skating as the decade progressed. Ferreira and Bourque had been eighth and ninth in novice men's the year prior. Quebec skaters Marie France Péloquin and Genevieve Coulombe and Sacha Blanchet took top honours in the novice women's and pairs events, while the novice dance title went to Tara Mettlewsky and Dylan Bullick. Rebecca Salisbury, David D'Cruz and Amanda Cotroneo and Mark Bradshaw, who had recently represented Canada at the World Junior Championships in Budapest, were the winners in the junior singles and dance competitions. Junior pairs winners Isabelle Coulombe and Bruno Marcotte had won a bronze medal at the World Juniors two years prior to Seoul, South Korea. Disappointingly, Sarah Schmidek - the 1994 novice women's champion - placed an unlucky thirteenth in her first year in junior. The number thirteen would prove even more unlucky in the senior men's event.
THE MEN'S COMPETITION
Twenty two year old Olympic Silver Medallist and World Champion Elvis Stojko ended up in the hospital after injuring his ankle in a freak practice accident the Tuesday prior to the men's competition. After landing a double Axel, he slipped and crashed into the boards. He told reporters, "I was landing the double Axel where I usually do it, about five feet from the boards, when I lost an edge and, all of sudden, the boards were coming towards me very quickly. The toe pick on the blade caught in the plastic covering on the boards, something had to take the weight of my body, which was still moving fast... and it was my knee and ankle that caught it. It didn't damage the long ligament, but the short (talofibular) one, and placed much stress on the Achilles tendon... I can handle pain -- a lot of it, in fact -- because skaters very often perform with parts of their bodies hurting from falls. I did the Canadian championships in '92 with a broken bone in my foot. But this injury goes beyond merely hurting. Because of it, my skate boot cuts off quite a bit of the power I have in that leg, which changes what I can try to do... I'll be competing if there's any way I can.''
The men's free skate was a roller coaster, to say the very least. The judges ranked Sébastien Britten unanimously first, making him the first Canadian Champion since 1980 to win without a triple Axel in his repertoire. Though Britten landed two triple Lutzes, he made several other errors and undoubtedly benefited greatly from his superior skating skills and presentation. In the CTV broadcast of the competition, Debbi Wilkes remarked, "I think it's a late Christmas gift." Britten later recalled, 1995 was a very special event for the Britten family as my father's side of the family is from Nova Scotia. Just skating for my grandmother Agi (and a whole section full of family members) was a unique highlight! I was really nervous and wanting to skate my very best for all of them. When the chance of winning presented itself, the pressure I put on my shoulders was huge! What I will always remember the most (and I still have a photo of this moment on a wall in my house today) is the moment, at the boards on the ice, right after the free program, when I got to hug my grandmother... a moment I will keep alive in my heart and mind forever since she's gone now."
George Reinitz congratulating Sébastien Britten
Marcus Christensen and Ravi Walia moved up to take the silver and bronze and David Pelletier fell to fourth with a disappointing performance. Equally disappointing were the marks of Matthew Hall, the 1989 Canadian Bronze Medallist. Skating one of his best performances - and one of the few near-clean free skates in the event - Hall only moved up from tenth after the short to eighth overall. Inevitably, there were those who drew a parallel between the judge's marks and the fact he was very much out of the closet, sharing his story in "The Village Voice". At the time, things were a 'best kept a little more discreet.' Perhaps the result was in reality a result of erratic judging. After all, Matthew Smith - the only man to land a triple/triple combination - placed ninth.
Following the competition, Sébastien Britten complained to Rod Black about the temperature in the arena. "It's been like that all week and I don't want to make any excuses," he said. "But I think everyone suffered from that because we didn't see great performances in singles especially in all the categories. The ice was really, really soft and just too warm. You get off the ice and you're dying, so I think it had a bad effect on the skaters, I could say."
Sébastien Britten and Marcus Christensen were named to the World team, along with Elvis Stojko, who obtained a medical bye. The situation was far from unprecedented - in 1992, Kurt Browning had been named to the Olympic team under similar circumstances. The man pushed off the Albertville team as a result of his bye was Britten.
Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler had turned professional, but were on hand in Halifax to present medals to the winners and cheer on their former competitors. Also notably absent from the pairs roster were Olympians Jamie Salé and Jason Turner. They had ended their partnership, with Salé opting to focus her attention on singles. Kristy Sargeant and Kris Wirtz, the other medal-winning couple from the 1994 Canadians, were the obvious favourites in Halifax but when Kris got a nasty case of the flu and took an uncharacteristic tumble on a spin in the short program, it would have taken a miracle comeback that they just weren't up to in order to claim the gold. Their disappointment continued in the free skate, and they placed fifth overall.
Michelle Menzies and Jean-Michel Bombardier, silver medallists in 1993, took the lead in the short program, followed by 1990 Canadian junior champions Marie-Claude Savard-Gagnon and Luc Bradet. After a topsy turvy free skate filled with ordinal flips and multiple mistakes from the top couples, Menzies and Bombardier came out on top and Savard-Gagnon and Bradet dropped off the podium entirely. The silver and bronze medals went to Allison Gaylor and David Pelletier and Jodeyne Higgins and Sean Rice.
THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION
Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz were the only defending Champions in the senior ranks to return to defend their title. There was much interest in their decision to leave Josée Picard and Éric Gilles to train in Lake Arrowhead with Olympic Gold Medallists Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, who were then moreso professional competitors than coaches. Canadians working with Russians simply wasn't something that was really done in those days, but the improvements in Bourne and Kraatz's skating in three short months showed the proof was in the pudding. They weren't the only top dance couple to make changes that season. Jennifer Boyce and Michel Brunet moved to Calgary with coach Marilyn Symko. Janet Emerson and Steve Kavanagh of Toronto began working with choreographer Anne Schelter, but during the off-season she underwent knee surgery and Steve got pneumonia.
The changes of all three teams reflected in their dancing, but after the Rhumba and Argentine Tango compulsories, Bourne and Kraatz, Boyce and Brunet and Emerson and Kavanagh were predictably one-two-three - a result that remained the same through the Quickstep original dance and free dance. Interestingly, Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon competed against each other, with then-partners Tomas Morbacher and Chantal Lefebvre. By the following season, Lefebvre would be teamed up with Michel Brunet and Dubreuil and Lauzon would be a duo. In Halifax, Dubreuil and Morbacher placed fourth; Lefebvre and Lauzon fifth. Sixth was a young Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe.
THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION
Netty Kim. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.
Josée Chouinard was commentating for television in French, Karen Preston was touring as Snow White and Tanya Bingert had opted to call it a day. Susan Humphreys would have been the favourite had she not injured her back, allowing her little time to train triples in the months leading up to Canadians. The women's field in Halifax was wide open and with two spots at the World Championships up for grabs, it was anyone's guess how things might play out.
Eighteen year old Netty Kim of Toronto was the unlikely winner of the women's short program, besting Jennifer Robinson and Susan Humphreys. A long-time student of Bob Emerson who was forced to withdraw from the 1993 World Junior Championships in Seoul, South Korea due to torn ankle ligaments, Kim had placed only seventh at the 1994 Canadians in Edmonton. She had taken time away from skating, but after some reflection decided to return. Her father Young-Sang Kim ran a Toronto convenience store with his father and brother where Netty and her sister worked part-time.
Disappointing free skating performances kept potential medal contenders Jamie Salé and Angela Derochie off the podium and Susan Humphreys in third. Netty Kim and Jennifer Robinson rose to the occasion, taking the two spots on the World team. Netty's win was a historic one. She was the first Asian Canadian woman in history to win a Canadian senior title in any discipline. Following the event, Torontonians taped homemade signs and newspaper clippings to the front-door of Netty Kim's family's convenience store. Strangers even sent flowers. Though she was ultimately unable to make it out of the qualifying rounds at the Worlds that followed in Birmingham, Netty's win in Halifax was a very special one indeed.
Thanks to a generous donation of VHS tapes by Skate Guard reader Maureen, you can take a trip back in time and rewatch highlights of the 1995 Canadian Championships in digitized video form. The YouTube playlist, which includes all of the medal-winning free skates from the senior events, the entire Parade Of Champions and several other performances of note, can be found above or at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL6c_NN6KdCfJApDU_s8sS8oQNMdY1Jc4Y.
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