Jean Chrétien, Alexa McDonough, Giles Duceppe, Jean Charest and Preston Manning were six months away from squaring off in a federal election. "A Long December" by the Counting Crows neared number one on the Canadian music charts. Orbitz soda, TETRIX robotics kits and pogs were the latest fads.
The year was 1997, and from February 6 to 9, a multitude of Canadian figure skating greats gathered at GM Place in Downtown Vancouver for the 1997 Canadian Figure Skating Championships. It was the first time since 1988 that the province of British Columbia had played host to Canadians and fittingly, Karen Magnussen and her coach Linda Brauckman were inducted to the CFSA's Hall Of Fame. Magnussen was the event's honorary chairperson.
The CFSA had worried about ticket sales because Vancouver wasn't (according to David Dore) "a skating city" but the event brought in over a million dollars - exceeding a record set at the 1994 Canadian Championships in Edmonton. There were over sixteen thousand tickets sold for the Saturday of the event alone.
An interesting side note about this event was the fact it was the first Canadian Championships to have a real presence on what was then termed "the information superhighway". ctvistar.com, or "The Rink", was the clunky, dial-up predecessor of today's live marking websites. Sponsored by Colgate, Centrum, Ford, CTV Talk and the CFSA, the website offered at-home viewers results, skate orders, schedules, bios and commentary from Debbi Wilkes.
Break out your baggy pants and bucket hats for a trip down memory lane. Today we're looking back at all of the stories and skaters who shaped the 1997 Canadian Championships!
THE NOVICE AND JUNIOR EVENTS
The 1997 event marked the final time novice events would be held at Canadians until 2010.
Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Quebec's Monica Murovic and Dany Provost took the gold in novice pairs despite the fact they had only three days of training in the weeks leading up to the event due to injury. They bested Benjamin Barrucco and a young skater who would go on to win an Olympic medal in ice dance representing the United States - Tanith Belbin. Brenda Key and Ryan Smith, representing the Midland and Orillia Figure Skating Clubs, won novice dance. Leah Hepner of the Glencoe Club won the novice women's event, but she was upstaged by the prodigious ten year old who took the silver. Audrey Thibault of Drummondville, Quebec was landing triple toe-loop's - something you'd very rarely see in the novice women's ranks in those days. Moncton's Hugh Yik made history as the first skater from New Brunswick to win a novice title at Canadians in the men's - despite not winning either the short program or free skate. The bronze medallist, Chad Kilburn of the Royal Glenora Club, moved up from tenth after the short.
Sean Kelly Wirtz, the fifth place finisher in the junior men's event. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.
Also moving up was Kilburn's Royal Glenora Club training mate Sarah Schmidek, who came from behind to take the gold in the junior women's event. Quebec's Marie Laurier and Shane Dennison and Ontario's Laura Currie and Jeff Smith took the gold in junior pairs and dance. Sixteen year old Emanuel Sandhu dominated the junior men's event from start to finish, landing six triples in his free skate and earning a standing ovation. The teenager from just outside of Toronto had chosen skating over the National Ballet Of Canada. An impressed Louis Stong accurately predicted big things from Sandhu in the future, noting that he had "the whole package".
THE ICE DANCE COMPETITION
Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe
Twenty one year old Shae-Lynn Bourne and twenty five year old Victor Kraatz had split their training time between Lake Placid and Philadelphia during the 1996 season. In the months leading up to the 1997 Canadians in Vancouver, they had opted to train entirely in Lake Placid with Natalia Dubova. Bursitis in Bourne's left heel had caused them to miss a week of training time. In the first compulsory dance, the crowd of nine thousand collectively gasped when Kraatz took a tumble after getting caught on Bourne's dress. Despite the freak error, Bourne and Kraatz still had a healthy lead after the two compulsories. Kraatz told reporters, "It's such a fluke thing. I couldn't explain it at the time. I didn't know what was wrong until I saw it on the [video] tape. Afterwards, we just kind of made fun of it, because it's so ridiculous."
Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz. Photo courtesy Charlie Covell.
Bourne and Kraatz went on to skate brilliantly in both the original dance (the Tango) and free dance, easily winning their fifth consecutive Canadian title. Chantal Lefebvre and Michel Brunet narrowly outranked hometown favourites Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe for the silver, and the second spot on the World teams. There had been a five-four split between the teams in the original dance. Despite a tumble in the free dance, Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon held on to fourth, bettering Steve Kavanagh and his new partner Christine Fuller. In seventh was Michel Brunet's former partner Jennifer Boyce, returning to competition with Peter MacDonald.
The senior dance podium in Vancouver
Victor Kraatz was proud of Shae-Lynn Bourne for soldiering through her injury. He told reporter Steve Ewen, "She's such a great skater that she's able to not show (the pain). She's determined to always skate well. When it comes time to perform, the lights come on, she skates and starts limping afterwards." Bourne admitted, "I think this is the best we've skated the free dance to this point. It just keeps improving."
THE PAIRS AND FOURS COMPETITIONS
A crowd-pleasing and uniquely Canadian event was the fours competition. Jodeyne Higgins and Sean Rice had helped bring the gold in this event home to Kerry Leitch's camp the past four years, but in Vancouver Alison Gaylor, Nadine Prenovost, David Pelletier and David Annecca took the crown back to Quebec for the first time since 1992. One of the 1992 winners was Jean-Michel Bombardier, the defending Canadian pairs champion with Michelle Menzies.
Marie-Claude Savard-Gagnon and Luc Bradet. Photos courtesy J. Barry Mittan.
Menzies and Bombardier tumbled in the pairs short program, placing third behind Kristy Sargeant and Kris Wirtz and Marie-Claude Savard-Gagnon and Luc Bradet. There was rightfully much made of Savard-Gagnon and Bradet's improvement under Paul Martini. In the free skate, the bad luck that befell Kristy Sargeant and Kris Wirtz in 1996 continued, when Sargeant elbowed Wirtz on the triple twist, leaving him with a bloodied cheek. Their problems continued with a fall on the side-by-side triple toe-loop's and an aborted lift. Wirtz later admitted that the collision on the twist left him a little dizzy. The pair had the option to stop and restart but opted to soldier through their program. Despite their problems, they still managed to outrank Menzies and Bombardier. With the skate of their lives, Savard-Gagnon and Bradet finally managed to take the Canadian title. They received unanimous first place ordinals and a standing ovation. The Quebec pair had been on the Canadian scene for close to a decade, having won the novice title back in 1988. Jodeyne Higgins and Sean Rice placed a disappointing fourth, but made history by landing back-to-back triple twists for the first time at Canadians. Under the current rules, pairs are only allowed to attempt one twist lift in their free skate, so it's unlikely Higgins and Rice's feat is something we'll see in the future.
THE WOMEN'S COMPETITION
Photo courtesy Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec
After her disappointment at the 1996 Canadian Championships, Josée Chouinard had opted to return to the professional ranks, making defending Champion Jennifer Robinson the favourite in Vancouver. In the short program, Robinson was bested by former Olympian Susan Humphreys, who had struggled at the past two Canadians due to a back injury. CTV audiences were very confused when the short program of the third place finisher, former Canadian Champion Netty Kim, wasn't included in the broadcast of the event. Twenty year old Kim, who'd skated poorly at the 1996 Canadians and fallen out of favour, had skated in one of the earlier groups and performed better than expected. The York University student's program was ultimately shown in one of the station's "Afternoon Picks" broadcasts.
As in 1996, the women's free skate was a cavalcade of errors. 'David Dore's crackdown', as it was known at the time, made it painfully clear to skaters that if you didn't attempt the difficult triple jumps, you weren't going to earn international assignments. It was something Kerry Salmoni, the seventh place finisher, was all too familiar with. She had won the Junior World trials in 1995, but was left off the team anyway because she wasn't "going for the bigger tricks". Karen Magnussen wasn't impressed. She told "Vancouver Sun" reporter Gary Mason, "At last year's Nationals in the senior ladies, the judges said they would be giving credit for triples that were at least attempted. Well, every girl who went out there tried triples that they probably never landed. Barbara Ann Scott said she and her husband counted twenty nine splats - not trips or falls, splats." She felt that the push for skaters to attempt jumps in competition they hadn't yet mastered was asinine, as it only led to humiliation and shattered confidence. Susan Humphreys was one of the few women who managed to stay upright in Vancouver and she was unanimously ranked first, earning the only spot on the World team. Jennifer Robinson settled for the bronze behind Angela Derochie and Netty Kim placed fifth behind hometown favourite Keyla Ohs.
Susan Humphreys told "Kingston Whig" reporter Grant Kerr, "I was really nervous and for a moment I thought it might slip away, but I really believed in myself and I think that's what pulled me through all these times that I've had."
THE MEN'S COMPETITION
Photo courtesy Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec
While Canada's women had growing pains in their quest to meet the CFSA's expectations, the men's event was quite a different story. Whereas Elvis Stojko had been the only senior man consistently landing the triple Axel in 1996, nine men - more than half of the field in Vancouver - were now landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump in practice. Sébastien Britten, the 1995 Champion, had fallen out of favour with the CFSA because he hadn't mastered the Axel and it was pretty evident before he even took the ice that the judges weren't going to give him the second spot on the World team.
The top three men in the short program - Elvis Stojko, Jeffrey Langdon and Stéphane Yvars - all trained at the Mariposa Club with Doug and Michelle Leigh. There was a lot of talk about the three junior medallists from 1996 - nineteen year olds Collin Thompson and Jayson Denommée and seventeen year old Ben Ferreira - all making their senior debuts... and attempting the triple Axels. None of them had any luck.
Ravi Walia and Matthew Williams were both skating in front of hometown crowds in Vancouver. Walia skated better than he had when he won the bronze in 1995, landing a triple/triple combo, triple Lutz and triple flip in his free skate. At twenty eight and six foot four, Williams was the oldest and tallest skater in the men's event. The married father finished an unlucky thirteenth in 1995 but failed to qualify for the Canadians in 1996. Williams' wife and father both volunteered for the event to be able to see him skate. He fell on his opening triple Lutz, but went on to skate more or less cleanly, to the delight of the crowd. Both Vancouver area skaters trained under Cynthia Ullmark at the Royal Glenora Club in Edmonton and earned standing ovations. Walia placed fourth; Williams twelfth.
The senior men's podium in Vancouver. Photo courtesy Chuck Stoody.
Jeffrey Langdon. Photo courtesy J. Barry Mittan.
Though Britten received high presentation marks and one judge had Langdon in sixth, the Barrie skater earned the second spot on the Canadian World team with a majority of second place ordinals. Elvis Stojko's winning program featured two triple Axels and a historic quadruple toe-loop/double toe-loop combination. His only error was a two-foot landing on a triple loop. It was the first time a quad jump had been landed in combination at the Canadians. Stojko had landed it at Worlds back in 1991. The Barrie skater earned a standing ovation and a sea of 5.8's and 5.9's.
Thanks to a generous donation of VHS tapes by Skate Guard reader Kate, you can take a trip back in time and rewatch performances from the 1997 Canadian Championships in digitized video form. The YouTube playlist, which includes several of the medal-winning free skates from the senior events, can be found above or at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL6c_NN6KdCfLPXUNZTaJy_BCI7ygJ4r9p.
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