The 1944 Canadian Figure Skating Championships

Ross Smith, Barbara Ann Scott, Sheila Smith, Suzanne Thouin and Roger Wickson with their trophies at the 1944 Canadian Championships in Toronto. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Nearly five hundred Allied bombers had just raided Berlin. The British hospital ship St. David was bombed, killing nearly half of the passengers onboard. Thousands of Canadians served in the military, including skaters from coast to coast. Those on the home front faced meat, tea, coffee, butter, oil and gas rations and 'did their bit' by collecting cooking fat, planting victory gardens, buying war savings stamps and working in factories, hospitals and canteens. Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra's hit "My Heart Tells Me (Should I Believe My Heart?)" blared on gramophones, taking people back to a simpler, more romantic time.

When we think about the ways skaters on the home front would have 'done their bit' during World War II, things like ice shows benefiting war charities and selling Victory Bonds most likely come to mind, and with good reason. Canadian skating clubs raised thousands of dollars for the Red Cross through ticket sales at carnivals and competitions and donations from members. Many skaters also rolled up their sleeves at Blood Donors Clinics.

An advertisement from one of the Toronto Skating Club's advertisements illustrating the kind of War work skaters on the Canadian home front were engaged in

On January 28 and 29, 1944, the Minto Skating Club in Ottawa played host to the Canadian Figure Skating Championships. Senior competitions had been cancelled altogether the previous year due to wartime conditions and the number of rinks taken over for military use.

The 1944 event was largely abbreviated, with senior men's, pairs, fours and dance events not included due to the number of skaters serving overseas on active duty with the Canadian Army, Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Canadian Air Force and Red Cross.

Left: Sandy McKechnie and Jack Vigeon, two former champion skaters missing in Ottawa, were posted at the Royal Canadian Navy's officer's training center in Halifax. Photo courtesy Lisa Vigeon. Right: Wartime advertisement for Pringle and Booth Limited featuring a figure skater.

Though a large audience attended the free skating events, the general tone of the event was subdued in relation to previous Canadian Championships. Naomi Slater Heydon and Mavis Berry Daane, reviewing the event in "Skating" magazine, recalled, "All frills in connection with the competition were eliminated. There were no top hats or tails on the ice, as is customary the final night; instead everything from a fur cap, to a cloth peak cap, to an officer's hat was worn by the judges." Melville Rogers served as the competition's Referee.

An interesting development in Ottawa was the rise of the record player. Though an orchestra was still available to the skaters, many opted to use records for their free skating performances instead. Naomi Slater Heydon and Mavis Berry Daane remarked, "Many of the competitors, who were anxious to have their music played and timed just as they were accustomed to skate to it, skated to their own records instead of to the orchestra. Some selections are difficult to play, and it is hard for the orchestra to make smooth transitions with only one rehearsal with the skater, so we understand why the skaters chose records. On the other hand, we feel they lack some of the lift which skating to an orchestra gives." Now that we've set the stage, let's reflect on the stories and skaters that shaped this event!


Three pairs sought the Dysart Cups for junior pairs skating in Ottawa in 1944. Sheila and Ross Smith, unrelated skaters with the same last name from Winnipeg, gave a nervous but creative performance to finish first of three of the five judges' scorecards. The second and third place teams, Marilyn Ruth Take and Will White, Jr. and Mary McPherson and John Greig of Toronto, were both ranked first by one judge. Sheila wore a startling orange velvet dress, a colour that would not have been seen often in competition in those days of conservative costumes. The Smith's were both accomplished singles skaters and included difficult solo moves like Axels and camel spins in their program. Sheila was a sixteen year old student at Rupert's Land School, while Ross was a twenty two year old employee of the Great West Life Insurance Company. He had been turned down by the military for medical reasons. They were coached by Rupert Whitehead and trained at an indoor rink at a boy's college, as the Winnipeg Winter Club had been commandeered by the military.

Only two young men had a crack at winning the Howard Trophy for junior men's skating. In 1943, Toronto's Norris Bowden had lost the event to Ottawa's Nigel Stephens. He returned in 1944 to compete against Roger Wickson, a talented young skater from the Connaught Skating Club in British Columbia who trained in Ottawa under Otto Gold. After the figures, Wickson had amassed an incredible sixty point lead. This, coupled with his excellent free skating, assured Wickson the win. Even though all but one judge had him in first, the audience took exception with his low marks. Wickson was a sixteen year old in his third year of high school who planned to study engineering in high school.

The first and second place finishers in the junior women's event in 1943, Nadine Phillips and Marilyn Ruth Take of Toronto, had both moved up to the senior ranks. In the figures, all six of the junior women were reasonably close. The leader was Suzanne Thouin, a young woman from Montreal who had spent the previous three winters skating at the Minto Skating Club after the Montreal Winter Club was taken over by the military. Niagara Falls' Gloria Lillico won the free skate and a first place ordinal from one judge, but remained in fifth overall due to her marks in figures. 

Suzanne Thouin

Suzanne Thouin took the gold, ahead of Doreen Dutton and Anne Westcott. Dutton hailed from Drumheller, Alberta. There was no skating club in her town so she was forced to drive ninety miles north to Calgary to practice. Thouin spoke three languages and was a budding actress and ballet dancer. She was seventeen and had only been skating for five years.


Barbara Ann Scott on a Victory Loan Drive in 1944 with Mayor J.E. Stanley Lewis and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. Photo courtesy Ross Dunn.

Fifteen year old Barbara Ann Scott of Ottawa had won the Canadian junior women's title in 1940 when she was just eleven years old. She finished second to Winnipeg's Mary Rose Thacker in the senior women's event in both 1941 and 1942, largely due to Thacker's strength in the school figures. Thacker had since turned professional, and the title in 1944 was Scott's for the taking. As the only skater in Canada who had passed her Eighth Test in both Canada and the U.S. at the time, she was a heavy favourite to win in her home town.

In Ottawa, the senior women skated twelve figures in all - rockers, counters, brackets, loops and threes on both feet. Marilyn Ruth Take managed to beat Barbara Ann Scott on one figure, the difficult loop-change-loop, but Scott managed to amass a ridiculous lead of one hundred and fifty seven points after the first round of the competition was completed. To put that number into context, at the same year's U.S. Championships in Minneapolis, the widest point spread between the five women competing in figures was ten points. Even if Scott wiped out on every jump in her free skating performance, she still would have won by a wide margin.

Barbara Ann Scott. Photo courtesy Bibliothèque de Québec.

Instead, Barbara Ann Scott won her first Canadian title with a marvellous performance. In "Skating" magazine, Naomi Slater Heydon and Mavis Berry Daane wrote, "In the free skating she was placed first by every judge... The performance of her free skating seemed as faultless as human performance can be. She received marks of 9.3, 9.4, 9.5, 9.5 and 9.5. Her grace, sure-footedness, her difficult contents and her showmanship had the audience leaning out of their seats in order not to miss a single move. Her double jumps and spin combinations were breathtaking. When she was through, she was acclaimed with roaring applause. Canada has a new and great Senior Lady Champion." In a three-two split of the judging panel, Marilyn Ruth Take outranked Nadine Phillips by one ordinal placing to finish second. Virginia 'Billee' Wilson, the first cousin of Canadian Champion Eleanor O'Meara, took a tumble early in her free skate and never recovered, placing fourth.

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