The 1964 Canadian Figure Skating Championships

Carol Channing made her debut in the new Broadway musical "Hello, Dolly!" and the Vietnam War raged overseas. The miniskirt and hula hoop made their debuts and Bobby Vinton's "There! I've Said It Again" topped the music charts.

From January 16 to 18, 1964, a who's who of Canadian figure skating gathered at the four thousand seat Memorial Gardens in North Bay for that year's Canadian Figure Skating Championships. It was the first of two occasions that the Northeastern Ontario city played host to the prestigious national competition.

Although it was an Olympic year, the North Bay Championships were considered by some to be slightly anticlimactic. Douglas Kimpel and the CFSA brass had decided to hold a separate Olympic trial event at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in November of 1963. Debbi Wilkes recalled, "It was a real topsy-turvy time. I can imagine the Association wanted to have a good luck at what people were doing, what was happening as far as their training was going and give us all a chance, from a positive side of things, to compete prior to Canadians. Remember in those days there was no Grand Prix; there was nothing to prepare you like Skate Canada... There were even some years where Sectionals were held after Canadians. Figure that out! I think the organization may have been a little bit worried about me and Guy because at the '63 World Championships in Cortina, Italy we did not compete... I'm sure the Association was wondering, 'What are THEY up to?' It kind of, from my perspective, gave them a good look at us to see, 'Are they really ready to be named to an Olympic team?' Those trials were the first time I met Barbara Ann Scott. I remember I was just gobsmacked. It was quite a thrill to meet her. Over the years I got to know her well and she had quite the potty mouth on her! She understood the role she had to play and she played it so beautifully and yet when you got her alone, she was a very real, absolutely adorable, charming person... funny, irreverent... potty-mouthed. Quite hilarious."

At Maple Leaf Gardens, the judges sat on chairs on the ice, holding up their own scores on cards after each performance. Wendy Griner bested Petra Burka and Shirra Kenworthy to win the women's event, while Donald Knight, Charles Snelling and Bill Neale finished one-two-three in the men's. Debbi Wilkes and Guy Revell and Linda Ann Ward and Neil Carpenter were first and second in the pairs. For practical reasons, there was no dance event - dance wasn't yet an Olympic sport. Paulette Doan and Ken Ormsby were on hand to give an exhibition though, and there was also a fashion show of the new Canadian Olympic team digs.

Thirty eight year old, newly elected CFSA President Douglas Kimpel. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

The top three in singles and the top two in pairs were named to the Olympic team. Norma Sedlar and Gregory Folk, who had been in the top two in figures in their respective events, dropped in the standings in the free skating and were left home. The November event was skated in the shadow of one of the most stunning events of American history.

The morning of the first day of the Trials - November 22, 1964 - a television in a skater's lounge in Toronto broke the news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed. Debbi Wilkes recalled, "We were training that morning at the Cricket Club. We had just had lunch and I think I was watching TV upstairs in the lounge and there was a program interrupt. They came on saying JFK had been shot. He was still alive at this point, so that would have been around lunch time. There was a real pall, of course, over everything and then scuttlebutt started happening over whether or not the event would actually be cancelled or postponed... There were a number of hours where nobody really knew what was happening. Then, of course, in the meantime it was announced that he had died. The decision was made to carry on with the event but there was some recognition of it prior to the start of event, whether it was a moment of silence. Sad day."

Though the Olympic spots had already been decided, the skating at the Canadians in North Bay was first class and served as an important final 'test run' before skaters headed to Innsbruck to compete at the newly constructed Olympic Ice Stadium in Innsbruck, Austria. Let's take a look back at how all our favourites fared!


Susan and Paul Huehnergard and Toller Cranston in 1964. Photos courtesy Cynthia Miller.

Nineteen year old Paul Huehnergard and his fourteen year old sister Susan had only been skating together for two years, but their hard work with coach Bruce Hyland paid off in North Bay. They won the junior pairs event, bettering Sharon Davis and Ross Garner of Woodstock, who also competed in the junior dance. Third place finishers Betty and John McKilligan would go on to become two time Canadian Champions and Olympians in 1968. Shirley Robson of the Royal Glenora Club in Edmonton took gold in the junior women's event, besting Roberta Laurent and Marjorie Hare. Shirley was also a talented ice dancer who skated with Bill Windover.

After half the field was cut in the initial round of competition, four couples remained in junior dance. Gail Snyder and Wayne Palmer, Rosina Lockwood's students from the Granite Club in Toronto, narrowly defeated Lynn Matthews and Byron Topping of the Cricket Club in a three-two split of the judging panel. The teams finished in the reverse order at the Central Ontario Sectionals.

Fourteen year old Toller Cranston was coached by Eva Vasak and represented the Lachine Figure Skating Club in Quebec. He had won the bronze medal in the junior men's event at the Canadians in Edmonton in 1963 and the senior men's title at the Central Ontario Summer Free Skating Competition and the Eastern Championships in Hull. It hadn't been an easy go though. Toller's sister Phillippa Baran recalled, "When Toller was thirteen, he developed a painful lump below both knees. Skating had become painful and jumping had become excruciating. He had a condition called Osgood Schlatters that most often afflicts growing boys aged ten to fifteen. The family was told that Toller would absolutely, positively never skate again. Toller spent the next many months with both legs in plaster casts extending from the ankle to the groin. When the casts came off, he was able to gradually resume walking, and then skating, but was warned that he must not run and he must not jump. He continued to train. He began to jump. He won the 1964 Canadian Junior Championship." Defeating Toronto's Paul Crowther and Edmonton's Archie Zariski in North Bay, Cranston made history as the first man ever from a club east of Ontario to win the Canadian junior men's title.


A fours competition hadn't been held at the Canadian Championships since 1962, when a quartet from Toronto trounced their British Columbian opposition. None of the skaters from that event returned and in North Bay, it was a battle between two Toronto fours - one from the Cricket Club and the other from the Granite Club. The winning four came from the Cricket Club, consisting of Bonnie Anderson, Gregory Folk, Laura Maybee and future CFSA President and ISU Vice-President David Dore.


There was an unusually large field of dance teams in North Bay in 1964. No less than fifteen couples skated the compulsory European Waltz, Rocker Foxtrot, Blues and Kilian and free dance. There was no elimination round as in the juniors. To no one's surprise, Geraldine Crispo's students Paulette Doan and Ken Ormsby unanimously defended their Canadian title. Perpetual runners-up Donna and J.D. Mitchell had retired after earning their ISU Gold Dance medal in Davos, giving Doan and Ormsby little opposition at home. Both skaters were taking courses at Shaw's Business College - she an executive secretarial course; he business administration. The silver medallists in North Bay, Carole Forest and Kevin Lethbridge, were coached by Bruce Hyland and ranked only tenth at the 1963 World Championships - seven spots behind Doan and Ormsby.

Marilyn Crawford and Blair Armitage. Photo courtesy Marie Petrie McGillvray.

Marilyn Crawford and Blair Armitage of the Minto Skating Club took the bronze over Lynn Matthews and Byron Topping, who were 'skating up' in the seniors. In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves recalled, "The judges unanimously placed each of the five final couples in the same order. Paulette Doan attracted attention with a red dress trimmed in pink with a low back ending at a rose on the waist."


World Champion Donald McPherson's decision to turn professional opened the door for a new Canadian Champion in North Bay. Instead, an 'old' one took it. Twenty six year old Dr. Charles Snelling, who won five consecutive Canadian titles in the fifties, decided to make a comeback while working as a staff surgeon in the department of internal medicine at Toronto Western Hospital. He took a surprise win over Donald Knight and fifteen year old Jay Humphry of the North Shore Winter Club. His accomplishment, especially after a six year absence, was nothing short of remarkable - especially since he had been only third in the figures at the Olympic Trials in November.

Two years later, Snelling remarked, "I consider myself primarily a a doctor and look upon skating as a physically demanding form of recreation which I feel everyone needs, especially when engaged in a sedentary type of profession. I work my skating practice in when I feel my medical work has been satisfactorily dealt with and thus my approach to the sport probably differs considerably from that of younger competitors."


Debbi Wilkes and Guy Revell continued their remarkable comeback. Less than a year prior, Wilkes had taken a horrific fall in a parking lot in Cortina d'Ampezzo at the World Championships. She and Revell had been demonstrating a lift for photographers in a parking lot when she got dropped from an overhead position, suffering a serious concussion. Over the summer, Wilkes concentrated on her studies and Revell went back to work. They slowly resumed training at the Tam O'Shanter rink, but what the future held no one really knew.

In North Bay, Wilkes and Revell had the skate of their lives, earning a few perfect marks of 6.0 for their daring display. They finished far ahead of Linda Ann Ward and Neil Carpenter and Faye Strutt and Jim Watters, the silver and bronze medallists. Gertrude Desjardins and Maurice LaFrance, Wilkes and Revell's long-time rivals, had broken up the summer prior.

Announcing their win, Richmond Hill sportswriter Ron Craine wrote, "If gameness and plain guts (if it is all right to apply such a word about an ethereal young lady like Miss Wilkes) count half as much as their ability, then these kids stand a good chance of snatching a gold bauble for Canada [at the Olympics]. They've worked long and hard for this chance and we'd like to think that everyone in this big, wide country of ours is pulling for them. Go, kids, go! You can do it and deserve nothing but the best!"

Debbi Wilkes recalled, "By the time we got to North Bay in '64, I felt we were on a path that was driven by a lot more confidence and the fact that were defending Canadian Champions. Having those couple of words after your name was very powerful. That kind of motivated to work harder, try harder, be bigger, be better. I think was that was the appropriate path for us along to the Olympic Games, which was just an amazing experience."


In the women's event, Petra Burka pulled off an upset that had been years in the making, defeating World Silver Medallist and North American Champion Wendy Griner on home turf. As at the Olympic Trials, Shirra Kenworthy again took the bronze. Kenworthy had spent the previous summer training at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs and Sun Valley. 

Wendy Griner and Petra Burka had been neck and neck the past two seasons, but the figures had always been Burka's downfall in the past. A former member of the Lakeshore Skating Club, she lived in Eringate and attended Vincent Massey Collegiate. She was coached by her mother Ellen Burka at the Cricket Club in Toronto.

Debbi Wilkes recalled, "There was a big turnover at that time and I don't just mean in terms of competitors. There was a beginning in a switch of mentality where defending champions were not just automatically crowned champions again. There was a rise afoot. This was the age of Wendy Griner and Petra Burka and Petra was coming up like a locomotive - just superb technique and triple jumps and it was like a real change! She defeated Wendy and that had never happened - or if it had happened it was very, very rare."

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