The 1998 Canadian Figure Skating Championships

Savage Garden's "Truly Madly Deeply" topped the music charts, the media had a frenzy over Alan Eagleson's guilty plea in the NHL scandal and everyone was going gaga over Giga Pets, "Good Will Hunting" and Ginger Spice. The year was 1998 and from January 7 to 11, over three hundred of Canada's best figure skaters gathered at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario to compete in the Canadian Figure Skating Championships.

The competition took place during The Great Ice Storm of 1998, which caused over five billion dollars in damage in North America, left millions without power and led to the largest Canadian military deployment since the Korean War. Fortunately, the lights were on at Copps Coliseum but many of the telephone lines were down, causing a real headache for organizers, officials, media and competitors. Despite this challenge, CTV managed to pull off twelve hours of coverage without a hitch.

1998 coin commemorating one proposed date for Canada's first fancy skating championship and one hundred years of figure skating in Canada

Less than a week before the competition, twenty year old Julie Laporte, fifteen year old Sonia Arsenault and twelve year old Catherine Roussel were killed when Laporte, the young coach of the two teenagers, lost control of her vehicle on an icy road northeast of Rimouski, Quebec. The trio were on their way to a benefit ice show. Laporte had only recently retired from competitive skating and was a former pairs partner of David Pelletier. Laporte and Pelletier had in fact won the Canadian junior pairs title in Copps Coliseum only five years prior. Many members of the Quebec team, who travelled to Hamilton via bus, were just inconsolable.

On a happier note, a special celebration was planned in Hamilton to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Barbara Ann Scott's gold medal win at the 1948 Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz. Despite the fact she was just getting over a battle with viral pneumonia in both lungs, Scott surprised even her husband and "moved heaven and earth" to be there, dressed to the nines of course.

Jean-Michel Bombardier, Jennifer Robinson, Elvis Stojko, Michelle Menzies, Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz. Photo courtesy 1998 Canadian Championships program, F. Scott Grant photography.

Let's hop in the time machine and take a look back at the skaters and stories that made headlines at this exciting competition from decades past!


Tara Schaak and Tyler Miles, who trained out of the Mariposa Club in Barrie, took gold in the novice ice dance event. They had been skating together for less than a year.  In novice pairs, it was Quebec's Chantal Poirier-Saykaly and David Lewin who came out on top. Coached by Paul Wirtz, the young skaters had a dramatic height difference which worked to their advantage in lifts. A young Craig Buntin, skating in his second Nationals with partner Chantal Chailler, was eighth. Michael Steinbach, a fifteen year old skater from the North Shore Winter Club, won the novice men's event - the only British Columbian skater to claim gold in Hamilton. Among the many 'future stars' he defeated were Christopher Mabee and Shawn Sawyer. In a touching story, thirteen year old Marie Michele McDuff of Quebec won the novice women's title. McDuff had been coached by Julie Laporte and was best friends with Catherine Roussel.

In the junior dance event, Rebecca and Josh Babb made history as the first skaters from Newfoundland to win a medal of any colour at the Canadian Championships. Though they represented the Western Ontario section, the siblings hailed from Harbour Grace, about an hour's drive from St. John's. Quebec's Marie-France Lachapelle and Sacha Blanchet landed side-by-side double Axels and a throw triple Salchow on their way to a gold medal in junior pairs. They had only placed sixth the year prior. Fourteen year old Marie Laurier of Île Bizard moved up from second to win the junior women's event. Leah Hepner, the leader after the short program and the previous year's novice champion, finished a disastrous fourteenth in the free skate and dropped down to twelfth overall. Fifteen year old Hugh Yik, a grade ten student from Moncton coached by Emery Leger, had won the novice men's title the year prior. He moved ahead of Jeffrey Buttle, who won the short program, to take gold in the junior men's event. In winning, Yik became the first male skater to win the Canadian novice and junior titles back to back since Kevin Hicks back in 1974 and 1975. He was also the first man from New Brunswick ever to win the Canadian junior men's title.


Unlike in the senior men's, women's and pairs events, there was little talk about Olympic spots in the ice dance competition. Only two couples, Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz and Chantal Lefebvre and Michel Brunet, had met the Canadian Olympic Association's criteria... and Canada had two spots in Nagano. With few surprises in ice dance back in those 'wait your turn' days, it was considered a bit of a foregone conclusion that Bourne and Kraatz and Lefebvre and Brunet would be one-two in Hamilton.

Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz and Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe skating their compulsories. Photos courtesy J. Barry Mittan.

Bourne and Kraatz, who won their first Canadian senior title in 1993 and their first Champions Series Final in 1996 in Hamilton, took a strong lead in the compulsory dances as expected. Their original dance, a lively jive to "I Saw Her Standing There" earned them rave reviews and top marks, as did Lefebvre and Brunet's jive to Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly". Both couples received standing ovations and maintained their one-two slots after compulsories. Bourne and Kraatz ultimately ditched their Beatles original dance for a new program to "Greased Lightnin'" at the Nagano Olympics, something they were already openly talking about doing in Hamilton.

Unfortunately, Kristy Balkwill and Darryl VanLuven had to withdraw after a hard crash into the boards stopped their original dance dead in its tracks. They restarted their program from the time of the crash and managed to finish, but she had to be carried off the ice and sent to a local hospital for X-rays. The sad part was the fact that Balkwill was already injured and had practiced all week in a heavy brace, with a tensor bandage on her knee, just hoping to make it through the competition in one piece.

Bourne and Kraatz's "Riverdance" free dance brought down the house, earned a standing ovation and six perfect marks of 6.0. In winning their sixth consecutive national title, the duo neared Wilson and McCall's record of seven in a row. Lefebvre and Brunet's mambo took the silver; Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe's "The Last Emperor" the bronze. Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon finished fourth ahead of Christine Fuller and Steve Kavanagh. Kavanagh had twice won bronze at the Nationals with his former partner Janet Emerson.


At the 1997 World Championships in Lausanne, Susan Humphreys was faced with a difficult decision: stand at center ice with a badly infected ankle and qualify Canada a spot for the Nagano Olympics or withdraw. She chose to withdraw and fight for an Olympic berth at the Karl Schäfer Memorial that autumn. In Vienna, she placed eighteenth. Humphreys wasn't on the list of competitors in Hamilton.

In the lead-up to Nationals, there was a perception amongst many of the women's competitors that they were being put down by the CFSA because they weren't 'producing' internationally. CFSA Director General David Dore told reporters, "The women's competition is anti-climactic here, if Nagano is all you're focused on, but what's done is done. I'm trying to focus on the future and find solutions." Peter Dunfield complained that David Dore was trying to 'bully female skaters into peak performance.' He complained to "Ottawa Citizen" reporter Shelley Page, "I'm sick of these David Dore-isms that keep coming out. They're flip and they're unnecessary... Even if you can't jump, you're given credit for trying. Now children are throwing things in before they're ready to because they're supposed to. A child works all year on a program, then they fall because of the jumps they can't do, and that stains them, the fear is built in. Once a jump is tried under pressure, you develop fear. Instead of putting the skater ahead, it puts them farther back." Twenty year old Jamie Salé of the Royal Glenora Club, mounting a comeback as a singles skater, told reporters, "Susan would have been the only one going to Nagano anyway so she didn't hurt any of us. I'm disappointed with the lack of support. It's like they're saying, 'The ladies are bad, and that's all there is to it.'"

In a five-four split of the judging panel, twenty four year old Peter Dunfield student Angela Derochie came out ahead of twenty one year old Jennifer 'Tiger' Robinson in the women's short program. Derochie two-footed her triple Lutz combination but landed a triple toe-loop and double Axel. Robinson two-footed her Lutz and didn't complete the double toe-loop and missed her double Axel. Keyla Ohs, who won the Canadian junior title at Copps Coliseum in 1993, was third, ahead of Annie Bellemare, Annie Bazinet and Jamie Salé.

Jennifer Robinson. Photo courtesy Charlie Covell.

Angela Derochie wasn't perfect in the free skate, but knowing she only match or better Keyla Ohs' three triples to win, she got the job done. Jennifer Robinson finished third, imploding in her "Madama Butterfly" performance, falling twice and doubling most of her other jumps. Bazinet, Tara Ferguson and Jamie Salé rounded out the top six. For all the fuss about Netty Kim only having three triples in her repertoire in 1995, most of the top ten women in Hamilton weren't landing any more triples than Kim did in Halifax. Ohs' silver was the best finish by a British Columbian woman since Barbara Terpenning won silver in Moncton in 1974.


Jodeyne Higgins and Sean Rice. Photo courtesy J. Barry Mittan.

Canada qualified two entries in pairs for the Nagano Olympics and four teams met the Canadian Olympic Association's qualifying criteria: Marie-Claude Savard-Gagnon and Luc Bradet, Kristy Sargeant and Kris Wirtz, Michelle Menzies and Jean-Michel Bombardier and Jodeyne Higgins and Sean Rice. All four couples had previously competed at the World Championships and were well-matched.

Marie-Claude Savard-Gagnon and Luc Bradet. Photo courtesy J. Barry Mittan.

It wasn't Annabelle Langlois' week. She placed seventeenth and dead last in the novice women's competition and she and partner Patrice Archetto were forced to withdraw prior to senior pairs event after a nasty fall in practice that sent her to the hospital. Chad Hawse suffered a spinal fracture on Boxing Day and showed up in Hamilton with a huge cast on his right arm after breaking his hand practicing a lift. He and partner Samantha Marchant placed tenth in the short program when she slipped right through his hands on the double twist and took off his cast. Coach Kerry Leitch pulled them before the free skate.

Six of the nine judges had twenty three year old Kristy Sargeant of Alix, Alberta and twenty eight year old Kris Wirtz of Marathon, Ontario ahead of defending champions Marie-Claude Savard-Gagnon and Luc Bradet in the short program. Michelle Menzies and Jean-Michel Bombardier sat third. None of the top three teams successfully completed their side-by-side triple jumps. By placing outside of the top four, Higgins and Rice all but took themselves out of the running for one of the two Olympic spots.

 As in the short program, neither of the top two teams were perfect in the free skate. Sargeant and Wirtz both singled their side-by-side double Axels, she fell on a throw double Axel and they had a problem with synchronization in their side-by-side spins. Savard-Gagnon and Bradet fell on their side-by-side triples and slipped entering a death spiral. The fact that Sargeant and Wirtz landed their side-by-side triples and throw triple Salchows was enough to give them the edge and earn them their first Canadian title. Valerie Saurette and Jean-Sébastien Fecteau, only ninth the previous year, moved up to claim the bronze over Menzies and Bombardier, who had a very disappointing skate and dropped to fourth. Saurette and Fecteau skated last and drew the greatest ovation, helped along by their upbeat music and the fact they really weren't considered to be contenders.


Jeffrey Langdon. Photo courtesy J. Barry Mittan.

Prior to the men's competition in Hamilton, twenty two year old defending Canadian Champion Elvis Stojko told reporter Cam Cole, "I enjoy pressure. When you're the World Champion going into the Olympic Games, and the chance is there to win the gold medal, it's like I'm in my dream, its happening. Why be scared of it? Enjoy the process. Enjoy the ride. It should be fun." Stojko may not have minded a little pressure, but it was certainly there in the men's event. Because of he and Jeffrey Langdon's results at the 1997 World Championships in Lausanne, Canada had earned three spots for the Nagano Games. However, only two skaters - coincidentally he and Langdon - met the Canadian Olympic Association's qualifying guidelines... or so the CFSA thought. During the event, Carol Anne Letheren (the President of the Canadian Olympic Association) informed CTV that the CFSA could send another skater instead of Langdon if they wanted, based on the results of the Canadian Championships. David Dore, confused by the mixed messages, tried to phone Letheren in Ottawa for clarification, but the phone lines were of course down because of the ice storm. Letheren's revelation meant that a number of other young men were apparently in the running for an Olympic spot if they skated brilliantly in Hamilton. There was Ravi Walia, who had won the junior title in Copps Coliseum in 1993, crowd favourite Jayson Dénommée of Asbestos, Quebec (who just missed meeting the COA's qualifying criteria), Ben Ferreira of Edmonton, Collin Thompson of Mississauga and Daniel Bellemare of Longeuil, who missed the 1997 Nationals with a broken arm. No one was really talking that much about seventeen year old Emanuel Sandhu of Richmond Hill, who was making his senior debut at Nationals.

On what would have been Elvis Presley's sixty third birthday, Elvis Stojko came out and skated his heart out, landing a triple Axel/triple toe-loop combination, triple Lutz and double Axel in his short program to "Lion" by Kodo. His fast-moving footwork sequences drew cheers from the crowd of nine thousand. When it was all over, he earned a standing ovation and a 6.0 for required elements from judge Debbie Islam - his first ever in a short program. The only other man to successfully land a triple Axel combination was Jean-François Hébert, but he finished behind Jeffrey Langdon and Emanuel Sandhu, who both missed their combinations.

In the free skate, Elvis Stojko dazzled once again, landing a quad toe-loop/double toe-loop combination and two triple Axels, one in combination with a triple toe-loop. His gutsy effort earned six 6.0's, four for technical merit and two for presentation. After winning his fourth Canadian title, Stojko told reporters, "I'll say one thing, just separating myself from it for a minute: it's been a while since I've seen 6.0's at both ends. But that's what I set out to do, going through it: I wanted to achieve excellence. And to show that you can be technically excellent and still be able to produce the artistry. It's difficult because you can lose your way trying so hard to improve the artistry that you lose something on the technical side. So I'd have to say that's the most satisfying thing -- to have pushed through and done it on both sides and to have that recognized."

Stojko's great skate was somewhat eclipsed by the surprise performance of Emanuel Sandhu, who tried ten triples and landed nine - more triples in his first free skate as a senior at Nationals than any skater before him. Sandhu's brilliant skate earned him the silver over Langdon, Hebert, Dénommée, Ferreira, Thompson, Walia and Bellemare and set into motion a sequence of events that caused a major controversy in Canadian figure skating.

After Sandhu's silver medal win, David Dore told reporters, "It's not a question for Emanuel. He's done his job; now we have to do ours. It's very clear Elvis and Jeff Langdon have met the criteria and we will honour that. However, I think logic should prevail here. We have a wild card and it behooves us to play this wild card. It's all up to the gang now -- you know, The Gang, the CFSA and the COA, to set it all up, but you ask my opinion, I think we should send three... We've got great skaters in Canada. Sure, there are some misses out there but they're all so young. The important thing isn't falling but trying again. I've had a lot of falls, but you keep pushing forward. I once had a coach who told me: 'Keep hitting that tree, and eventually it'll come down.'"

The CFSA's request to name Sandhu as the third member of the team was rejected by the COA, who seemingly had informed the CFSA they could send another skater instead of Langdon, not in addition to. Sandhu was given Worlds as a 'consolation prize'. His people planned to appeal under the COA's independent arbitration process, but dropped the appeal at eleventh hour citing the missed training time dealing the red tape would cause. Jack Todd, a reporter with the "Ottawa Citizen" noted, "Dore IS the Canadian Figure Skating Association, which worked out the criteria with the COA eighteen months ago. Dore, like everyone else, was ambushed by Sandhu's performance in Hamilton, but he had to know going in that there was little chance the COA would change its mind."

Joanne McLeod, Emanuel Sandhu and David Dore. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library, from Toronto Star Photographic Archive. Reproduced for educational purposes under license permission.

Many in the figure skating world believed the CFSA should have sent Sandhu over Langdon and/or that the Canadian Olympic Association should have approved a third entry to Nagano, as the spot had been earned at the 1997 World Championships. Toller Cranston even called Carol Anne Letheren personally and said, "Give the kid a break. The bottom line is he beat Langdon fair and square and Langdon's in the top ten in the world. For heaven's sake, flash the green light. Let the kid go." Carol Anne Letheren told reporters, "I'm not surprised at all by the outcry. It was a tough, tough decision for the executive committee and increasingly tough because of the public expression around the case.
It's not like we're saying this is not a talented skater. There is no harm in sending him, that's not the issue. It's a question of fairness across the board. The other one hundred and fifty three athletes have spent two years qualifying, and they've all met the standards. There's no question [that if Sandhu was sent to Nagano] there are a lot of borderline cases that would have come forward." Many saw it all as a triumph of bureaucracy over common sense. In the end, Canada's third spot was given to Luxembourg. The man who took it, Patrick Schmit, finished dead last in the short program in Nagano and failed to qualify for the free skate. At the World Championships in Minneapolis, both Schmit and Sandhu failed to qualify for the free skate; Langdon finished eighth overall.

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