The 1979 Canadian Figure Skating Championships

Photo courtesy "Canadian Skater" magazine

The 1979 Canadian Figure Skating Championships in Thunder Bay, Ontario was a competition of many firsts. Advances in technology meant that for the first time, a central music system was used to play music via a telephone system from a sound room at the main venue, the four thousand, six hundred seat Fort William Gardens to both practice venues, the Port Arthur and Current River

Commemorative badge and pin from The 1979 Canadian Figure Skating Championships

It was also the first time senior winners were given an engraved lapel-sized pin in addition to their gold medal, the first time a skater landed a triple Axel at the Canadian Championships and the first time in almost ten years - since the great Carbonetto/Magnussen upset of 1969 - that a defending senior champion would be dethroned at the Canadian Championships.

A trifecta of Canadian coaching greats... Louis Stong, Kerry Leitch and Doug Leigh. Photos courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

History aside, the "Canadian Skater" magazine noted that the competition wasn't all roses in a review of the event in their Spring/Summer 1979 issue: "The major complaint was not the facilities or the well-below zero Thunder Bay weather, but the judging of participants. Judges were openly booed for some of their marks and at times the corridors vibrated with angry comments about the judging. But still the crowds came and the stands were packed." In today's blog, let's take a look back and see what all the excitement was about!


As was the fashion at the time, the top three in the novice ice dance competition remained the same from the compulsories through the free dance. Karen Taylor of Sarnia and Bob Burk of Ridgetown were the victors, followed by Wendy Birch and Danny Sorley and Carla Holdsworth and Herb Deary. Taylor and Burk's victory was remarkable in that the year before they hadn't even qualified for Nationals. A move to Toronto was apparently just what the young team needed. In the month's leading up to the 1979 Canadian Championships, they decisively snatched the Western Ontario Sectional and Central Canada Divisional titles.

Brad McLean

The leader after the novice men's school figures was Vegreville, Alberta's Troy Ruptash, with Port Moody, British Columbia's Brad McLean second and Edmonton's Ian Edwards third. With a fine free skate, McLean ultimately took the gold, followed by Windsor's Darin Matthewson and Ruptash. Further down the standings were some notable names you just might recognize! In fifth and ninth were 1988 Olympians Neil Paterson and Lyndon Johnston and in seventh was future World Champion and two time Olympic Medallist Lloyd Eisler.

Rosemary Barth and Keith Davis

Kerry Leitch students took the top two spots in the novice pairs event, which consisted solely of a free skate. Rosemary Barth of Kitchener and Keith Davis of St. Catharines claimed the gold; Penny Wilson of Ingersoll and William Thompson of Waterloo the silver. Representing the North Shore Winter Club, Bonnie Epp and David Howe were third. Leitch remarked, "I didn't expect the novice level to be as high as it was and I'd say it's one of the highest in the last five years. It's surprising. The standards are improving so fast." If anyone would have known, it would have been Leitch. His teams had won the novice pairs titles at the Canadian Championships for five straight years.

Pint sized Torontonian Tracey Wainman led the pack of skaters from British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the novice women's school figures. An impressive free skater, the eleven year old coasted to victory with a program that included a full slate of double jumps, including double Axels. Bolstered by a second place finish in the figures, Ann Parfitt-Lewis of the Inlet Skating Club took the silver despite being fourth in free skating. Montreal's Nathalie Barrette was third and Katherina Matousek, second in the free skate, just missed the podium. People were already started to go 'Tracey Wainman crazy' in Thunder Bay, but the CFSA opted to keep her off that particular year's Junior World team, stating that they felt it was best that she prepare for the move up to the junior ranks first. Mrs. Ellen Burka concurred with their decision and praised her young pupil thusly: "I would say she has a computer mind. The way she skates figures, the way she thinks things out. She never asks, 'why do I do this wrong?' She knows almost immediately and says, 'I will correct it.' She doesn't even have to talk about it."

Despite stiff competition from Becky Gough and Mark Rowsom, Lorri Baier and Lloyd Eisler won both the short program and free skate in the junior pairs event and glided to gold. In third place were Bill O'Neil and Eisler's future partner Katherina Matousek.

Kelly Johnson and Kris Barber

In an impressive field of fifteen junior ice dance teams, Kelly Johnson and Kris Barber of Toronto led the way from start to finish. With no skaters from the area competing in the event, Johnson (a former Thunder Bay resident) was very popular with the local crowd. Nova Scotians Gina Aucoin and Hans-Peter Ponikau claimed the silver, followed by Ontarians Darlene Wendt and Wayne Hussey, Terri-Lynn Black and David Dunstan, Quebec's Sylvie Ethier and Jean Bernier and Vancouver's Tracy Wilson and Mark Skokes.

Kay Thomson

Twelve year old Charlene Wong, who was only ninth in figures earlier that month at the Eastern Divisional Championships, took a surprise lead early in the junior women's event ahead of Toronto's Kay Thomson and Vancouver's Yvonne Anderson. Thomson rallied back in the free skate to take the gold in her first appearance at the Canadian Championships. Anderson and Calgary's Kathryn Osterberg knocked Wong right off the podium. In fact, she ended up down in ninth. One of the biggest surprises in the event was Montreal's Jamie Lynn Kitching, who moved all the way up to fourth overall... from unlucky thirteenth.

Brian Orser in Thunder Bay in 1979

Sixteen year old Mark McVean of Ottawa lead the way after the junior men's school figures, followed by Campbell Sinclair of Ottawa and Mitch Giffin of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. Interestingly, none of those three talented young men ended up translating their early leads to a medal in Thunder Bay in 1979. After the short program another young man, Kevin Parker of Campbellville, appeared to be the skater to beat. Instead, rebounding from a ninth place finish in the figures, Penetanguishene's Brian Orser made history as the first man in history to land a triple Axel at the Canadian Championships. In fact, he did two of the latter in his free skate. Parker dropped to second and Shaun McGill of Mississauga, sixth after figures, claimed the bronze ahead of Vancouver's Bruno Delmaestro. In his book "Orser: A Skater's Life", Brian recalled the excitement in Thunder Bay thusly: "It was my first competitive triple Axel, the first ever done at Canadians... The Axel was the talk of the town. It was the novelty of the skating world. There were huge headlines. People would flock to the practice sessions after I won, just to see me land a triple Axel, and I would oblige. I have to admit that I loved it all, but it was also during this period of euphoria that I realized the people would expect the triple Axel now, and I was bound to it."


Joanne French and John Thomas. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

Patricia Fletcher
and Michael de la Penotiere
In contrast to the whopping field of fifteen in the junior ice dance event, only seven senior couples competed in Thunder Bay in 1979. As expected, Toronto's Lorna Wighton and Oakville's John Dowding defended their title with aplomb after spending the previous year training in Hungary. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recalled, "The top three placements from 1978 never wavered... Betty Callaway had improved Wighton/Dowding's compulsories. Lorna had very deep knees in the Viennese Waltz... Lorna and John's charming waltz OSP, coupled with exquisite choreography in their free dance to excerpts from 'Swan Lake', could not be surpassed. Their use of a central theme had such an impact compared to the multicut bits and pieces thrown together that talk of their dance spread worldwide." Patricia Fletcher and Michael de la Penotiere claimed the silver, followed by Nova Scotians Marie McNeil and Rob McCall, Joanne French and John Thomas and Lillian Heming and Murray Carey.


A young Barbie and Paul

In the absence of the previous year's champions Sherri Baier and Robin Cowan, it was fifteen year old Barbara Underhill of Oshawa and eighteen year old Paul Martini of Woodbridge's year to make a move. The unique team with two different coaches (Barbara worked with Anna Forder-McLaughlin; Paul with Judy Henderson) took a massive lead over Susan Gowan and Eric Thomsen of Vancouver and Lee-Ann Jackson and Bernard Souche of Cambridge in the short program, earning first place marks from all seven judges. With a thrilling free skate, Underhill and Martini won their first Canadian senior title. Jackson and Souche placed second in the free skate but had to settle for the bronze overall behind Gowan and Thomsen. Bowmanville and Oshawa natives Andrea Derby and Jim Sorochan finished fourth. Underhill and Martini's victory in 1979 marked only the third time in the history of the Canadian Championships that a pairs team had won the junior and senior titles in successive years.


Vern Taylor and Brian Pockar. Photos courtesy Eileen Mortimer.

In the senior men's field of eight, nineteen year old Brian Pockar of Calgary defeated twenty year old Vern Taylor of Toronto by a hair. How close was it? Pockar had ten ordinals and 80.40 points; Taylor eleven and 79.90. Both men skated extremely well in the free skate, but the judges ultimately opted to reward Pockar's more well-rounded performance over Taylor's eight triple free skate. Taylor's athletic effort earned a standing ovation from the appreciative Thunder Bay crowd and top marks for technical merit in the free skate. Taylor's loss was dictated by the fact that he had been sixth after the figures and short program. Pockar's performance was nothing to sneeze at in itself. He fought hard, saying he felt like he'd "run a five minute mile." Brockville's Gordon Forbes took the bronze, followed by Don Mills' Gary Beacom, Montreal's Daniel Beland, Coquitlam's Jimmy Szabo, Vancouver's Dennis Coi and Windsor's Kevin Hicks.


Janet Morrissey

In the senior women's school figures, twenty year old Deborah Albright of Toronto and nineteen year old Carleton University student Janet Morrissey led the pack, with twenty year old defending champion Heather Kemkaran of Toronto trailing in third. A clean as a whistle short program gave Kemkaran a three ordinal and 0.64 lead on Morrissey heading into the final phase of the competition. Morrissey rebounded in the free skate, earning first place ordinals from eight of the nine judges, the gold medal and a trip to the 1979 World Figure Skating Championships in Vienna, Austria. Kemkaran was second; Albright third. In an interview in the February 5, 1979 edition of "The Globe And Mail", Morrissey exclaimed, "I just can't wait... 'I've never been to Vienna or anything. I'm just so hyped up... I put in one of my triples, one of my best efforts at it. And I had two double Axels, one in a combination... I did kind of a fluke thing at the end where I tripped on one of my jumps but, aside from that, I was really happy with the way I skated.''

The February 5, 1979 issue of "The Ottawa Journal" noted, "It has not been an easy road to the top for Morrissey. She was never one of those young 'phenoms' who burst on the skating scene with a big buildup and ride up the ladder in the early stages in a wave of publicity. It was easy to stay relatively unnoticed skating out of Nepean when the focus was on the Minto stars of the past few years. Lynn Nightingale was Ottawa's and Canada's queen of the ice, with a gracious manner, a great talent and a show-stopping personality on the ice... As Morrissey worked her way into the limelight there was never a suggestion from her that her talents were being overlooked by media, fans and particularly judges who aren't supposed to be influenced by reputation, but frequently are. She just kept working, smiling, skating and improving, believing that if there was any justice in the world at all that her day would come." It did in Thunder Bay.

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