By Pam Dillon
Skate Central, Canada? Imagine one chance to make a dream come true. Picture just four and a half minutes to prove you’re Canada’s best figure skater in your discipline. From January 9 to 15, the country’s brightest stars will be leaving it all on the ice at the Canadian Tire National Figure Skating Championships. The stakes? Extraordinary. The spotlight? Dazzling.
This Ottawa event marks the last chance for competitors to show they’ve got what it takes to represent Canada at the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. It also marks the 100th anniversary of a competition that began right here at Ottawa’s own Minto Skating Club.
A celebration of skating, the 2014 nationals at 1000 Palladium Drive will be riveting and emotional, so bring your Kleenex. Undoubtedly, the hometown crowd will be cheering for our native stars, such as top ranked Alaine Chartrand who’ll be competing in the senior women’s class. But each performance will be a feat in itself.
Many of the competitors have worked 17 or 18 years for their turn here, says Jackie Stell Buckingham, director of events for Skate Canada. For some it is “the one chance.” And it’ll be over in less time than it takes the rest of us to defrost the windows and warm the car before heading to the rink.
That’s the “wow” factor. “The energy in the building is palpable,” she explains. Mid-performance, “you can hear a pin drop.” When skaters ace their routines, “the whole place goes crazy. You live their joy.” Jackie calls the experience “completely addictive.”
As most locals realize, this city is hooked and tied to skating. Rumour has it when babies are born in Ottawa, attending health-care providers check their feet to see if blades are attached. They might as well be. Kids grow up on skates in this burg. Bureaucrats slap them on and cruise to work on the world’s largest skating rink (also known as the Rideau Canal) and parents spend years chauffeuring kids to various indoor rinks for practices, shows, competitions and games.
Coffee shops and canteens dole out vats of hot beverages for the folks in the stands and, six months of the year, restaurants and hotels fill up when skaters, families and fans arrive for major events on ice. Skate Central, Canada? Oui, you’re here.
All told, the city has over 424 indoor and outdoor ice surfaces. In 2012-2013 alone, indoor rink attendance was pegged at 2.7 million on municipal ice and at the Rink of Dreams downtown, 59,672 skaters were counted during supervised hours. But don’t forget the canal. Any winter day the ice is safe, thousands of skaters fill the 7.8 kilometre arena.
Then there are all the natural and garden-hose generated ODRs (outdoor rinks). Backyards, front yards, ponds, fields and waterways are regularly put to use in January. If a sliver of real estate is flat and covered in ice, chances are someone will have shoveled it off and others will be practicing crossovers or playing a game of shinny.
Don’t have skates? You can rent them on the skateway. And if you’ve never donned a pair before, there are numerous ways to get going. Clubs and options are plentiful, plus there are programs available for all ages and abilities through the City of Ottawa, according to Dan Chenier, general manager of parks, recreation and cultural services. “Also,” he adds, “through a partnership with Canadian Tire Jumpstart, the Senators Foundation and our community partners, the city is able to offer an inclusive I Love to Skate program to 500 children [and] youth who are unable to afford registered skating programs.”
Once newbie skaters find their balance, the possibilities take off. They include figure skating, speed skating, ringette and hockey. For all these sports, Ottawa has its fans and stars and for each of these stars, there are countless kids following behind on skates.
In the Ottawa area, there are three National Ringette League (NRL) teams—Ottawa Ice, Gloucester Devils and Gatineau Fusion, plus a number of Team Canada athletes who will be competing at the World Ringette Championship December 29 to January 4 in North Bay, Ontario. The Ottawa-based international competitors are Manotick’s Colleen Hagan and Nepean sisters Kaitlyn and Kelsey Youldon, who play for the Gloucester Devils, as well as Jenna McBride and Jayme Simzer who play for the Ottawa Ice.
Ottawa’s Ivanie Blondin is a racer who can fly on the oval. At age 23, she’s an international competitor and a member of Canada’s long track national speed skating team. Ivanie started skating when she was seven and spent loads of ice time with the Gloucester Concordes Speed Skating Club. Lauren McGuire, 25 in January, is another speed skating phenom with local roots. Although she hails from the Pacers Speed Skating Club, she’s on the national long track development team. The local up-and- comer is Vincent De Haitre. At age five, he started skating at the Cumberland arena after school. Today the 18-year-old Concordes alumnus is Lauren’s teammate on the national long track development team.
You’ve heard of the Sens Mile? The Screech Owls books by Roy MacGregor? The annual Bell Capital Cup? From the hockey pools at offices around town to the traffic reports reminding drivers it’s game night in the west end, hockey is woven into the fabric of the city. Rinks are named after local legends Larry Robinson and Steve Yzerman and there are clubs for both males and females skaters at almost every level. All have their own stars, but none shine brighter than the players on the city’s beloved National Hockey League team, the Ottawa Senators.
Starting with the first official Canadian Figure Skating Championships held at Minto in 1914, figure skating and skating participation have become part of Ottawa history, geography, culture and community pride. Say the name Liz Manley in conversation and there’s instant recognition. An Olympic silver medalist in 1988, Liz remains a celebrity and a person of influence in Ottawa. And although her schedule is busy, she says, “I love working with the kids at Gloucester Skating Club and go in as often as I can.” Over the years, she guesstimates, she’s gone through 100 pairs of skates. Last January, when she hosted Elizabeth Manley and Friends at 100 Palladium Drive, the cast included Joanne Rochette and Elvis Stojko, while proceeds helped support DIFD and Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa.
This January’s show at the CTC promises to be even more spectacular. For details about the Canadian Tire National Figure Skating Championships, see www.skatecanada.ca; for tickets, see capitaltickets.ca.