On February 26, 1961, CBC made history with the very first full-length skating special in Canadian history, "Planet Ice". Filmed at the East York arena in Toronto, the show was an 'ice fantasy' set on "the undiscovered Planet Ice, where everything is made of ice and everyone skates from birth." The fictional planet's Prince and Princess were played by Barbara Wagner and Bob Paul, the reigning Olympic Gold Medallists and World Champions. Gordon Crossland, a silver medallist in ice dance at the 1955 Canadian Championships with Geraldine Fenton, who went on to skate with Ice Follies, played an astronaut who landed on the planet by accident. Actor Paul Klingman, comedian Jack Duffy and dancer Paul Elsom laced up and took to the ice as a group of scientists on the planet's ice factory who were trying to invent 'a perfect ice man'. The production was choreographed by Sheldon Galbraith.
"Strawberry Ice", "The True Gift Of Christmas" and "The Magic Planet" may have been Toller Cranston's best remembered CBC specials, but before these gems came another lesser recalled one, "Dreamweaver". Produced by J. Edward Shaw and Charles Weir and directed by Shaw, "Dreamweaver" was a hodge podge of a skating fantasy, with music ranging from disco to Tchaikovsky.
RITA MACNEIL AND ANNE MURRAY'S CHRISTMAS SPECIALS
Cape Bretoner Rita MacNeil, who had brought down the house in Halifax with her song "We'll Reach The Sky Tonight" at the 1992 Skate The Dream tribute to Rob McCall and fundraiser for AIDS research, had Jamie Salé and David Pelletier and Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini in her specials. The "Anne Murray's Family Christmas" specials featured the likes of Elvis Stojko and Brian Orser.
THE BURSARY FUND GALA
Considering there were very limited show opportunities for skaters who ranked outside of the top three in Canada at the time aside from Parade Of Champions at Canadians and club carnivals, it was a rare treat for Canadian skating fans to see their favourites as well as a host of 'new names' under spotlights. Donald Jackson made several special guest appearances, landing a double Axel over twenty years after he won his World title in Prague in 1962 in one show.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF CANADIAN SKATING
SKATE AND ICE TIME
A year after her book of the same name came out, Olympic Silver Medallist Debbi Wilkes - the queen of Canadian figure skating commentary - gained an audience with "Ice Time", the country's premiere magazine style television program about figure skating. It was a triumphant return of sorts, after she was dropped from CTV's crew after twenty years of being one of the sport's best commentators.
"Ice Time" first aired in January 1996 on the Women's Television Network. It was a co-production between WTN, CTV and Debbi. Prior to the show's debut, she told "Toronto Star" reporter Ken McKee, "CTV was looking to partner some of the new specialty channels in new program
opportunities and WTN was really interested in some quality sports ventures... I hope it'll be like my book - an honest look at some of the best and the worst aspects of skating... Maybe a combination of Coach's Corner and Entertainment Tonight. I'm a big fan of Don Cherry."
The show's first episode featured highlights from the Champions Series and a look back at Oksana Baiul's winning free skate from the 1994 Winter Olympic Games. The early Saturday afternoon timing of the show before the cornucopia of skating offerings on television in the afternoons and evenings was for many the start to their 'skating weekend'. Many "Ice Time" episodes veered away from the present and featured rare video footage from skating competitions in the seventies, eighties and early nineties.
Keeping in mind that this was ten years before YouTube came along, these performances were something many new fans to the sport had never had the opportunity to see. Likewise, Debbi's accompanying website "The Insider's Guide", was one of the first Canadian figure skating websites... back in the days of dial-up. It featured 'Rink Side' articles, interviews, news, skating lessons, report cards on top skaters, reader mail, caption contests and a 'Tracing Back' section which shared tidbits of skating history. She even shared Irene Stojko's spaghetti sauce recipe!
Although the unique content coupled with Debbi's expertise and wonderful sense of humour carried the show for several years and even sparked a "Retro Ice Time" revival, by the time the professional skating craze ended, the show was sadly no more.
Debbi and I spoke about the legacy of "Ice Time". She said, "Oh boy...This is a fun story! It was right around the time there was a huge change in the broadcast landscape... There was CTV, TSN, CBC then there was this young upstart, which was owned by CBC at the time, called Rogers. CTV also owned the W Network. They had a half dozen different channels that they were supporting, so obviously they were looking for content. One of the best producers of figure skating I've ever worked with, Scott Moore, who recently retired from a huge job at Rogers, loved skating... very, very pro-skating. We'd kicked around ideas about skating shows before but there wasn't really a place for it... Suddenly they decide to do this major expansion and I said to Scott, 'Well, what about a skating show? We've got all the video tape imaginable and we can do it in sort of cellular segments and review old performances, guests... It was a little, tiny skating variety show.' That's really how it came about. PJ [Kwong] worked on it with me and she and I would decide on the theme for each week and we'd write it. It was a great collaboration and it was really fun to do. It lasted a couple of seasons, then it moved over to Bell Sympatico and lasted there for a number of seasons as well. I'd had such a long broadcast career and had been to many of those events [we looked back at]. It kind of allowed me to look at the history of the sport and see some of the trends and watch the judging, the development and progress of the technical side of the sport. It also gave me a chance to put things in perspective. I just found it so juicy! It was thrilling to watch how the sport marched ahead through those many, many decades and to able to use the incredible library that CTV had. The librarian at CTV was a real skating fan and where most material would have been erased, he kept the skating stuff. It was just one of those fortunate coincidences that they had the material, there was a place to put it and someone was willing to support it. It was great - a lot of fun."