Mrs. Ellen Burka: Candor From A Canadian Figure Skating Legend

Photograph of legendary Canadian figure skating coach Mrs. Ellen Burka

"She makes you want to skate, she takes skating for what it is, dishes out discipline when it's needed and makes you enjoy the whole idea of skating." - Dennis Coi, "Canadian Skater" magazine, Fall 1979

Coach, choreographer, mother, Dutch figure skating champion and Holocaust survivor Mrs. Ellen Burka passed away September 12, 2016 at the age of ninety five. She coached her daughter Petra to the 1964 Olympic bronze medal and 1965 World title, dear friend Toller Cranston to Olympic, World, North American and Canadian podiums and revolutionized the sport with her passion for artistry, proper skating technique and pushing the boundaries. During her incredible career, she guided a who's who of figure skating to the top. In 1966, she was the proud coach of both the Canadian men's and women's champion. Dorothy Hamill, Jay Humphry, Linda (Carbonetto) Villella, Heather Kemkaran, Tracey Wainman, Elvis Stojko, Karen Preston, Janet Morrissey, Dennis Coi, Christopher Bowman, Sandra and Val Bezic, Lucinda Ruh, Patrick Chan, Jacqueline Petr and Mark Janoschak, Jamie Lynn Kitching-Santee and countless, countless others all benefited from her expertise at one point or another.

Photograph of legendary Canadian figure skating coaches Sheldon Galbraith and Mrs. Ellen Burka
Sheldon Galbraith and Mrs. Ellen Burka

In 1992, Mrs. Burka was inducted into the CFSA (Skate Canada) Hall Of Fame; four years later the Canadian Sports Hall Of Fame. Incredibly, somehow she has never been inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall Of Fame. If you haven't made the time yet to watch her daughter Astra's wonderful documentary "Skate To Survive", you need to. If you haven't listened to Paul Dore's fantastic two-part interview with her on Open Kwong Dore, now is the time. It can't be overstated what an impact this phenomenal woman made on the sport and no one could possibly do her story justice as she did in her own words in these interviews. For that reason, instead of trying to tackle her story, I decided to cull together a fascinating collection of quotes from Mrs. Burka that offer a window into her thoughts on skating, her students and her life.


"Sure it's boring, but it has a certain charm once you do it well. It's an intriguing thing to try to get perfect figures." - "The Ottawa Citizen", January 4, 1974

"There are other ways to teach skating basics, other ways to learn edges and turns without spending four hours every day doing figures on a small patch of ice... Four hours on ice with their necks hanging down and their arms held stiffly at their sides leaves skaters cripples. They're too stiff and that hurts their free-skating training." - "The Globe And Mail", March 2, 1990


"I think the first two year's of any kid's life should spent learning to skate before they even touch a stick." - "The Montreal Gazette", April 2, 1975

Legendary Canadian figure skater Toller Cranston and his coach Mrs. Ellen Burka
Toller Cranston and Mrs. Ellen Burka. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.


"I saw my parents standing in the cattle car. I waved to them. My mother went inside. My father stayed there. And then I left. I went back and dug peat moss... You lived with it. It was either your turn or not. It wasn't my turn." - "National Post", October 15, 2013


"He was a very nice young man. But the more and more he got up and up and up, he became very involved in his own self-ness, how adored he was. It changed him. When he became too big about himself, he became difficult." - "The Ottawa Citizen", October 2, 2001


"I really had to keep an eye on her. The day before the competition, Tracey said to me, 'I'm tired, I'm tired,' so I said, 'Go to bed early tonight and have a good sleep.' At midnight, I went past her room to check up, and I heard voices. So I knocked on the door, and finally Tracey opens it. There were bottles everywhere, so I said, 'Where is he?' I found him behind the shower curtain." - "Toronto Life", April 2006

"She's one person who will be able to look back on her career one day and say she truly enjoyed it." - "The Toronto Star", February 5, 1986


"As far as I can tell, those are my vials, and I haven't seen them yet... Now, if I want to see them, I am told that I have to pay for a ticket to get into the travelling exhibition, which is in Manchester right now... If there is any kind of legal action, it won't be resolved while I'm alive. It would be nice to smell them one more time. I remember my uncle's perfumes. My mother used to wear them, and they would leave stains on her clothes because they were made naturally, with the flower oils... I love good perfumes. I am totally addicted to perfume." - "National Post", November 13, 2004


"I don't think anyone has been that good in school figures in the past 20 years. She has this fantastic ability to block everything out when she's skating - many top skaters can't do that, they get very nervous in front of the crowd." - "The Montreal Gazette", February 2, 1973


"Christopher has several personalities. One is very likeable. Another is very irresponsible... His behaviour has been very erratic and out of control." - "The Toledo Blade", February 14, 1992

"He's a charmer, he's a genius, but his attention span is worse than my dog, Monty. He got into trouble here, and he's been in trouble since he was 14, growing up in Hollywood." - "The New York Times", April 1, 1993


"They should coach while they're working at the sport. At the moment they go home they should be a parent. The coach should not be taken into the house." - "The Vancouver Sun", November 14, 1987


"This was her dream, since she was a little girl, to skate at the Olympics and she's had to fight hard to make it come true. That's why I agreed when she asked if I'd take her on and continue through 1992. I saw her as a scrapper, a person who won't accept defeat. I thought I was finished with coaching but for me, Karen Preston represented something I needed, to get the old fires burning again. It woke me up, sort of. She's been good for me... Any coach would love Karen Preston. The girl really persevered to get where she wanted to go. I'm happy for her because she earned it. And I'm happy for myself because I'm able to be part of it at a time when I thought I was history - ancient history." - "The Toronto Star", January 28, 1992

Photograph of legendary Canadian figure skating coach Mrs. Ellen Burka
Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.


"Learn the triples. It's of the utmost importance. The artistry you can learn later." - "The Edmonton Journal", February 11, 1994


"It has to be a really cold day before her feet go numb but I've found a way to get the circulation back. All we have to do is stick them in a pail of hot water before she has to skate and she gets the feeling right back in her legs." - "The Montreal Gazette", February 3, 1966

"My relationship to my daughter was very good. Petra was very low key and very talented. She was the easiest student I ever had. It was a very unusual situation. When I look back, I don't know how we did it." - "The Vancouver Sun", November 14, 1987

Rest in peace, Mrs. Burka. You have left figure skating much, much better than you found it.

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